Distinctions of War: General Mattis’s Mistake

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2005

There is an old adage that says “never miss an opportunity to shut up.” I’m guessing that Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis wishes he’d taken this advice last week. As everyone knows by now Gen. Mattis, speaking on February 1 in San Diego as a panel member at a meeting of Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, said:

Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot… It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling… 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.

According to a report in the Washington Times, “his comments evoked laughter and applause from the audience.”

Of course his, comments also evoked criticism from many of the usual suspects. For instance the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on the Pentagon to discipline Gen. Mattis for the remarks. CAIR’s council’s executive director, Nihad Awad said, “We do not need generals who treat the grim business of war as a sporting event. These disturbing remarks are indicative of an apparent indifference to the value of human life.”

Knowing Gen. Mattis’s record, I disagree with such characterizations—but that’s because I know his record. Unfortunately, the thrust of the criticism by CAIR and others is, alas, correct. The context of the comments makes clear that Gen. Mattis was having some fun and playing to his audience. My criticism of Gen. Mattis is that he forgot that he wasn’t trying to inspire his Marines but was instead addressing a civilian group with press present. We wouldn’t want the ladies of the press getting a case of the vapors, now, would we? In addition, anyone who doesn’t know Gen. Mattis’s record, or who doesn’t care about it, can use his comments to paint the Marines as, in the infamous characterization of an assistant secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration, “extremists” out of step with liberal society.

But those who would use Gen. Mattis’s words to defame him or—most especially—the Marine Corps owe it to themselves to examine his record as a combat leader in Afghanistan, where he served as a commander of the Naval Task Force that seized an advanced airbase at the opening of that campaign; and Iraq, where he commanded the storied 1st Marine Division during the march up to Baghdad. The fact is that Gen. Mattis is probably the finest Marine combat leader since the legendary Chesty Puller. I have never met a Marine who served with Gen. Mattis who had anything less than the highest regard for him. Anyone who has seen him knows he doesn’t “look” like a Marine but he sure knows how to act like one. And acting like a Marine makes room for such principles of restraint in war as chivalry (defend the weak and the innocent) and proportionality (use only the force necessary to achieve the objective). For the most part, observers agree that the Marines of Gen. Mattis’s division treated surrendering Iraqi humanely—the way they are supposed to be treated.

Here is the “message to all hands” that then-Major General Mattis issued to his troops as they prepared to enter Iraq in March 2003:

For decades, Saddam Hussein has tortured, imprisoned, raped and murdered the Iraqi people; invaded neighboring countries without provocation; and threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction. The time has come to end his reign of terror. On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.

When I give you the word, together we will cross the Line of Departure, close with those forces that choose to fight, and destroy them. Our fight is not with the Iraqi people, nor is it with members of the Iraqi army who choose to surrender. While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression. Chemical attacks, treachery, and the use of the innocent as human shields can be expected, as can unethical tactics. Take it all in stride. Be the hunter, not the hunted: never allow your unit to be caught with its guard down. Use good judgment and act in the best interest of our Nation. “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure. Keep faith with your comrades on your left and right and Marine Air overhead. Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit.

For the mission’s sake, 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 you mission and keep your honor clean. Demonstrate to the world that there is ’No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.

J.N. Mattis

Major General, US Marines


Note the admonition to “engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” This is not the instruction of a man who looks forward to indiscriminate killing. For the most part, his young Marines responded admirably, despite the likelihood that the enemy would take advantage of the Marines’ restraint.

But what does one make of his charge to “fight with a happy heart?” Doesn’t this suggest, as CAIR claims, that Gen. Mattis and his Marines see the “grim business of war as a sporting event?” In fact, Gen. Mattis was seeking to stir the martial soul of his Marines by invoking the spirit of the St. Crispin’s Day speech that Shakespeare’s King Henry delivers to his soldiers before the battle of Agincourt:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

And like Henry V, Gen. Mattis always led from the front. During the march up to Baghdad, Mattis had prepared his command well and it responded to his style of leadership.

There is something about Gen. Mattis’s remarks that most commentators have missed. He was not saying it is “a hoot” to kill everyone, but those kinds of people who, as they say in Texas, “needed killin’.” Ask yourself this question: If you came face to face with Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, you might smile as you put a round though his head? Be honest. I would.

The Marines that Gen. Mattis led on the road to Baghdad made the sort of distinctions that their commanding general directed them to make. They encountered Iraqi soldiers of all kinds: soldiers of regular units, some of whom fought and some of whom didn’t; militia, who preferred not to fight but sometimes did because they were intimidated by Saddam’s fedayeen; and foreign jihadis.

The jihadis asked no quarter and the Marines gave them none.

According to The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division by “Bing” West and Major General Ray “E-tool” Smith, USMC (ret),

The Marines knew the difference between these jihad fighters and the militia. Consequently the Marines shot them in the ditches and in the field. They threw grenades into the bulrushes and shot the fighters when they ran out. They threw grenades into the drainage pipes running under the road… A few of the foreign fighters surrendered, but most did not—they had come to Iraq to die, and die they would. As one Marine put it, this was the perfect war. “They want to die, and we want to kill them.”

This is a distinction we once made without compunction: between those who are entitled to the rights of legitimate combatants and those who are not. This distinction was first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval European jurisprudence. As the eminent military historian, Sir Michael Howard, wrote right after 9/11, the Romans distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and Guerra, war against latrunculi—pirates, robbers, brigands, and outlaws—”the common enemies of mankind.”

The former, bellum, became the standard for interstate conflict. It is here for instance that the Geneva Conventions were meant to apply. They do not apply to the latter, Guerra—indeed, punishment for latrunculi traditionally has been summary execution. While not employing the term, many legal experts agree that al Qaeda fighters are latrunculi—hardly distinguishable by their actions from pirates and the like. Who knows what some silly judge might rule in the future, but at least so far, no terrorist organization has been deemed a combatant under the laws of armed conflict.

In retrospect, Gen. Mattis’s publicized comments were imprudent. But in his soldier’s way, he was making a necessary distinction that many in the press or the courts are not, e.g. those who hold that terrorist detainees are entitled to prisoner-of-war status and the rights put forth in the Geneva Conventions. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that Gen. Mattis committed a “gaffe”—he blurted out something of the truth.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.