General James Mattis has left Central Command, as of Friday, and it’s just as well, since he is entirely the wrong man to preside over our retreat from Afghanistan, and in all likelihood from the broader region. Mattis, the most beloved Marine officer of this generation, is an attack dog, our Patton (like Patton, he is a very cultured man who composes poetry in Greek, and his famously sulfuric language may well be, as it was in Patton’s case, a conceit used to bond with his fighters rather than a reflection of his true rhetorical preference).
Barbara Ledeen once sat next to him at dinner and pronounced him one of the most interesting men she had ever met. Which is quite a compliment.
Among my collection of secret documents is a poster design–not even the Marine Corps could actually put it out–featuring a quotation from General Mattis to “Iraqi sheikhs.” It begins “I come in peace, I did not bring artillery,” and it ends “you F**ck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
No wonder he was the Marines’ most beloved leader. No wonder the best recent portrait of him is whimsical and Hollywoodian. It’s hard to “explain” him to an American public that doesn’t know much of anything about the military, or about warfare:
Coincidentally, Mattis’ retirement comes at the same time as our younger son’s departure from the Marine Corps after four years, including a deployment to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. His older brother, also a Marine officer, was twice in Iraq, including a stint in Anbar Province during some very dark days. And their older sister was twice in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan, most recently on General McChrystal’s excellent staff in Kabul.
Both battlefields were declared “hopelessly lost” by the experts, and yet the Marines won in both. Indeed, they won so thoroughly that they were frustrated at the lack of action. Al-Qaeda ran from them in Anbar, and the Taliban ran from them in Helmand. The poor Marines were reduced to building roads, schools, and hospitals, and managing microloans to the locals. That is not what the Marines are trained to do, and they do not enjoy it very much. They are trained to fight and win.
The American retreat is a mistake; it invites future conflict under conditions chosen by our enemies, thereby guaranteeing needless casualties and perhaps even defeat. And we won’t have General Mattis to lead the next assault. He tried very hard to focus our attention on Iran, but to no evident avail. So we’re just as happy to have our kids off the battlefield. Soldiers’ parents are gripped by two intense emotions: great pride, and terrible anxiety. Having men like Mattis in command positions eases the anxiety and intensifies the pride. The current crop of political leaders, the Obamas, the Hagels, and the Kerrys, just intensify anxiety. They recoil from conflict, and beg our enemies for understanding and forgiveness of imagined American sins. As Churchill famously said of Chamberlain, they choose “dishonor” and will have war.
It’s entirely appropriate for General James Mattis to retire at this moment. Godspeed, sir, and Semper Fidelis.