In February of 2005, General 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 General Mattis’s remarks missed the point: He was not saying it is fun 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.
General Mattis is currently the commander of U.S. 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 General Mattis’s case, the inherent difficulty of force planning was exacerbated by the fact that these decisions had to be made 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, General 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 General 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 General 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 Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a Marine-infantry veteran of the Vietnam War.