National Security & Defense

James Mattis: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy

James Mattis (Reuters/Eric Thayer)
The highly popular secretary of defense brings a unique mix of compassion, ferocity, and discipline to the job. Plenty of book learning, too.

Jim Mattis, retired Marine four-star general, was the first person President Trump nominated to his cabinet. Mattis received nearly unanimous (99 to 1) bipartisan support for his nomination. He then received an extremely rare waiver of the guidelines that exclude recently active military leaders from the position of secretary of defense. It has been more than 60 years since the last such waiver. What could create such unprecedented unity, even enthusiasm, amid the hyper-partisan political rancor of 2017?

This overwhelming support goes beyond enthusiasm for his record of military competence. His sometimes shocking public statements and quiet triumphs point to both an extraordinary level of compassion and the capacity for ferocious lethality. So who is this guy, really, who commands this unique place of respect in modern America?

Mattis chose a path in life that has brought him repeatedly into mortal combat with the most barbaric evil of our time, Islamist terrorism. Yet he continues to defeat it with insight, humor, fighting courage, and fierce compassion not only for his fellow Marines who volunteer to follow him through hell’s front door but also for the innocent victims of war. He encouraged his beloved Marines in Iraq with this advice: “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” He spoke plainly, from his heart, warning civilian tribal leaders of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq’s Anbar province: “I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for the next 10,000 years.”

Mattis has long been a living legend in the Marine Corps, earning the odd nickname of “the Warrior Monk.” Robert H. Scales, a retired United States Army major general, described him as “one of the most urbane and polished men I have known.” Mattis’s personal library of more than 7,000 books — including many obscure, scholarly titles — is as famous as his habit of carrying a personal copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius with him into battle.

He is a fearsome warrior to a mostly admiring but often misunderstanding public that has stuck him with the nickname Mattis himself dislikes: “Mad Dog,” a moniker implying that he loses control. People perhaps mistake his ferocious aggression for a lack of discipline. Anyone who has served with him will tell you just the opposite: As a field commander, he maintains strict discipline, even sleep discipline, continually striving for “brilliance in the basics.”

In his meticulous preparations for the untested “maneuver warfare” that was about to be used in the second Iraq War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, he created a scale model of the battlefield from the border of Kuwait to the objective, Baghdad. It was the size of half a football field. A week before the invasion began, he dressed representatives from the dozens of coalition military units in color-coded football jerseys and had them walk through the battle plan as he narrated the maneuvers over loudspeakers to the assembled field commanders.

He encouraged his beloved Marines in Iraq with this advice: ‘Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.’

At the end of this rehearsal, Mattis answered questions and then dismissed the group. Mike Murdoch, one of the British company commanders, leaned over to U.S. Marine Captain Stephen Coerr and asked, “Mate, are all your generals that good?”

His competence and level-headedness are so trusted that the president of the United States has given him essentially a free hand to fight America’s wars as he sees fit. Characteristically, in announcing the change of policy toward ISIS from one of “attrition” to “annihilation,” Mattis credited his boss with the decision. One might call this political discipline. As of this writing, after only seven months, the barbaric Islamists of ISIS are on the brink of annihilation in their own capital city of Raqqa.

The ‘Warrior Monk’

The legend of the Warrior Monk started 45 years ago when 18-year-old Jim Mattis signed up for the Marine’s Platoon Leaders Course (PLC). He had often admired the challenge to excel offered by the Marine Corps. With typical humility, he now downplays the decision to join up:

I don’t think I had the intention of making it a career at that point. I wasn’t closed-minded about it, but it was to go in, look around, and do my time. In those days we had the draft, so there was little choice. And then look around and see what else was out there.

But the decision was not as casual as he implies. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive had just killed 4,000 and wounded 6,000 American soldiers and Marines, so the American military was aggressively seeking new recruits to refill the ranks. Joining the Marine Corps at the time, even with a temporary deferment as a full-time student, was a socially ostracizing and potentially fatal decision. After six weeks of training — as Jim Mattis was hearing around his college campus of Central Washington College — they put a rifle in your hands and sent you to the front of the line, walking the point, on patrol looking for a gunfight in the booby-trapped jungles of Vietnam. And socially, he could forget about the free love, campus hippie chicks that occupied much of his brain space at the time.

In spite of the social cost and potential danger, his commitment to the Marine Corps led him to get a master’s degree in history from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Particularly useful for a career in the Marine Corps was his study of The Art of War, a recently translated treatise dating from the fifth century b.c., by Sun-Tzu, a legendary Chinese general. The emphasis on duality in Sun-Tzu’s philosophy, the yin and yang of war, coincided with Mattis’s deep appreciation for the ebb and flow of the natural world and human interaction. Sun-Tzu’s concept of “winning hearts and minds” was a natural fit for Mattis and would serve him well in the wars to come in the East.

On July 20, 1978, Captain James Mattis took command of Kilo Company of the Third Marine Battalion of the Third Marine Division (3/3) under the command of Colonel Ken Jordan, a Vietnam veteran. His life was now out of classrooms and onto the rolling decks of warships. In September, he deployed as part of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit on a “float” to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea. On this first deployment, the Marines rescued hundreds of “boat people” — war refugees in overloaded, uncovered fishing boats often floating aimlessly and out of fuel in the open sea.

This human aftermath of the American military retreat from Vietnam and resulting political instability crowded every available inch of deck space around Mattis. Refugees filled the sweaty hold of the ship, clutching their children and meager possessions and often shaking with fear and trauma. This was Mattis’s first real-world experience of war as a Marine. As the Navy’s ground troops — the first in and often the last out of smaller, Third World conflicts — Marines frequently end up with the responsibility for evacuation of war victims. Compassion is a necessary part of an officer’s training, and Mattis’s was put to the test as he shared overheated sleeping spaces, food, and few toilets, often for days on end, with successive swarms of desperate, frequently ill people who didn’t speak English.

Compassion is a necessary part of an officer’s training, and Mattis’s was put to the test as he shared overheated sleeping spaces, food, and few toilets, often for days on end, with successive swarms of desperate, frequently ill people who didn’t speak English.

Back in Kaneohe, Hawaii, home base of the 3/3, a place literally crawling with lonely Marines, Mattis found an attractive and unattached young lady we will call Alice. (Alice’s real name is being withheld as requested by friends of the Mattis family.) The relationship began slowly and remained unknown to most of his closest colleagues. Alice seemed to share a studious, reverential view of the world and had a deep appreciation for the sacrifices endured by Marines. Quietly, the two kindled a romance. Now, as a young captain, comfortable in the simple, Spartan lifestyle of a Marine officer, Mattis turned to sweet, brown-haired Alice to lead him in matters of the heart.

On August 4, 1980, Mattis assumed command of the relatively new configuration of a weapons company for the 3/3. Lieutenant David Pittelkow commanded a Dragon anti-armor squad under Mattis. While reviewing Pittelkow’s performance, Mattis noticed the young lieutenant giving orders to his men correctly but not pitching in quite as much with the physical work of setting up the heavy and dangerous equipment. He pulled his lieutenant aside and counseled him like a kind uncle on the shared work ethic of the Marine Corps: “Y’know, Dave, the privilege of command is command. You don’t get a bigger tent.”

Mattis earned the following fitness report from Ken Jordan, his commanding officer:

Recommended for the Leftwich Award for outstanding leadership, Mattis exceeds all expectations for tactical knowledge, leadership ability and operational skill. A dedicated, hard-working, dependable officer, he was instrumental in assisting this BLT [Battalion Landing Team] to attain a score of 97 on the recent CRE [Combat Readiness Evaluation], the highest score in the brigade. His company consistently excels in quantifiable areas, and he sets the example for this men. He is intelligent, and expresses himself well verbally and in writing.


At this point, Mattis is engaged to marry Alice. The ceremony is set for late June to coincide with his return from scheduled extensive exercises of the 3/3 in the East. It is to be a quiet, private ceremony with close family and few friends. A few days before departure, Alice suddenly realizes that as a Marine’s wife, she will move frequently to different parts of the world and will face the constant threat of having officers knocking on her door one day in full dress uniform to deliver the worst possible news. As much as she respects the sacrifices that Marines make, she is not prepared to do the same. She insists that Mattis resign, that he choose her or the Corps — he cannot have both.

Mattis frets over the decision but ultimately follows his heart. He agrees to resign his commission and begins the process. The upcoming float will be his last. Alarmed at the loss of such a rising star and well-liked leader, Mattis’s Marines launch a love offensive. They send their wives and fiancées to call and visit Alice, some meeting her for the first time, some with their men in tow to vouch for the realities of life with a Marine. The avalanche of support is overwhelming. Alice has deep misgivings but is reassured by the extended Marine family that surrounds her, pledging their love to her and her Jim, and to their family that may come. She finally relents, with only hours left before the 3/3 ships out. The wedding is back on. Mattis trashes his resignation forms and, riding the roller coaster of his emotions, packs his seabag for a long deployment.

Nothing stays private very long during months at sea in close quarters, so when they make landfall at various ports, Mattis is repeatedly subjected to hair-raising bachelor parties. They are at sea this time for more than four months.

Back in Hawaii, preparations for the wedding proceed with the customary frenzy. As relatives from the mainland begin to arrive and caterers prepare, word comes to Mattis that all is again not well with his bride. His rise in fortune within the Marine Corps is not reflected outside of it. Alice has reconsidered. She simply can’t imagine their married life being anything other than an unhappy waiting game for her and so a burden to him and his career.

This time, only a few truly close friends rush to the couple’s support. They beg Alice to reconsider, to be patient, to understand that Jim Mattis is worth the wait. The men tell her, truthfully, that he hasn’t looked at another woman since their engagement. Finally, Mattis and Alice have the talk. She is not swayed. Their engagement is off, the wedding is cancelled.

On July 28, 1981, Mattis relinquishes command of 3/3 weapons company Kilo. He is promoted to the rank of major and leaves Hawaii to return home to the Pacific Northwest. He takes command of a quiet Marine recruiting office in Portland, Ore., near the banks of the beloved Columbia River of his childhood. Like the first Marines who remained unmarried while in the Corps, he returns to the simple, monkish life of reading and fishing that he knew before Alice and the 3/3, even before the Marine Corps. He will never marry. Instead, he will devote himself to his adopted family of Marines.

Christmas Day

The legend of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is chock-full of tales of heroism and victories on the battlefield, but the story that most reveals the man underneath the general’s stars takes place on a Christmas Day after 40 years of leading young men and women into battle, always from the front lines.

General Charles Krulak, commandant of the Marine Corps, every year, starting about a week before Christmas, baked hundreds of Christmas cookies with his wife. They packaged them in small bundles, and on Christmas Day, at about 4 a.m. Krulak drove himself to every Marine guard post in the Washington-Annapolis-Baltimore area to deliver the cookies to the Marines pulling guard duty that day.

This year at Quantico he arrived at the command center and gave a package to the lance corporal on duty.

He asked, “Who’s the officer of the day?”

The lance corporal said, “Sir, it’s Brigadier General Mattis.”

And Krulak said, “No, no, no. I know who General Mattis is. I mean, who’s the officer of the day today, Christmas Day?”

The lance corporal, feeling a little anxious, said, “Sir, it is Brigadier General Mattis.”

About that time, Krulak spots in the back room a cot, or a daybed. He said, “No, Lance Corporal. Who slept in that bed last night?”

The lance corporal answers, “Sir, it was Brigadier General Mattis.”

Just then, Mattis came in, in a duty uniform with a sword, and Krulak said, “Jim, what are you doing here on Christmas Day? Why do you have duty?”

Mattis told Krulak that the young officer who was scheduled to have duty on Christmas Day had a family, and he had decided it was better for the young officer to spend Christmas Day with his family. So he chose to have duty on Christmas Day in his place.


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Jim Proser is the author of No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy, a biography of General James Mattis, to be released by HarperCollins this fall.


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