TCS Daily

At Ease, Gen Mattis!

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - February 5, 2005 12:00 AM

To delight in war is a merit in the soldier, a dangerous quality in the captain, and a positive crime in the statesman.
-- George Santayana

I'd heard of U.S. Marine Gen. Jim Mattis from other Marines over the years and from news coverage of his own exploits. He was the blunt, bachelor general who had served nine tours of duty in the Middle East, including combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He was the commander of the 1st Marine Division in the longest, fastest thrust of a division in Corps history -- that dash to Baghdad in 2003.

I knew he wasn't just an officer; he was a leader.

And a fighter.

Not a statesman. Not an orator. No, God love him, he's a fighter.

In the military it has always been true that what you see is not always what you get. The "salad" on the uniform chest often bears closer inspection. It may be the fruit of the career of a gifted bureaucrat, a crypto-politician, a superb manager, or a combination of these.

Nothing wrong with that. Our vast military establishment needs all of the above in varying ways and to varying degrees.

But it also needs leaders who are fighters. Those who will kick down the door. Those who will get the job done. As we have observed here before, all the niceties of democracy and civilization depend from time to time on a few men who will go down dark streets and do uncivilized and possibly undemocratic things we would rather not think about, let alone talk about.

Well, General Mattis talked about it. A little.

It was in San Diego last week, at a conference hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and the U.S. Naval Institute. There were lots of military types in the room. They were discussing what changes our military must make to battle terrorists in future wars.

General Mattis pointed out to fellow conferees that, capable as we are of fighting "modern wars," we are having trouble adapting to "historic forms of warfare" brought back by the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The general warned, "Don't patronize this enemy. They mean business. They mean every word they say. Don't imagine an enemy somewhere in the future and you're going to transform so you can fight him. They're killing us now. Their will is not broken."

Of course, General Mattis knows whereof he speaks. He's been there, doing that. And it was while reflecting on this that he made the following remark:

"Actually, it's quite fun to fight'em, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front with you. I like brawling."

The general then made clear who "some people" are. "You go into Afghanistan. You've got guys who slapped women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

These remarks sent a predictable shudder through the press. A story from The Washington Post news service noted that the general's blunt words had "sparked criticism from military ethicists."

Military ethicists.

At Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's press conference, Thursday, which centered on serious issues like the Iraqi vote and continuing security difficulties, the first question from the press was a fussy inquiry about the "appropriateness" of General Mattis' remarks.

Rumsfeld and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, somehow refrained from bitch slapping the reporter and moved on to more important matters.

Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, to his immense credit, called General Mattis "one of this country's bravest and most experienced military leaders" and noted that he had merely been trying to "reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war."

To close the matter, General Hagee said, "I have counseled (Mattis) concerning his remarks and he agrees he should have chosen his words more carefully." (For more on all this from a Marine, check the always superb

It turns out there actually are "military ethicists." One of them, Jeff McCausland, director of the Leadership in Conflict Initiative (at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa.) called General Mattis' remarks "unprofessional and inappropriate" and noted that they send a "terrible message" to those serving under him.

If any "terrible message" has been sent, it has been by the bombings and butchery of the terrorists and Islamofanatics. These are General Mattis' "guy's like that," who treat women as beneath contempt, gleefully slit throats and behead innocents before cameras, stop buses on lonely roads and execute the young men inside, murder in the streets for the world to see.

It is the civilized part of us that is always a little uneasy with our General Pattons, but in the end most of us cut them some slack. We know deep in our hearts what they really mean. There's a rough and half humorous hyperbole in General Mattis' words -- the language that cops know, and firemen, when they talk among themselves.

But I see an old fashioned gallantry, too, in those words. They are his blunt affirmation that he has fought in a war worth fighting against an uncivilized enemy that deserves to be destroyed. They tell us that he fights with élan and, I think, high purpose.

At ease, General Mattis. Your country salutes you... and needs you.



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