'Warrior Monk' General Up For Central Command Post

The Senate Armed Services Committee will consider Tuesday Gen. James Mattis' nomination to head U.S. Central Command.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will consider Tuesday Gen. James Mattis' nomination to head U.S. Central Command. Kris Connor/Getty Images

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis' nomination is being considered Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is likely to face questions about remarks he made in 2005 about killing members of the Taliban.

The man nominated to replace Gen. David Petraeus as the commander of U.S. Central Command, overseeing both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not known for mincing words.

During a speech in 2005, Gen. James Mattis, whose nomination is being considered Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke publicly about how much he enjoyed killing the enemy. But the blunt talk that has gotten him in trouble in the past is what endears him to the troops he commands.

No Mincing Words

In spring 2004, four U.S. defense contractors had been killed and mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq. Instead of using tactical strikes to retaliate, the Marines, led by Mattis, were ordered to conduct a major assault on the city to wrest control from insurgents.

"He launched an offensive and then was told, 'Stop doing it,' " said Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of the book Fiasco, in which he details an angry exchange between Mattis and his commanding officer at the time, Gen. John Abizaid.

"And what he said to Gen. Abizaid, and I'm quoting, 'If you're going to take Vienna, take f------ Vienna.' It was typical Mattis to quote Napoleon in a really profane way."

That same colorful language has gotten Mattis in trouble.

Generating Controversy

"Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight," he said in a 2005 speech in San Diego about killing members of the Taliban. "It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I like brawling."

Mattis was taken to the woodshed for those remarks.

Just last month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded military operations in Afghanistan, was fired for inappropriate comments he made to a Rolling Stone reporter about members of the Obama administration. The comments by Mattis in 2005 were about the enemy, not his civilian leaders, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Mattis has learned from his mistake.

"I think the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned," Gates said. "Obviously, in the wake of the Rolling Stone interview, we discussed this kind of thing."

But Gates said Mattis has the judgment and intellect to do the job. Mattis, a bachelor whom friends call the 'warrior monk' for his devotion to the military, is known to carry books of Roman philosophy with him on every combat mission. He has a personal library of 6,000 books that he insists on taking with him from post to post. But beyond the books and bravado is a general who can connect with his troops.

Popular Among Troops

Former Marine Capt. Seth Moulton describes a speech that he heard Mattis give in Kuwait right before the Iraq war.

"He talked to us about how he would like to be the one to capture Saddam Hussein and how to deal with our girlfriends and our friends if we went home and they disagreed with the war and didn't respect our service -- the kinds of problems that we could see ourselves having.

"And I think we all left that speech really ready to go."

After the war started, Mattis offered this frank advice to his troops: "Be polite," he said, "be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."

Moulton said it's refreshing to have a leader who speaks the truth and isn't constrained by politics.

"To have a leader who has this reputation for not being politically correct, for speaking his mind and telling the truth about what's happening on the ground -- that means a lot," Moulton said. "That means a lot when you're following someone like that into battle."

Leading troops into battle is what Mattis does. In March 2003, he wrote a letter to all forces under his command, telling them to "engage your brain before you engage your weapon.

"Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit. Demonstrate to the world there is no better friend, no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine."

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