General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis is President-elect Donald Trump’s announced choice to lead the Pentagon as the United States Secretary of Defense. His military career was a complicated blend of tactical prowess, intellectually provocative challenges to the military establishment, bruised knuckle pride in his job as a member of the United States Marine Corps, and even blunt statements as a Marine, as opposed to the less loquacious statements of a polished, politically correct general. Some aspects of Mattis’ career seem analogous to another blunt speaking, hard-nosed American general known for his battlefield successes and public relations blunders, General George S. “Old Blood and Guts” Patton. But General Jim Mattis is a distinct character in the history of the United States Military and represents the thinking of a new era of warfare.
A brief history of the military career of General Jim Mattis.
Jim Mattis began his military career in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Central Washington University. After earning his degree, Mattis was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He held several small unit commands as a first lieutenant before being promoted to captain. This means that in his early career, Mattis was well versed in what an insurgency on the ground looks like, battling the Viet Cong insurgency in the Vietnam war era.
His next combat experience came during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, where he was among the first Marines into Kuwait. Because of the nature of that war, insurgency was not a challenge for Coalition forces, as the conflict came to a quick resolution. He did earn a Bronze Star, a military award for valor.
It was in Afghanistan, in the Iraq War, and afterward as a top strategist at Quantico, Virginia, where Mattis carved out a reputation as a tough talking and tough acting general, and where his first challenges to established military doctrine became apparent. While many stories after his nomination for Secretary of Defense have focused on his controversial public statements, and one may attach a political weight to the comments of a soldier tasked with winning a war in whatever way one sees fit, he is known within the establishment as a radical thinker with an arsenal of hard study of tactics and front line experience against insurgency. He helped General David Petraeus to create a comprehensive strategy for counter insurgency tactics. His last duty before retirement was as the head of the United States Central Command, which oversees armed forces in the Middle East.
When asked about his toughest decision as a commander in the video below, Mattis states that following orders to retreat in the first battle for Fallujah was likely his toughest choice. He appears to be emotionally moved by the difficulty of that decision. His comments offer an insight into his overall strategy. His goal is to go after the enemy and press through to a victory. Retreat is not something he’s prone to consider until all other options are exhausted.
General Jim Mattis is an intellectual warrior.
As a Davies Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, General Mattis has studied national security issues related to the strategic, effective, and innovative use of force. He is also an expert on the Middle East, presumably as a result of his time in Central Command. His most recent work, as listed by the Hoover Institution, is an article outlining a blueprint for national security earlier this year.
An excellent example of General Mattis bringing his tactical acumen to bear on a complex problem is an interview conducted by the Hoover Institution, which discusses Iran. In it, Mattis first establishes his political view of Iran, in which he points out that the leadership there conducts business as a revolutionary movement as opposed to behaving like a nation state. Over the remainder of the interview, General Mattis discusses the complex political structures of the Middle East, the risks of empowering destabilizing forces with America losing interest in the Middle East, and even makes a bold statement that a principle national security risk is the economic unsustainability of current federal budgets.
Throughout the interview, General Mattis uses military terminology, like “rack and stack” and other similar phrases to convey ideas, demonstrating a life-long military indoctrination. What is also noticeable is his measured language. Mattis avoids hyperbole and gross overstatement. His statements are direct, concise, and demonstrate not only a knowledge of the realities of warfare and force projection, but a broad philosophical and political understanding of the issues surrounding the conflicts that arise. What is missing from the interview is a person acting like a “mad dog.”
Separating General Jim Mattis from the “mad dog.”
Whether or not one believes it is a benefit or a hindrance for a secretary of defense to have the nickname “mad dog,” that will likely soon be the reality. The way people understand the nickname in the context of the American culture and language will shade their views of General Jim Mattis either favorably or unfavorably. As a general, a fierce nickname is an outgrowth of reputation. That nickname in this instance is pregnant with unfavorable conclusions politically, as it indicates recklessness.
The General Jim Mattis that emerges from the record is not clearly reckless, nor is he without comments and beliefs that could spark fierce controversy. Opponents may argue that General Mattis has views that differ substantially from what they would consider prudent, but they could scarcely describe those views as ill-informed. Yet, he has demonstrated that he can find controversy by virtue of his attitudes most likely to derive from the combat experience that strongly informs his opinions. From his potentially controversial statements in remarks last year to veterans, where he encouraged soldiers returning home to reject “disease labels,” and instead discusses “post-traumatic growth” in defiance of substantial evidence that shows some veterans do suffer severe consequences as a result of trauma experienced in combat, to his rhetorical flourish a moment later where he states cynicism should be denied a role in those vets’ worldview, General Jim Mattis portrays a dichotomy of bare-knuckled military brawler and optimistic statesman.
If confirmed, General Mattis will immediately face difficult challenges. He immediately inherits the task of carrying out President-elect Trump’s promise to rebuild the military. That vision of military growth will challenge General Mattis to innovate the military financially, if he is to navigate the challenges of keeping a manageable budget, which aligns with his views on the budget’s importance for national defense. For a general who doesn’t retreat, Jim Mattis could be facing a long and difficult battle to once again innovate how the military approaches its tactics. This time the ammunition he uses will be his words and how the public perceives them. How he uses that ammunition will define his reputation as a civilian leader.
[Featured Image by Drew Angerer/Getty Images]