Another Perspective

Breaking the Warrior Code

What the media, both left and right, don't understand about General Mattis and the Marine Corps.

By 2.11.05

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To his liberal blogger critics, he is a dangerous, cold-blooded "psychopath" who derives pleasure from sterile acts of killing. As such, he should be fired or demoted and stripped of his command. To the conservative talk radio crowd, he is the reincarnation of the late, great Gen. George S. Patton Jr., a ruthless "fighting machine" determined to wreak havoc and destruction on that thorn in our side called Iraq. As such, the United States should put him in charge and finally end this war once and for all.

But both the left and the right are wrong about Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis. He is neither the Jack Nicholson caricature of a Marine depicted in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men nor the callous and mad eccentric depicted by George C. Scott in the 1970 movie Patton.

Instead, Gen. Mattis is a remarkably learned and thoughtful man who adheres to the old-fashioned Christian, chivalric warrior code. As such, he confounds modern-day screamers on both the left and the right for whom the warrior code is unintelligible. I know because I had the privilege of serving under Gen. Mattis as a Marine in Iraq.

Moreover, while we were both in-country the General graciously took the time to engage me in an exclusive half-hour conversation. At the time, I was trying to secure a commission as an officer. The General learned that my relatively advanced age (then 35) was posing a problem and offered to help. That a three-star general with a war on his hands would take the time to assist a lowly Lance Corporal speaks volumes about the heart and character of Gen. Mattis.

I SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN surprised. I had spent the spring and summer of 2003 with the First Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, at an abandoned pistol factory in Al Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Gen. Mattis regularly showed up to speak with us. He would tell us colorful stories, offer tough-minded advice and counsel, and eagerly solicit our thoughts and questions. We loved him because we knew he loved us.

And Gen. Mattis didn't just talk the talk; he walked the walk. He led from the front. Indeed, on at least one occasion that I know of, the General was bloodied from a firefight or improvised explosive device while out on patrol with junior, enlisted Marines one-third his age. That's what makes Gen. Mattis such a great warrior: He truly respects and cares for his Marines.

"Guardiano," he told me, "I don't give a damn about the officers. If they don't like what they're doing, they can get on a plane and leave the Corps -- go back where they came from. But I do care deeply about those 18- and 19-year-old Lance Corporals out on the frontlines." The General was telling me that, as an officer, I better be concerned with helping younger, junior Marines, not advancing my own career.

That's why all the liberal talk about Mattis being some sort of "psychopathic killer" is so ludicrous. Nor is he, as the conservative talk-show set would have it, an inhumane "fighting machine." Psychopathic killers don't care for their men; and machines don't exhibit compassion for a liberated but frightened people.

Yet, I am absolutely convinced that whenever a Marine died or bled, a part of Gen. Mattis died and bled, too. And whenever an innocent Iraqi was intimidated, beaten or shot, Gen. Mattis was incensed and outraged. But because of our modern-day cultural depravity, we lack the basic vocabulary necessary to identify and understand, let alone appreciate and celebrate, warriors like Gen. Mattis.

HOW, THEN, TO EXPLAIN the General's comment that it is "fun to shoot some people"? Is not such a sentiment "indicative of an apparent indifference to the value of human life," as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) argues?

Unfortunately for the council and other professional grievance lobbies, context is everything, especially when it come to war and killing. Gen. Mattis clearly did not say he likes killing for killing's sake. Instead, like most Marines, he enjoys fighting for a righteous cause. He enjoys a good "brawl," especially when it involve shooting vermin who subjugate, beat, and abuse women.

Moreover, if the critics bothered actually to listen to Gen. Mattis's remarks -- which you can do online at NBC's San Diego affiliate website -- they would realize that he was calling for an investment in so-called soft-power resources that would help to avert combat. He was saying, in effect: "Look, I love a good fight and would enjoy shooting and killing these bastards; but we need to do the things that will make that unnecessary."

The General was speaking at a professional conference on military transformation; and he was urging the Pentagon to invest in efforts that would "diminish the conditions that drive people to sign up for these kinds of insurgencies."

None of the widely touted new technologies and weapons systems, he noted, "would have helped me in the last three years [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. But I could have used cultural training [and] language training. I could have used more products from American universities [who] understood the world does not revolve around America and [who] embrace coalitions and allies for all of the strengths that they bring us."

That sure doesn't sound like the fanatical Col. Kurtz of Apocalypse Now.

GEN. MATTIS ALSO IMPLICITLY took exception to conservative defense analysts like Weekly Standard contributor Thomas Donnelly, who seem to think that increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps will solve most of our military challenges. But a larger -- and thus more bureaucratic -- force structure may be exactly what is not needed to win the war against Islamic fascism.

As the General explained, "We're seeing a re-criminalization of war. And that means we need to get small units, not big armies... Small units so capable that, as we close with the enemy, they're transformed into something that is as capable as our air units and sea units have been in shutting down the threats to this country over the last 30 years."

Some critics have alleged that Gen. Mattis's' comments reflect a dangerous military mindset that gave rise to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. However, for any of the Marines who served under him, it is impossible to imagine a scandal like Abu Ghraib happening on the General's watch.

That's because Gen. Mattis always made it his business to know what was happening in his command; and he did not tolerate stupidity and abuse by his Marines. We all understood this because he communicated well and often his expectations. Those expectations included his demand to "keep your honor clean" and to treat the Iraqis "as you would your own family, with dignity and respect."

Let's hope this reality is included in the movie, destined to come, about Gen. Mattis, the Marine Corps, and Iraq. This would be a refreshing change from Hollywood's recent depictions of the U.S. military. And it would rightly honor a man and a warrior who is truly an American hero.

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About the Author
  John R. Guardiano blogs at www.ResCon1.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @ResCon1.