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Op-ed: General James N. Mattis – A Marine for the History Books

US Marine Corps (USMC) Major General (MGEN) James N. Mattis, Commanding General, 1ST Marine Division, speaks during the DivisionΘs Fallen Marines Memorial Service, held aboard Marine Corps Base (MCB), Twentynine Palms, California (CA). (LCPL Christopher R. Rye/U.S. Marine Corps)
December 09, 2016

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General James Mattis is quite possibly the most qualified man to ever be appointed Secretary of Defense. He is an infantryman, United States Marine, and a combat-tested leader with deep strategic wisdom and the patience of Job. He also has wide experience working with the civilian side of the Pentagon and is loved by every Marine who ever served with him.

I first heard of Jim Mattis when I was doing research for my first book, The Gulf War Chronicles: A Military History of the First War with Iraq (2008). During Desert Storm, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Mattis commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, part of Task Force Ripper. Mattis’ battalion sprinted north into Kuwait with Task Force Ripper and led the charge to liberate Kuwait City.

I did not hear of Mattis again until I started working on my second book entitled Marines in the Garden of Eden: The True Story of Seven Bloody Days in Iraq (2006). Mattis was promoted to colonel after Desert Storm and given command of the 7th Marine Regiment, and went on to serve as the Executive Secretary to the Department of Defense. Once promoted to brigadier general, Mattis became the Senior Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. He would later command the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Task Force 58 during Operation Enduring Freedom in southern Afghanistan.

In the 2003 invasion, Major General James Mattis (whose call sign was “Chaos”) commanded the 1st Marine Division in its march to Baghdad. He brilliantly led his division inland deeper than any Marine force had ever operated and beat the US Army in the race to Baghdad. Once the fighting subsided there, the 1st Marine Division returned home. It wasn’t long before the Marines had to go back.

General Mattis and his 1st Marine Division returned to Iraq in April of 2004. No sooner had the Marines arrived than four Blackwater security guards were attacked and brutally beaten, bludgeoned, and burned. Then, their lifeless bodies were dragged through the streets of Fallujah. I wrote about this and much more in New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah (Savas Beatie, 2010). Mattis wanted to quietly hunt down the perpetrators of the gruesome killings, but President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to avoid the potential repeat of the 1993 “Blackhawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, Somalia and insisted the Marines attack and clear the entire city. On April 4, 2004, Mattis ordered the attack into an insurgent hornets’ nest. When the enemy falsely reported that Marines were indiscriminately killing civilians, the fledgling Iraqi government demanded the operation be suspended. After only five days, President Bush ordered a unilateral end to the offensive. Although he knew he was only days away from breaking the enemy’s back inside Fallujah, General Mattis ordered his Marines to stop.

Mattis spent a frustrating spring and summer of 2004 overseeing a strained truce. He withdrew his Marines and turned over responsibility for security inside Fallujah to the newly established “Fallujah Brigade.” The Fallujah Brigade’s failure to maintain security emphasized the need for further American action and galvanized support for that action in the Iraqi national government and Washington, but it would take months before the senior leadership in Washington agreed. By that time General Mattis had been reassigned and the job of defeating the enemy in Fallujah fell to the 1st Marine Division’s next commanding general, Richard F. Natonski. The large scale bloody second fight for Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury) was fought and won in November-December 2004.

After his service in Iraq, General Mattis served as the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development; the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Commander; the Commander of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command; NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander; U.S. Joint Forces Commander; and finally, the Commander of U.S. Central Command.

President-elect Donald J. Trump made a wise choice for Secretary of Defense. Our defense establishment knows it, our allies know it, and more importantly, our enemies know it.

Richard S. Lowry is an internationally recognized military historian and author. He has recently finished his first novel, Code Name: Scarlet. His last non-fiction book, New Dawn, the Battles for Fallujah, was nominated for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History. Richard has previously published the award winning Marines in the Garden of Eden, The Gulf War Chronicles, and US Marine in Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom. Richard has dedicated himself to telling the stories of America’s sons and daughters at war in the Middle East and has established himself as an expert on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a distinguished historian and a captivating writer.