“If You Don’t Read… You’ll Fill Body Bags” — Jim Mattis
Last December, former U.S. Marine Corps General Jim Mattis resigned as Secretary of Defense under President Trump. Official Washington cheered. Anything that diminishes Trump tends to please the D.C. Swamp people. Thus, the abrupt departure of a cabinet official was politically upbeat.
“You have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours,” wrote Mattis to Trump. “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
Pundits loved it; misaligned views! When a combat Marine nicknamed “Mad Dog” can’t play in the sandbox with Trump, what does that say about our President?
After Mattis left the Pentagon, word came that he was writing a book. Again, more glee from Trump opponents. Anticipation was palpable. Mattis would dish dirt on Orange Man.
In September, Mattis’s book came out. It’s written with the able assistance of former Marine and long-time and military writer Bing West. Immediately, the book rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
What did Mattis say about Trump? How bad was it for the former general, dedicated to country and service, laboring under Trump’s lash?
I’ll give away the ending. Mattis wrote almost nothing about Trump in the book.
Instead, Mattis wrote a readable biography of his Marine Corps career. The book covers Mattis’s service from the post-Vietnam 1970s through his ouster by President Obama in 2013. There’s a bit about the Cold War, and quite a bit about warfighting in the Middle East since 1990.
Only in the second-to-last page of his book does Mattis mention – in passing – that in January 2017, he “walked into the Secretary of Defense’s office” to take command of the U.S. armed forces, as SecDef to Trump.
But that’s it. No dirt on Trump from Mattis.
Nor is there any mention of Mattis’s post-retirement work with the failed biotech firm Theranos. (A future book, perhaps; if not depositions in future lawsuits…)
Mattis simply lays out the tale of his life. He’s legendary, after all.
By reputation, Mattis is a “Warrior Monk.” I never met him, but as far back as the 1990s we Navy guys knew about Mattis. He was one of a smallish group of hot-running Marines who never married, lived Spartan lives and concentrated on perfecting the art of war.
In his book, the now-retired Warrior Monk dishes on the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. With subtle candor – you may have to read between the lines – Marine Mattis unloads on three decades of incompetent, politicized, military-grade idiocy emanating from many top levels of U.S. leadership.
Indeed, fur flies as Mattis narrates key events over the past 30 years. And this is likely why Mattis’s book has received so little top-shelf billing in mainstream media.
Most senior military officers are formed by experiences as junior officers. Mattis began with the standard Marine Corps grinder of commissioning, “Basic School” and rigorous assignments. It’s all highly competitive, and early years for Marines are a time of weeding-out.
Mattis trained in the U.S. and overseas with allies. He kept his mouth shut and ears open, as he listened and learned from more senior Marines; particularly non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers who had paid hard dues in Vietnam. With Mattis, the Marine warfighting ethos took hold.
Whether you’re a Marine for four years or forty, the same skill set pertains. “Were you physically fit? Were you tactically sound? Could you call in artillery fire? Could you adapt quickly to change? Did your platoon respond to you? Could you lead by example? You had to be as tough as your troops.” (pg. 7)
Meanwhile, Mattis was a reader. Unmarried, he passed his time absorbing books about military history. Plus, biography, geopolitics, technology, field tactics, large-scale operations, strategy and more. Per Mattis, his personal library numbers over two thousand volumes.
Mattis writes, “Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or historian who – a decade or a thousand years ago – set aside time to write. … We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years; it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated experiences.” (pg. 42)
Mattis pulls no punches. “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”
Here’s the bottom line from Mattis. “Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way. The consequences of incompetence in battle are final.”
In 1990-91, then-lieutenant colonel Mattis commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (1/7) during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Mattis gives a fine narrative of his unit’s role in the first Iraq campaign.
Mattis writes of tough living in the sweltering desert, making tactical plans to support a complex operation and waging war against a well-armed, cunning foe with capabilities not-quite known.
Post-war, as the 1990s unfolded, Mattis returned to the U.S. and worked in the Pentagon. He was executive secretary to then SecDef William Perry, and later William Cohen. The job can best be described as drinking water from a fully-charged firehose.
In his Pentagon role, Mattis sifted paperwork, read thousands of pages, briefed the boss and kept him on schedule, traveled wherever was required, and generally worked like a galley slave to keep the Pentagon’s top levels of bureaucracy on the rails. It’s one way to learn the innards of the U.S. war machine.
Then came 9/11. Mattis was soon on an airplane to the Middle East. From a headquarters in the Persian Gulf, Mattis planned a bold operation to insert Marines into Afghanistan and knock the tar out of Taliban forces.
With admirable efficiency, Mattis moved Marines in southern Afghanistan. By late 2001, Mattis’s Marines were in position to move north, trap Osama bin Laden and kill off significant cadre of Taliban followers.
But a poisonous mix of Washington bureaucracy and hard-headed, distant Central Command staff kept Mattis’s Marines out of the fight at Tora Bora. Bin Laden escaped.
Bluntly, Mattis lists names. He opines about how recent global history might have been different had events in Afghanistan unfolded per his plans.
Later, Mattis narrates the second war in Iraq, with the 2003 invasion and beyond. He details initial planning, combat and the conquest. Then, he unloads on the strategic incompetence of U.S. war planners in Washington and high-level commanders.
Post-war, Iraqi forces surrendered in droves to U.S. and allies. The U.S. military quickly set up a system to keep Iraqi forces under control and stabilize the country.
Then out of the blue, U.S. “Proconsul” of Iraq, Paul Bremer, screwed it up royally. “Without consulting our military commanders in the field,” Mattis writes, “Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army and banned most members of the Baath Party from government positions.” (pg. 113)
Within days, hundreds of thousands of embittered, humiliated Iraqi machine gunners, mortar-men and sappers were wandering the countryside, turning a recently-conquered state into a veritable snake pit for occupying forces. The rest is history, written in blood and treasure.
Mattis describes more of the story in Iraq, and back in the U.S.
Over time, Mattis rose to the most senior of ranks, a 4-star general running Central Command. He oversaw Iraq and Afghanistan. He knew the situations in both places, and worked to carry out politically fuzzy, oft-ignorant guidance from civilian bosses in Washington.
As an example of the foregoing, Mattis devotes an entire chapter (Ch. 15) of his book to the efforts of the Obama administration with Iraq and Afghanistan. The title of the section is telling; “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory.”
Specifically, Mattis describes the lack of geopolitical savvy with then-Vice President Biden. “He (Biden) didn’t want to hear more (about Iraq.) … He exuded the confidence of a man whose mind was made up, perhaps even indifferent to considering the consequences were he judging the situation incorrectly.” (Pg. 207).
Towards the end of his book, Mattis mulls the strategic implications of the U.S. effort in the Middle East over the past 25 years. He praises the internationalism, and lays out how the concept is in the best long-term interests of the U.S. But he also describes how the “global” idea has been corrupted by the Washington Swamp.
Mattis is no proponent of “nation building,” nor imposing Western-style democracy on less developed cultures. As a long-time Marine, it’s lives of U.S. and allied troops about which he truly cares. And he means it when it comes to working with partners. “Nations with allies thrive; nations without allies wither.”
One key point left out of Mattis’s book – surprising, considering other work by co-author Bing West – is the “tribal” nature of Middle Eastern culture and politics. The place is filled with tribes, and that’s a key point on which to base strategy, operations and tactics.
In other words, when U.S. forces drop from the sky, the Americans are just another powerful, invading tribe; it’s been happening there over many centuries. Eventually, outsiders will tire of spending money and losing lives, and depart.
Indeed, there’s an Afghan saying along the lines that “U.S. soldiers wear wrist watches, but Afghans have all the time in the world.” And that idea is valid across the Middle East.
The U.S. has been deeply involved in the Middle East for three decades and more. Mattis spent nearly his entire senior military career either fighting in the sandbox, preparing and training to fight there, or overseeing the fighters.
It’s good that Mattis has read so much about military history. It’s good that he wrote a book. And he comes across as a man whose knowledge and wisdom led to fewer body bags. Now, if only more people would take that example to heart…
And on that note, I rest my case.
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Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder