James Mattis the Teacher

I guess that in this day and age, we shouldn’t be surprised that a high school student was able to obtain Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s cell phone number and call him up for an interview. But should we be surprised that Mattis accepted the call and then answered a series of questions? Those who know him are not. That’s the kind of man he is: a natural teacher who admires his fellow citizens. His respectful responses to the student’s questions and his lack of condescension are earmarks of the man.

Here’s a similar story. When I was teaching at the Naval War College, a young lieutenant commander in the intermediate course was working on a project examining how to conduct military operations in a “degraded” operational environment, i.e., how does a unit carry out its mission when communications don’t work, when the satellites upon which the military depends are blinded, when friction and the fog of uncertainty in war completely engulf the commander and his staff.

I had just seen Mattis, who at that time was the commander of Joint Forces Command, an organization that was examining this question. I sent him an email describing what the student was doing and asked him if there was someone on his staff that I might have the student contact. That’s what I was expecting. That’s what most very busy generals would do. But the next day, the student stopped me in the passageway.

“Sir,” he said, almost awestruck. “General Mattis called me last night and offered to give me any help I need.”

With all the references to “Mad Dog” and the like (an appellation he doesn’t like, by the way; it was given to him by his Marines when he commanded 1st Marine Division during the “march up” to Baghdad in 2003. I believe that the only people who should be allowed to call him that are the Marines he commanded then), the fact is Mattis was a tough but compassionate commander. On the one hand, he relieved a regimental commander whom he believed was not pushing hard enough. On the other, he took care of the troops.

For instance, in The March Up, an account of the 1st MarDiv’s operation in Iraq, Bing West and Ray Smith describe how Mattis ”led from the front” in order to maintain situational awareness. On one occasion, he pulled his vehicle to a stop as hot, tired Marines marched past. He offered water to a particularly weary Marine, who gratefully accepted and said, “thanks, man”—apparently so focused on advancing that he did not recognize his division commander.

The high school student’s interview illustrates something about Mattis that more people need to know. He takes education seriously. That was always apparent in his talks at Newport. Nothing irritated the War College students more than a general or admiral who tried to get away with delivering the “chamber of commerce speech.” Most of the general and flag officers who addressed the students at the Naval War College did a good job. But Mattis always stood out. He first spoke to the War College student body as a brigadier general after his successful operation that inserted Marines into Afghanistan in 2001. He always referred to the students as “my fine young officers” and he never disappointed in his talks. The teacher in him always came through as clearly as the hard-charging Marine. He was the true soldier-scholar.

And he loves his fellow citizens. Several years ago, the late Peter Schramm visited me in Newport. I invited him to my traditional Wednesday afternoon gathering of War College faculty and students that I jokingly called the “Mudville Study Group,” in honor of the pub where we met. I had also invited Jim Mattis, who stopped by. Schramm wrote a lengthy account of the meeting, but this passage in particular illustrates his ability to size up a man.

You would not mistake this man for a Roman, or a Russian, or even an English general. An entirely American character, he is disposed to look at things from the inside rather than from without, and certainly not to look down on those of us he is sworn to protect. He understands that in this country all men may rise, that distinction is based only on merit; and he demonstrates gratitude for the opportunity to labor in his field.

Schramm nailed it. And as his response to the high school student shows, the last thing Jim Mattis would ever do is “look down on those of us he is sworn to protect.”


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