Among Marines

Peter W. Schramm

August 1, 2010

In early summer I was surrounded by Marines. USMC Captain Josh Kirk (Ashbrook, 2000) dropped by for a good visit, and my son John (CPL, USMC) was home on leave from Okinawa. He was around for most of May, and, when granted leave by his rather spirited girlfriend, he caught me up on his life. We had many good hours together, refining our tall tales, sometimes in well-stocked Irish pubs.

I also found myself in Newport, Rhode Island in mid-May, visiting Mackubin T. Owens (Colonel, USMC, Retired), a professor at the Naval War College. He asked me to attend his Wednesday evening seminar. I agreed, expecting a scholarly discussion of our national security policy.

At the appointed hour, Mac took me downtown to the Mudville Pub (named, I think, because it is right next to—on the right field line, actually—of Cardenes Field, the oldest baseball field in continuous use in the country). Entering, I found a dozen of Mac’s students already engaged in lively conversation. How clever of these Marines to apply the title of “seminar” to the venerated tradition of men communing over their pints!

Mac mentioned a distinguished guest who would soon be joining us. At first I didn’t pay much attention to the name and rank. The room was already full of high-ranking officers, and I was thinking about how normal they all looked. They were not in uniform; they looked like ambitious and enterprising professionals; but one felt that their modest demeanors fronted warlike spirits. Their conversation was quiet, but their laughter was loud.

As soon as the guest stepped into the pub—looking like everyone else, trim and neat in his blue jeans, open shirt, and blue blazer—all eyes turned to him. This, I realized, was General James N. Mattis. A four-star general, one of only four in the Corps, he led the rapid, seventeen-day drive toward Baghdad in 2003 and, a few months later, conducted a slower, careful response to insurgent attacks in Fallujah. I’d heard of his forthright manner. He is said to have told tribal leaders in Iraq: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But, I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you screw with me, I’ll kill you all.”

So, how does a run-down professor with unkempt hair shake hands with a renowned warrior? When in doubt, improvise. So I said, “Hi, I thought you’d be taller.” To this he replied, “And I thought you’d look smarter.”

For the next hour or so we talked about Churchill, Lincoln, central European politics, and the price of tea in China. The General did not try to overwhelm us with his martial seriousness. No, rather like the other soldiers in the pub, he told stories and drew wry and incisive morals from them. It was more like talking with Mark Twain than with a top American commander. He could sketch an instance of power politics the way Twain depicts Tom Sawyer talking the neighborhood boys into whitewashing a fence for him. When he alluded to the thrill of battle, it was like hearing Huck Finn admit to climbing out his bedroom window for a midnight adventure in the woods. He was smart and funny, but also humble.

You would not mistake this man for a Roman, or a Russian, or even an English general. An entirely American character, he is disposed to look at things from the inside rather than from without, and certainly not to look down on those of us he is sworn to protect. He understands that in this country all men may rise, that distinction is based only on merit; and he demonstrates gratitude for the opportunity to labor in his field.

One claim he made left us skeptical. He spoke of his upcoming retirement, telling us how keen he was to go back to Walla Walla, Washington, and relax for the rest of his days. Of course, Marines have been known to tell stretchers. Later that evening Mac remarked how foolish it would be for such a fine man, such a “master of war,” to be retired. Surely in times like these there was more work for such a man to do. We learned a few weeks later that the President had nominated him to be in charge of U.S. Central Command. Sometimes the world is fair.

When General Mattis asked me about my son and how he is getting along in the Corps, I told him some of what John had said about his work and routines, and added that John felt honored to serve. I also told him that soon after my son joined up I recounted to him the story told about a venerable gunnery sergeant in the 1930s. When he was asked by a young lieutenant how the Corps got its reputation as one of the world’s greatest fighting formations, the sergeant said: “Well, they started telling everybody how great they were. Pretty soon they got to believing it themselves. And they have been busy ever since proving they were right.”

“Semper fi,” rejoined the general. Indeed. And God-speed.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.