Even before he told President-elect Donald Trump that torture is a bad idea, I thought retired Marine general James N. Mattis would make a fine Secretary of Defense. Trump announced his appointment of Mattis, whose troops reportedly call him “Warrior Monk” and “Mad Dog,” yesterday.
As reflected in his nicknames, Mattis has a reputation for being both an egghead and a tough guy. In 2010, when he was still in uniform as a four-star general, I heard him give a rambling, hour-long, unscripted talk at a conference on "Hybrid Warfare" at Ohio State University (which I reported on here).
His rhetoric occasionally became too belligerent for my taste, especially when he discussed Muslim militants. I didn’t like his criticism of the media, and his implication that the U.S. will always have to wage wars. But Mattis came across as smart, earnest and reflective, and acutely cognizant of war's moral ambiguities. "There is probably no one in this room more reluctant to go fight than me," he said. "But once in a fight, I give it everything I've got."
Below are more excerpts from Mattis's talk, which should give a sense of the man's substance and style. I’ve highlighted quotes I consider especially noteworthy. In terms of news value, two passages stand out. Mattis suggested that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 "was the dumbest thing we ever did." He also charged Russia with sending "thugs and animals" into Georgia in 2008. I originally reported on Mattis’s speech in 2010:
On Russia's 2008 war with Georgia:
"I flew into Georgia a little after their fight with the Russians, and I met with the Georgian officers who had conducted the fight. It was very interesting. Because here the Russians had conducted and changed the border of Europe using force of arms, something NATO was in such disbelief over they couldn't even confront it, intellectually. And what happens is, the Russians conduct a conventional, sloppy, mass-type conventional fight, with significant irregular warfare aspects. They do cyber attacks. They use the Vostok battalion. For those of you not aware of it, it is Russian officers, Russian equipped, Russian paid. And it's got some of the biggest thugs and animals you can imagine. They move into an area. They intentionally burn, pillage, rape. And then in comes the Russian army, and suddenly, here we are to calm everything down. See? We Russians were the good guys."
On America's enemies:
"There are real enemies out there. I've dealt with them. There are people who really believe girls don't have the right to go to school. ... [They] try to bring those views forward in some form of tyranny. That's all it is. We are dealing with tyranny today, and there are very few people in Brussels or London or Washington, D.C., who are willing to call it what it is. In false religious garb, we have people who are continuing the same thing we fought in World War I when it was militarism. World War II was fascism. The Cold War and hot wars when it was communism. This is just another form of tyranny, is all it is. ...This enemy must continue to kill and kill and kill. They can't win at the ballot box. ...We're gonna kill all of them, the al Qaeda. The forced marriages—you and I call it rape. The cutting off of boys' heads and throwing them on hospital steps. The killing of a sheik who was not even on our side, and leaving his body for four days in the August sun, in a religion where you are supposed to be buried before nightfall."
On how we will always have enemies:
"The enemy is going to continue to be there, the enemy of what I call the values of the Enlightenment. ...The nature of man has not changed, unfortunately. And it's not going to change anytime soon, I don't think. So we are going to have to be ready to fight, across the range of military operations, whatever the enemy chooses to do."
On the U.S. invasion of Iraq:
"Sincere, intellectually vigorous, honest, patriotic Americans say that was the dumbest thing we ever did, to go to Iraq. And I will not disagree one bit. But the U.S. military will stand obedient to the commander in chief, to the president, to whoever the constitution says is now representing the people of this country."
On the necessity of winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
"If you lose the current fight, then you have to put more troops in danger around the world, because we have emboldened the enemy. So now it comes down to how best do we do this, and how well can we the leadership identify to the American people, to whom we owe an accounting, that we know what we're doing and we're going to win. And I do use that word. ... And I do use the word ‘victory.’ We've achieved victory in Iraq, and now we'll see if the Iraqi people can exploit it politically in a humane way."
On how U.S. soldiers must remain true to U.S. values:
"We're not the perfect guys, but we're the good guys. And our value system must reflect that when we go into a fight…against an enemy that intentionally hides among innocent people and tries to draw fire on them. We cannot allow a degree of racism to seep in. We have got to keep true to our values and make certain that we represent the better angels of our nature, as Abraham Lincoln would put it, and not the racist values."
On how alliances with "bad guys" are sometimes necessary:
"Sometimes there are no good guys. There are no bad guys. It seems like everybody is in the middle. I'll tell you, I've slept peaceably among murderers who were on our side. ...If [FDR] can make common cause with Joe Stalin to defeat Hitler, I would think that we can make common cause with people that would annihilate Manhattan if they had half a chance."
On the future of the U.S. military:
"We must avoid being dominant and irrelevant at the same time. Dominant in our chosen forms of war and irrelevant to the security of this country. So you've got to be able to adapt in the Darwinian sense. And we will continue to adapt. Wherever the enemy wants to fight, we will follow him to the ends of the Earth. We'll adapt, we'll train, we'll advise, we'll mentor and we'll fight, and we'll fight well."
On lessons the U.S. can learn from the British and Roman empires:
"Here is the problem we face today: How do we maintain nuclear deterrence, conventional superiorities, while making irregular warfare a core competency of the U.S. military? And people say you can't do both. I reject that. We cannot subdivide the military into smaller and smaller pieces doing specialized kinds of warfare, because the enemy will simply move to the area you are not specialized in. The challenge we face is supported though by history. The British Empire was able to do both: internal defense, hold onto the empire and still fight externally using the same soldiers. The Roman Empire was able to do it."
On the flaws of the American media:
"[The media] works with more of a focus on the fallings short of the U.S. military, and the apparent failings of its political leadership, of the western political leadership, more so than on the enemy's murder and mayhem that they are creating around the world."
On idealism versus pragmatism (and this passage, more than anything else Mattis said, made me like the man):
"As Will Rogers—in the 1930s, when Marines were being landed in Nicaragua and Honduras—said, 'It may surprise some people in Washington, D.C., to find that many people in other countries are more comfortable having an imperfect government of their own rather than having a perfect one foisted on them by us, by Marines.’ I think there is a lot of wisdom there. Our most successful strategies have been the most pragmatic. The most idealistic have let us down horribly, because they are often aspirational, unmet either by the physical or spiritual resources of the American people. We have always been an idealistic people bound by pragmatism. We have no moral obligation to do the impossible. And I think that if we come out of [our current wars] with a more nuanced, more critical view of when we should commit our forces, I think that is helpful."
As Donald Trump’s chief military advisor, James Mattis will be, arguably, the second most important person on the planet. I wish him wisdom and good luck.
See Are predictions of endless war self-fulfilling?, my report on the 2010 conference at which I heard Mattis speak.