James Mattis on the Importance of Historical Knowledge (and Some of His Notable Quotes)
Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis served as the 11th Commander of U.S. CentCom until March 2013, when he was forced into early retirement by Barack Obama. After 41 years in Marine leadership, Gen. Mattis was not willing to play along with Obama’s political retreat from Iraq, which was directly responsible for the rise of the Islamic State and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis that followed.
Shortly thereafter, the 63-year-old revered officer became an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution and later named the Davies Distinguished Visiting Fellow.
Reflecting on Obama’s failure to engage ISIL, in 2014 Gen. Mattis testified, “You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do. Specifically, if this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American ‘boots on the ground.’ If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc [and] humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose. We have the most skilled, fierce and certainly the most ethical ground forces in the world and I don’t think we should reassure the enemy in advance that they will never face him.”
In December 2016 President-elect Donald Trump announced he would nominate Gen. Mattis to become United States Secretary of Defense. As we noted, “Putting the Pentagon under the charge of a man nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ puts our enemies on notice.”
Mattis has a penchant for reading, as did his WWII Army predecessor, Gen. George “Old Blood and Guts” Patton, who was a prolific reader — particularly of his enemy’s writings. Mattis has a personal library that exceeds 7,000 volumes and he is known as the “Warrior Monk” both for his intellect and being a lifelong bachelor.
He has a long history of publishing required reading lists for his Marines, subjecting them to his personal standards of intellectual rigor and aptitude
Ahead of his deployment to Iraq in 2003, Gen. Mattis received an inquiry from a junior officer about making time to read history, which Mattis has always advocated. It is not unusual that Gen. Mattis took the time to respond in some detail, as he is known for visiting with his junior officers one-on-one and for spending plenty of time in the middle of his enlisted infantry Marines.
His response below is indicative of why Mattis is known as “The Warrior Monk”:
The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.
Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.
With [Task Force] 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in [Afghanistan], and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).
Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.
For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say … “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.
We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t know a hell of a lot more than just the [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures]? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher [Headquarters] can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?
Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.
This is not new to the USMC approach to warfighting — Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I read (and reread) Rommel’s Papers (remember “Kampstaffel”?), Montgomery’s book (“Eyes Officers"…), "Grant Takes Command” (need for commanders to get along, “commanders’ relationships” being more important than “command relationships”), and some others.
As a result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn’t waste their lives because I didn’t have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields.
Hope this answers your question…. I will cc my ADC in the event he can add to this. He is the only officer I know who has read more than I.
Semper Fi, Mattis
Note that the “ADC” (Assistant Division Commander) he refers to is Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Quotes from Gen. Mattis, which our friend Oliver North calls “Mattis-isms,” are now part of Marine lexicon, folklore and mythology.
“The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.”
“You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.”
“For the mission’s sake, for our country’s sake, and the sake of the men who carried the Division’s colors in past battles — ‘who fought for life and never lost their nerve’ — carry out your mission and keep your honor clean.”
“Demonstrate to the world there is ‘No Better Friend — No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.”
“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
“The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.”
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
“You cannot allow any of your people to avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it’s going to be bad.”
“If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don’t take the shot. Don’t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act.”
“Fight with a happy heart.”
“There is nothing better than getting shot at and missed. It’s really great.”
“We’ve backed off in good faith to try and give you a chance to straighten this problem out. But I am going to beg with you for a minute. I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years.”
“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap 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. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”
“There are some people who think you have to hate them in order to shoot them. I don’t think you do. It’s just business.”
“Marines don’t know how to spell the word defeat.”
“I don’t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word.”
“PowerPoint makes us stupid.”
“In this age, I don’t care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony — even vicious harmony — on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete. We have got to have officers who can create harmony across all those lines.”
“There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, cunning, obedience and alertness, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim.”
“Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment (in American democracy) and kill every one of them until they’re so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact.”
“No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”