What You Need to Know About General Mattis


Wesley Smith

January 12, 2017

6 min read

National Security



One of the first announced nominations by President-elect Donald Trump following his election in November was that of retired General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense.  Along with retired General John Kelly as Director of Homeland Security and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, these three career military professionals will have profound influence in shaping our nation’s military strategy and foreign policy.

General Mattis was unequivocally dedicated for 44 years of service to our nation’s men and women in uniform and their families.  While initially enlisting in the Marines with a high school education, he later went to college and rose from the rank of private to four-star general; he is known to have a scholarly approach to military strategy and is extremely well read.  His personal library reportedly contains thousands of volumes.  He readily quotes history and poetry and has a cult-like following from those in the military.  His candid and colorful quips are legendary, as is his deeply felt care for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.  For example, Mattis, as a one-star (brigadier) general who never married, once sent a young Marine home on Christmas Eve so he could be with his family; General Mattis took his place and pulled duty for the night.

Under federal law, former military personnel must be out of the service for seven years before they can serve as Secretary of Defense. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on January 10, 2017 to discuss granting a waiver for Mattis, something that has only been done once in the last 70 years. At that hearing, in discussing the history of the law and the concept of preserving the separation between military and civilian roles at the Pentagon, Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies, spoke in favor of the waiver.  Cohen stated that Mattis would be “a stabilizing and moderating force” in the government.  Cohen further stated that General Mattis would be key in “preventing wildly stupid, dangerous or illegal things from happening.”  While General Mattis is sometimes referred to as “Mad Dog Mattis” (a moniker the general dislikes) Cohen dismissed the nickname as inaccurate and referred to Mattis as careful and prudent.

Since the waiver will need approval under normal legislative rules, supporters will need at least eight Democrats in the Senate to achieve the 60 votes needed to advance the measure.  Both Houses of Congress are expected to act on the waiver in coming weeks, possibly before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. That could put a confirmation vote for Mattis on the calendar later this month, installing him as the head of the Pentagon within hours or days of Trump taking office. Already the Senate Armed Services Committee has overwhelmingly voted in favor (24-3) of the waiver.

General Mattis is known to be a no-nonsense straight shooter.  During the presidential campaign, following comments supportive of waterboarding by then Candidate Trump, Mattis informed Trump that it is not only torture–it is also not the most effective way to get information from captured terrorists.  And yet Mattis is blunt about the reality of Radical Islamic Terrorism and pulls no punches when it comes to national defense and the use of military force.

General Mattis is expected to face tough questioning on his past comments about Iran, his views on rebuilding the military and Trump’s campaign trail comments on a number of national security issues.

For example, Mattis wanted to strike Iran in retaliation for killing U.S. troops in Iraq in 2011; however, President Obama refused to grant permission.

Iranian-supplied rockets killed as many as 15 U.S. troops per month in Iraq in the summer of 2011, and Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis had a plan to retaliate.  I personally recall from my years of duty in Casualty Affairs at Dover Air Force Base during this same time period, that, along with the casualties from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices with “shaped charges” provided by Iran that could penetrate our armored vehicles) the rockets killed many U.S. troops.  We were receiving the bodies of U.S. service members virtually every day, along with thousands of family members who came to Dover for the ceremonies honoring their loved ones.

Six U.S. soldiers were killed in a single such attack in early June of 2011, with another three killed days later. Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, had enough and decided the U.S. must retaliate before the Iranian rockets and IEDs caused further casualties. Coordinating with then Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, Mattis proposed an attack inside Iran.

The plan was to send a clear message to the Iranian government that providing rockets and IEDs to its Shiite proxy insurgents inside Iraq was not going to be tolerated. Mattis recommended a nighttime strike against a power plant or oil refinery within Iranian territory.

The White House received the strike proposal and subsequently denied it. President Barack Obama believed such a strike would infuriate the Iranians, possibly escalating the need for U.S. troops in Iraq, something he was trying so desperately to end. Some Administration insiders feared the plan would start a war with Iran, a country with which President Obama wanted to improve relations.

Of course, now we know President Obama had another reason to deny the strike request, though it was not publicly known.  At the time, the Obama Administration was secretly negotiating with Iran on its growing nuclear weapons program. A direct strike on Iran would likely scuttle the secret talks.  President Obama really wanted to make a deal with the Iranians and was willing to go to great lengths to get a deal, even if the deal was flawed.

General Mattis is a selfless and tireless professional.  Part of the tradition of having a civilian in control of the military stems from the fact that the Secretary of Defense does not command troops in the field.  The President’s Combatant Commanders do that.  The primary role of the Secretary of Defense is to advise the President on national security matters, to shape military strategy and force alignment, and control the military budget as he interfaces with the Senate, the House of Representatives, and various defense industries.  Most former Secretaries of Defense had some military service.  The fact that General Mattis has not been out of uniform for seven years should not prohibit this dedicated, intelligent, and seasoned veteran from serving his country as Secretary of Defense.

UPDATE: General Mattis' waiver has just passed the full Senate. Now it moves on to the House of Representatives.