Another Soldier-Scholar Enters the Fray: Gen. Mattis Moves to USCENTCOM

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2010

The President has nominated Marine General James Mattis to be the next commander of US Central Command, replacing Gen. David Petraeus, who has assumed command of the effort in Afghanistan. This is a welcome move. There is now a remarkable military tandem in place in the Greater Middle East, one that Victor Davis Hanson has compared to Grant and Sherman.

It is no secret that my admiration for Gen. Mattis is unbounded. I have expressed it on several occasions on National Review Online and this site. I first met Gen. Mattis when he was a major and a student of mine in a seminar at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. His character and intellect were obvious even then.

Gen. Mattis has commanded at all levels. Indeed, Gen. Mattis is probably the finest Marine combat leader since the legendary Chesty Puller. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, then-Lt. Col. Mattis commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7) during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This was the same battalion that Puller commanded during the desperate battle for Guadalcanal. As a colonel, Gen. Mattis later commanded the 7th Marine Regiment.

During the initial phase of the campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, then-Brigadier General Mattis command Task Force 58, executing a bold operation to seize an airfield in Kandahar. During the “march up” to Baghdad in 2003, Major General Mattis commanded the storied 1st Marine Division.

“Bing” West and Major General Ray “E-tool” Smith, USMC (ret) in their book, The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division do a nice job of chronicling his actions during that campaign. It was always the case that Gen. Mattis “led from the front.” He clearly had prepared his command well and it responded to his style of leadership.

His “message to all hands” issued at the outset of the campaign contains echoes of Henry V at Agincourt. “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… Demonstrate to the world there is ’No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.”

West and Smith write that military theory suggests:

that the ideal location for the general is one where he can observe the battlefield firsthand, gauge the fighting condition of his troops and the enemy, and still communicate with his key subordinates so that he can exploit what he is observing.… By being on scene during this battle, Mattis was employing what theorists call the coup d’oeil, when the commander is able to select and focus on the battle’s key elements. He could see that the Marines, although tired, were continuing to press forward, while the enemy had retreated into the town. He could see with his own eyes that his troops had the initiative.

On one occasion Mattis offered some water to a tired Marine passing his vehicle. “The Marine refilled his canteens, took a deep gulp, and patted Mattis on the shoulder. ’Thanks, man,’ he said, trotting off, apparently unaware that he was talking to his division commander.”

Promoted to lieutenant general, Gen. Mattis, who is a well-known advocate of the serious study of war, commanded the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and served as the deputy commandant for combat development. He then commanded the I Marine Expeditionary Force and served as the commander of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command.

In February of 2005, Gen. Mattis got himself into a bit of pickle. Ignoring the old adage that says “never miss an opportunity to shut up,” General Mattis made some Patton-like statements at a meeting of Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in San Diego, commenting that “It’s fun to shoot some people.” Those who got the vapors over Gen. Mattis’ remarks missed the point: he was not saying it is “a hoot” to kill everyone, but only those kinds of people who, as they say in Texas, “need killin’.” We used to understand the distinction. Fortunately for the country, the furor blew over and we were not deprived of his future service.

Gen. Mattis is currently the commander of US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM), where one of his major responsibilities has been “force planning,” which attempts to answer the question: what decisions need to be made today about what our forces will look like in the future—one that may or may not resemble the present? In Gen. Mattis’ case the inherent difficulty of force planning was exacerbated by the fact that these decisions had to be made while we were in the midst of a war.

As a seasoned operational commander who had fought the kind of wars we are likely to have to fight in the future, Gen. Mattis helped to break the “technology-as-panacea” culture that had long dominated JFCOM. He is a vocal critic of what he sees as the unchallenged assumptions of much contemporary defense planning. He has argued against those who believe that technology provides a cure-all for America’s security problems. He has denounced the idea, advanced by some prominent commentators on security issues, that advances in technology have “changed the very nature of war.” He has always placed the human element of war at the center of his thinking about war.

This background makes Gen. Mattis an excellent choice for this important position. Of course, the challenges he faces are daunting. Perhaps in taking the CENTCOM position, he is ignoring the axiom that one “should never pet a burning dog.” But he, like Gen. Petraeus, represents the epitome of the thinking general, the true “soldier-scholar.” If anyone can extinguish the “burning dog” that Afghanistan represents, this team can.

Mackubin T. Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia.