To Marines, Gen. James Mattis is the finest of our tribal elders. The rest of the world, very soon, will know how truly gifted he is.
America knows Gen. James Mattis as a character, Mad Dog Mattis, the font of funny quotes and Chuck Norris-caliber memes.
Those of us who served with him know that he is a caring, erudite, warfighting general. We also know that there is a reason he uses the call-sign Chaos: he is a lifelong student of his profession, a devotee of maneuver warfare and Sun Tzu, the sort of guy who wants to win without fighting—to cause chaos among those he would oppose.
To Marines, he is the finest of our tribal elders. The rest of the world, very soon, will know how truly gifted he is. Our friends and allies will be happy he is our new secretary of war; our enemies will soon wish he weren’t.
I worked for Mattis three times: when he was a colonel, a major general, and a lieutenant general. I very much want to work for him again. Here is why.
One: July 1994
I checked into Third Battalion, Seventh Marines in Twentynine Palms, California in 1994. It was 125 degrees in July in the high desert; everyone was in the field. This was a hard place, for hard men training for the hardest of jobs.
Then-Colonel Mattis, the Seventh Marines regimental commander, called for me to come see him. I was not only just a brand-new captain, but an aviator in an infantry regiment. I was a minor light in the Seventh Marines firmament: I was not in any measure a key player.
I arrived early, as a captain does when reporting to a colonel, and waited in his anteroom. There, I convinced myself what this would be: a quick handshake, a stern few sentences on what I was to do while there, and then a slap on the back with a “Go get ‘em, Tiger!” as he turned to the next task at hand. This was a busy guy. Five minutes, tops.
Colonel Mattis called for me. He stood to greet me, and offered to get coffee for me. He put a hand on my shoulder; gave me, over my protestations, his own seat behind his desk; and pulled up a chair to the side. He actually took his phone off the hook—something I had thought was just a figure of speech—closed his office door, and spent more than an hour knee-to-knee with me.
Mattis laid out his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals, and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting and where, and how he was getting us ready to do just that. He laid out history, culture, religion, and politics, and he saw very clearly not only where we would fight, but how Seventh Marines, a desert battalion, fit into that fight.
Many years later, when Seventh Marines got into that fight, he was proven precisely right. It would not be the last time.
Two: February 2003
Major Gen. Mattis was commanding general of First Marine Division, in charge of the riflemen who were going to bear the brunt of President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war. He was small, wiry, and feisty, energy cooking off of him, the sort of guy who walks into a room of Alpha males and is instantly the leader. Mattis was a lifelong bachelor married to the Marine Corps, with a reputation as an ass-kicking, ferocious leader, an officer who took shit from no man and would do anything for his Marines.
Mattis had led First Battalion, Seventh Marines as part of Task Force Ripper during Desert Storm, and had cemented his reputation as a man on the way up. This reputation, well-earned even then, was solidified when he took Task Force 58, pulled together from two Marine Expeditionary Unit afloat, 400 miles over Pakistan and into Afghanistan late in 2001 to retaliate on behalf of us all against al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11. He was a blunt, smart warfighter, just the sort of man our bulldog savior, Gen. Al Gray, had started pulling up the ladder behind him when he was commandant in the late 1980s.
I felt very confident with these two major generals—Mattis of the infantry and Amos of the air wing—in charge. And I felt even more confident as I looked around the room.
The metal folding chairs held hundreds of men. Pilots were in tan flight suits, pistols hanging on their chests in shoulder holsters. Infantry officers sat farther back; these were battalion fire support coordinators, seasoned majors who commanded a rifle battalion’s weapons company (heavy guns, 81 mm mortars, rockets, and TOW missiles) and were therefore the key men in a battalion’s fire support planning.
These guys were firsts among equals, and were almost always the best and often most senior of the young officers in a battalion. Most had with him his battalion air officer, an aviator serving with a rifle battalion (as I had with 3/7 under Col. Mattis) responsible for coordinating air strikes with the infantry’s scheme of maneuver and the indirect fire of both mortars and artillery.
The senior aviators, squadron and group commanders, sat near the front, with their counterpart battalion and regimental infantry commanders. Lieutenant colonels and colonels sat in front, captains and majors filling in the rear: hair atop heads grew noticeably more sparse the further forward you looked. Heads shined, and jaws firmly set. Showtime.
The discussions began with an intel brief. The first bad guys we were going to come across, and those we were therefore most concerned about, were the Iraqi 51st Mechanized Division. They were not the Republican Guard, but had a reputation as having some tough fighters who could shoot straight. The word was that officers were taking all civilian clothes from their men and having them burned, to prevent the conscripts from stripping off their uniforms and fleeing the war, trying to blend back into the civilian population.
On our side, they were expecting Seventh Marines to be ready to go on 10 March, Fifth Marines ready to go on 20 March, and First Marines ready to go in a month: 1 March. A-day and G-Day would go simultaneously. My ears perked up at this. No pre-invasion bombing? I was expecting the air war to start up any day, to soften the bad guys up for at least month as we did the first time we kicked this Iraqi Army’s ass in 1991.
No air war? Wow. The briefer didn’t come out and say “You grunts are screwed,” but rather used intelspeak: “We anticipate at this time that there will be no formalized shaping of the battlefield.” Rules of engagement would be fairly relaxed: kill people if they need killin’. Maps were flashed up, showing the initial Battlespace Coordination Line (BCL): we were given permission to kill anything beyond that line. This was going to be a huge, high-stakes shooting gallery.
Logistics was going to be an issue. It was a long way to Baghdad from there, and there were a hell of a lot of guys massing on the border. When Mattis took the boys into Afghanistan, it took 0.5 short tons (a “short ton” is 2,000 pounds even, versus a “ton,” which is closer to 2,200 pounds) per Marine deployed. They were expecting that it would be five times that effort—2.5 short tons per Marine—to get a guy to Baghdad. I remembered that Gen. Krulak, our commandant in the late 1990s, had made his reputation as a logistics wizard in Desert Storm.
Good officers study military history, great officers study logistics. Mattis was a great officer.
Good officers study military history, great officers study logistics. Mattis was a great officer. His “Log Light” configuration for the division was meant to get people north fast, and not try to shoot our way through every little town on the way. As only he could do, he described it thus: “If you can’t eat it, shoot it, or wear it, don’t bring it.”
Mattis stood. As always, he spoke without notes, having long ago memorized everything.
“Gentlemen, this is going to be the most air-centric division in the history of warfare. Don’t you worry about the lack of shaping; if we need to kill something, it is going to get killed. I would storm the gates of Hell if Third Marine Air Wing was overhead.”
He looked toward the back of the cavernous room, and spoke loud, clear, and confident, hands on his hips.
“There is one way to have a short but exciting conversation with me,” he continued, “and that is to move too slow. Gentlemen, this is not a marathon, this is a sprint. In about a month, I am going to go forward of our Marines up to the border between Iraq and Kuwait. And when I get there, one of two things is going to happen. Either the commander of the Fifty-First Mechanized Division is going to surrender his army in the field to me, or he and all his guys are going to die.”
Nothing much else needed to be said after that.
Three: March 2003
Early in the afternoon, every British and American officer loaded up and headed across the desert to the marvelously named Camp Matilda, one of the Marine Corps base camps farther north towards Iraq. This was my first foray out into the open desert, and it was a National Geographic special come to life.
Camels ambled along next to the road or stood and stared stupidly at the cars whizzing by mere feet away. I assumed they would be herded by men in flowing robes on camels, like in “Lawrence of Arabia.” The men indeed wore robes and flowing headdresses, but herded their beasts in pickup trucks. Wealthier Kuwaitis zoomed by in red-checked caftans driving the ubiquitous Mercedes sedan.
Without referencing a single piece of paper, he discussed what each unit would do and in what sequence, and outlined his end state for each phase of the early war.
First Marine Division was holding their first ROC Drill, the rehearsal of concept of what we were about to do. I had never seen a walk-through like this before. Marines had spent days building an enormous reproduction of southern Iraq in a bowl formed by a huge, semicircular sand dune. Each road, each river, each canal, each oil field was built to scale and even in proper color (water was blue dye poured into a sand ditch, and so on.)
Each Marine unit wore football jerseys in different colors, and with proper numbers. First Battalion, Fifth Marines, known as one-five, wore blue jerseys with “15” on the back, and other units were similarly identified. Principal staff from those units stood on the “border” drawn in the sand. About 300 officers stood and sat on the dune above. It was the perfect way to visualize what was about to happen.
General Mattis stood up and took a handheld microphone. Without referencing a single piece of paper, he discussed what each unit would do and in what sequence, and outlined his end state for each phase of the early war. He spoke for nearly 30 minutes, and his complete mastery of every nuance of the battle forthcoming was truly impressive.
A narrator then took over and picked up the narrative, the rest of the first week of the early war in sequence. As he described each movement, the officers from that unit walked to the proper place on their terrain model, and by the end of an hour the colored jerseys were spread over nearly a football field’s worth of sand. What a show.
At the end of the drill, questions were answered and then Mattis dismissed everyone. No messing around with this guy. Mike Murdoch, one of the British company commanders, leaned over to me, his eyes wide. “Mate, are all your generals that good?”
I looked at him.
“No. He is the best we have.”
As everyone rose to leave, Mattis fired one last directive over the microphone: “You’ve got about 30 days.”
Stanton S. Coerr was a Marine officer and is a veteran of the war in Iraq. He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard, and the Naval War College, and now lives and works in Washington DC.