I Served With James Mattis. Here’s What I Learned From Him
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by Stanton S. Coerr,
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
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
Good officers study military history, great officers study logistics. Mattis was a great officer. Gentlemen; 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
every British and American officer loaded up and headed across the desert to the marvelously named Camp Matilda. 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.
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.
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.”
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