Donald Trump's pick to lead the Pentagon and the fight against ISIS is a blunt and unapologetic militarist who doesn't shy from talking about killing.
In James Mattis, the president-elect has chosen a retired Marine general revered for his battlefield leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan, signaling the premium the incoming administration puts on military leaders who aren’t afraid to talk tough.
"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they don't wear a veil," Mattis told an audience in San Diego in 2005. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."
Beyond his tough guy exterior, Mattis, who earned the nickname “Mad Dog” during his four decades as a U.S. Marine officer, is renowned as a Middle East military strategist and early proponent of counterinsurgency tactics, which he later employed as the head of U.S. Central Command after replacing Army Gen. David Petraeus in 2010.
To be confirmed, lawmakers will need to approve a waiver for the retired officer, who only left the service three years ago and under the seven years required by law. Mattis is well known on Capitol Hill, but his selection is also a break from decades of precedent and has raised concerns about placing a recently retired general, rather than a civilian, in charge of the armed forces. The last general to lead the Pentagon served six decades ago.
“General Mattis has served the United States tirelessly, with admirable distinction. However, the unusual circumstances of his nomination raise serious questions about fundamental principles of our Constitutional order,” Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a Friday statement. “Civilian control of the military is not something to be casually cast aside. So while I like and respect General Mattis a great deal, the House of Representatives would have to perform a full review.”
Mattis, 66, declined to comment for this article in a Friday evening email.
The pick also follows through on Trump’s pledges to intensify the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and to heed the advice of former military commanders, some of whom backed him on the campaign trail after Republican national security strategists deserted him.
Mattis' career is legendary. He led the first Marine forces into Afghanistan in November 2001. A year later, he was in charge of the 1st Marine Division, which invaded Iraq from Kuwait in early 2003; this was later dramatized in the HBO series, “Generation Kill.”
Mattis was an early proponent of the then-heterodox counterinsurgency doctrine, which aims to isolate and defeat militants by separating them from the populace by improving their security and infrastructure — that is, winning civilians' "hearts and minds" to deprive militants of their support.
Early in the war in Iraq, Mattis issued an ultimatum to Iraqi leaders in the areas his forces were patrolling — "I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all," Mattis was quoted as saying in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks.
It’s interactions like this that earned Mattis’ reputation as a warrior-monk who is philosophical about the smart use of violence. One of his famous aphorisms: “Be polite, be professional but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
Defense experts hailed Mattis as a pragmatist and battle-hardened leader who’s smart enough to recognize areas where he needs to develop more expertise, such as weapons acquisition or growing challenges in regions outside the Middle East.
“I see him as a person who understands and can passionately explain all aspects of military operations, from the close fight to more ‘nation-building’ activities, and also a general who is smart enough to have a pretty good handle on when each type of effort is appropriate,” Michael O’Hanlon, an influential defense expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email. “I think he’s a smart choice.”
Mattis also was OK’d by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who flashed a thumbs up in response to a question about Mattis’ selection as Gates was entering Trump Tower Friday in New York.
Mattis is a career warfighter, but it remains unclear how adept he’ll be at leading a sprawling bureaucracy that spends $580 billion a year. That will need to increase substantially to achieve the military build-up Trump has promised, let alone the expensive recapitalization of the nuclear forces that top defense officials are pushing for.
His nomination is also a marked departure from the backgrounds of his predecessors. If confirmed, he would be the first general to lead the Pentagon since George Marshall six decades ago. Mattis would take over from Ash Carter, a PhD theoretical physicist known for his expertise managing expensive, cutting-edge weapons development.
Mattis retired in 2013 from his post running the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He became a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and an high-profile advocate for suicide prevention to stem the toll among veterans. He did not campaign for Trump.
Yet Mattis appears to have wielded some influence over his soon-to-be boss, the billionaire businessman who got multiple deferments for military service during the Vietnam war.
Trump campaigned on a pledge to expose suspected terrorists and military prisoners to treatment he called “a hell of a lot worse” than the simulated drowning of waterboarding, a so-called enhanced interrogation technique that critics say is torture.
In one of his transition meetings, Trump asked the retired general for his opinion on waterboarding.
“I said, what do you think of waterboarding?” Trump said in a Nov. 22 interview with The New York Times. “He said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy.”