James N. Mattis was the first Trump presidential cabinet nominee and received nearly unanimous, bipartisan support for his nomination, with only one disapproval. He received a rare waiver of the guidelines that excluded recently active military leaders from the position of Secretary of Defense.
What could have created such unprecedented unity, even enthusiasm, in the hyper-partisan political rancor of 2017? It seemed that the aura of true heroes surrounded US Marine General James Mattis, protecting him from the usual slings and arrows of political fortune.
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Modern Day Heroes
No doubt, the urgency of having a quick, smooth transition of military leadership was in play when General Mattis was nominated to be Donald Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, but Mattis’ easy consensus clearly had other dimensions. Beyond his obvious military competence for the position, he evidently also possessed a personal integrity that fostered a confidence that transcended vicious partisanship.
But who was this man – underneath his General’s stars? It is this writer’s opinion that Mattis has lived at such an extraordinary level of self discipline and exhibited such selfless service to American ideals, that he commands a unique place of respect in modern America. He wore the invisible mantel of real life heroes woven from stories of personal sacrifice on the battlefield.
0230 Hours—27 November, 2001— Forward Operating Base Rhino, Afghanistan
The wind falls from the black, star-specked sky down the faces of moonlit mountains, picking up speed, rolling out across frozen plains of broken rock and bleached bones. It covers dozens of US Marines shivering in fighting holes in a choking, weapon-jamming grit of black dust. It is in their noses, in their ears, it grinds across their molars as they chew tasteless, freeze-dried meat sucking out barely enough energy to keep them awake. They are impatient to deliver America’s answer, in fire and steel, to the planners of 9/11.
Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick walks the defensive perimeter, from fighting hole to fighting hole checking on his men. He approaches one, careful to come from the rear and listen for the verbal challenge. It is a combined anti-armor team made of one anti-tank Javelin rocketeer and a rifleman. There should be two Marines in the hole, but in the bright moonlight, he sees three heads silhouetted against the sky. He slides down into the hole and finds the commander of the entire Afghanistan invasion force, Brigadier General Jim Mattis leaning against a wall of sandbags, chatting with the sergeant and lance corporal like they are all just buddies waiting in the chow line.
Fick writes about this encounter in his book One Bullet Away.
Fick continues, “General Mattis asked the men if they had any complaints. ‘Just one, sir. We haven’t been north to kill anything yet.’
Mattis patted him on the shoulder. I had heard that he was old school, that he valued raw aggression more than any other quality in his troops. ‘You will, young man. You will. The first time these bastards run into United States Marines, I want it to be the most traumatic experience of their miserable lives.’ ”
6,800 miles west, in New York City, it is 6 PM. The finest restaurants light their ovens for tonight’s feasts of duck, lobster and kobe beef. Bottles of expensive wine are dusted and displayed.
In his Fifth Avenue skyscraper office, Donald Trump is being interviewed by a reporter as he looks from his office window toward the broken teeth that was until very recently the World Trade Center, the iconic signature of Manhattan’s skyline. He smoothes the handmade pink silk tie that accents his gleaming black suit against his chest, a comforting gesture against the dark thoughts coming from his view of the destruction.
He tells the reporter,
Examples of Heroes
At Forward Operating Base Rhino, Afghanistan, General Mattis made plans to significantly alter the character of some of the people who lived there. He told his Marines, “. . . destroy the enemy’s sense of security and shatter his will.” – ironically the change of character Osama bin Laden sought for the people of America. But instead of cowering, Americans decided they wanted to taste revenge while it was still hot. They sent the gunfighter Mattis to kill bin Laden and all of his friends.
As the pace escalated for the assault on bin Laden’s caves at Tora Bora, Central Command threw Mattis a curve in the middle of his meticulously planned operation. They ordered him to limit the number of his Marines and sailors to 1,000. Responding coolly that there are already 1,078 personnel on deck, and more on the way, he effectively ignored the order.
In the twelve-week assault on Tora Bora, bin Laden escaped to Pakistan with the help of America’s Pakistani allies. Yet, just five months after 9/11, in spite of the “…managerial incompetence.” of Central Command and betrayal by his allies, Mattis succeeded in executing one the most difficult and complex operations ever attempted. He achieved the deepest insertion of assault forces in Marine Corps history and toppled the battle-hardened, numerically superior Taliban with very few American casualties. He did all of this with a headquarters staff of just 32 Marines, less than one-tenth the size anticipated by Pentagon war planners.
Hero Short Story
Some people seem to think that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was just Donald Trump’s attack dog – a calm, obedient pitbull that the President kept well fed and on a short leash. The well-fed part is certainly true since Trump added $133 billion or 23% to the defense budget. But as far as keeping Mattis on a short leash? The truth was just the opposite.
In fact, Trump gave Mattis nearly complete freedom to achieve America’s military objectives as he, Mattis, saw fit. Case in point, ISIS. Nearly the first act of the Trump administration, after selecting Mattis as the first cabinet member, was to put the destruction of ISIS entirely into Mattis’s hands. The soft-spoken general then gave a brief statement to the press explaining that America’s policy toward ISIS was no longer “attrition” but was now “annihilation” echoing his famous quip during the first battle for Fallujah in 2003, “There is only one retirement plan for terrorists.”
After he announced ISIS’s death sentence, the general quietly slipped out of sight. He surfaced in the media again just 3 months later when Iraqi forces supported by American advisors and air power had crushed ISIS in its capitol city of Raqqa and decimated its ranks. Without fanfare, or claiming any credit for the victory, Mattis simply stated the considerations in destroying the remaining ISIS elements that had scattered into Syria, “You have to play this thing very carefully,” Mattis said. “The closer we get, the more complex it gets.”
Apparently Mattis was an attack dog that understood several levels of complexity in the Middle East, an achievement that obviously eluded several previous administrations. He was also obviously an attack dog that didn’t bark and barely even growled. He just bit. And this kept everyone nervous, providing excellent leverage in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy negotiations.
Mattis remained in Trump’s administration when so many others had been pushed out for only one reason – he won – and for good measure left the glory of his achievements to others.
This humble and deeply thoughtful man chose a path in life that brought him into mortal combat with the most barbaric evil of our time – Islamist terrorism. Yet he continued to defeat it with insight, humor, fighting courage and fierce compassion – not only for his fellow Marines who volunteered to follow him through hell’s front door, but for the innocent victims of war.
He encouraged his beloved Marines in Iraq, “Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit.” He spoke plainly, from his heart, a warning to 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.”
The martial and personal values examined here have elevated James Mattis to the highest levels of public acclaim. They have earned him the trust of his Marines and many fellow Americans. We have profited both from his service and his example.