Dear Partners in thought,
I would like to tell you about a modest and highly able man who stands out – literally – as the senior beacon of wisdom in the Trump Administration and the reason why we probably can also sleep a bit better at night. I would like to tell you about James Mattis, the U.S. Marine Corps General who presides over the Department of Defense since January 2017. “No better friend, no worse enemy” is a book by author Jim Proser, who is a familiar fixture of the American military having written in 2011 “I am staying with my boys” which is still on the Marine Corps’s Commandant Professional Reading List.
JM conveys a mix of seriousness (easily gained from looking at him; I would not want to cross that man), balance and resolve as demonstrated by his line to the enemy in the Ambar province of Iraq a few years ago: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But I am pleading with you, with tears in my eyes. Fuck with me and I will kill you all”.
From day one of his nomination, I only heard good things about Jim Mattis, including from Democratic friends who have known him personally and were despairing about Team Trump. JM was the first presidential cabinet nominee who also received unanimous bipartisan congressional support, which was an oddity amidst the hyper-partisan environment following the 2016 presidential elections. The book is about the qualities of the man behind the role and attributes such as humility, deep thoughtfulness, courage, insight, humour, fierce compassion and experience in the real trenches facing all enemies. “No better friend, no worse enemy” is not just the title of a book. It is the motto of the First U.S. Marine Corps Division drawn from the Roman general Lucius Marcellus Sulla who once said: “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full”.
Jim Mattis is a composite of George Patton and Omar Bradley, the famed warriors of the Western European front in WWII – the Yin and the Yang, the hussar and the planner. JM is seen today as the leading military commander in post-WWII together with David Petraeus, who was also once revered for his Roman classicism (down to his name) and new breed of warfare though fell from grace as he was only too human and kept showing he indeed was – in a more acceptable sense – when he joined the world of private equity as a senior adviser to KKR.
The book depicts JM’s life from his childhood in Richland in the State of Washington (his father was working as a power plant operator at the nearby top-secret Hanford nuclear facility and his mother Lucille, a homemaker as they said then had been a U.S. Army intelligence officer, thus providing a background from which to discover a path). JM graduated from high school in 1968, which was an epic time for the young and restless generation (on the Berkeley campus as in the Quartier Latin in Paris) and their bewildered post-WWII parents. He was also growing up in the midst of the Vietnam War when young men were drafted. His Richland friends were not war protesters and simply enjoyed the local doughnut shop, movie theatre and their Columbia High School in the usual tradition of kids there. He joined the ROTC (or Reserve Officer Training Corps) when he attended Central Washington University while not thinking about joining the military at the time. As a sophomore (second year) he walked into a Marine Corps recruitment office (like in the movies) and signed up for the Marines’ Platoon Leaders Course at the same time as the Tet offensive in Vietnam that killed 10,000 American soldiers and Marines. He decides to pursue his higher education through the Corps, now wearing the Prussian “high and tight” haircut marking him as one of “the few good men” and at a time when “baby killers” are screamed throughout the U.S. including at returning soldiers at airports. He gains a Master’s degree in History from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, especially enjoying the readings of Sun Tzu. While he will not fight in Vietnam, he will be in the military after the 1975 fall of Saigon and feels the trauma of defeat which was not an American experience before Vietnam. In 1978, Captain JM takes command of the Third Marine Battalion of Kilo Company of the Third Marine Division working under men who had fought in Vietnam. He leaves the classroom for good and starts “deploying” mostly in the Far East staying with troops on bases in Asian ally countries in the midst of the Cold War. He is part of the men mobilised by President Carter in response to the Iranian uprising and Teheran Embassy seizure but the forces never go into action following the loss of the two helicopters in a failed Operation Eagle Claw rescue mission that brings down the morale of the troops.
Mattis would never marry but is known to be a “Ladies’ gentleman” (I am still doing research on the meaning of that). There was a girl, Alice, whom he met in Hawaii during a deployment, who said after a nice romance that she would marry him if he left the Corps, not feeling she could bear the month-long deployment of her young Marine officer husband. JM started going through resignation procedures though his fellow Marines stopped him, lobbying Alice to change her mind as his future was deemed by them too bright. Alice agreed and a wedding date was set. After another deployment, JM comes back and, while working on catering arrangements, receives the news that his bride-to-be has reconsidered, not wanting to go through the waiting game of a Marine’s wife’s life. In July 1881, JM is promoted to Major and goes to the Pacific Northwest. He will never marry anyone but the Corps.
The book is not for everybody as it is for a great part quite military-flavoured. The book navigates back and forth through his life and the Operation Iraqi Freedom showing us the extricate details – at times hour by hour – of how the Marines took Baghdad and what JM did during the long (though they did not know it then) occupation phase. If we remember that early military phase of the war back in 2003 there was that feeling of a walk in the park, enhanced by the Hollywood-like pioneering (and brave) embedded media reporting as if part of a TV reality show. It was of course not a walk in the park but the swift result of excruciating preparation and faultless delivery largely due to the leadership of men like JM (one would have liked that this glorious episode of U.S. military history had stopped there and that the occupation morass been avoided). The book, due to its detailed description about military action may not be for everybody without an interest for the matter though it is also the best way to get to know JM through what he was actually doing until 2013 when he retired from active duty. He was involved in the two Iraq wars – as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1990 and a multiply starred general in 2003 and beyond. Back from Iraq I he worked as Marine Recruiting Station in Portland not that far from his childhood state, “recalling the raucous pub crawls through ports of calls with the 3/3 with fondness and amusement” (somehow not what you think that JM would do). He enrols in the Marine Corps Command and Staff College moving to Quantico, Virginia (also home to the FBI training grounds), writing a dissertation on “Amphibious Raids: An Historical Imperative for Today’s Marines” both pointing to America’s growing confidence in President Reagan and arguing that Marines should expand their historical role as warriors from the sea, a tenet that is yet once tested by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the need to deploy massive American military assets to a new theatre that will mark the country forever. We go through the whole Iraqi campaign led by the memorable and colourful duet of Generals Norman “Storming” Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell under the prism of Task Force Ripper with yet again an hour by hour account of the deployment of the American and allied invasion force. JM enjoys a hero’s welcome when he returns, as all American soldiers do while George HW Bush basks in the highest, never equalled, presidential poll rating in the history of poll ratings (Who would have thought that an obscure Arkansan governor from the opposite party would unseat him a few months later?).
We also learn interesting facts in the book such as that Osama bin Laden had offered King Fahd to help push Saddam out of Kuwait with his 100,000 devout Muslim fighters (pre-Al Qaeda, even if the number looks huge) but was rejected in favour of the Americans by the Saudi King, this leading ObL to never forgive his king and eventually side with the defiant Iraqi strongman and visionary of an Islamic caliphate, devoting his life to Jihad with the consequences we know. After Iraq 1, Lieutenant Colonel JM goes in May 1991 back to Quantico to be the assistant to the head of the Marine Corps Enlisted Assignment Branch, which we learn is the nerve center of the Marine Corps, “where the big decisions are made in relation to recruiting”, which he will lead within a year. We go through the period marked by the 1993 bombing of the WTC, while JM graduates from the War College. We then go through the gradual increase in terrorist attacks such as the June 1996 Al Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia marking the beginning of such attacks that will see the US embassy in Kenya and the USS Cole being targeted, all these events leading to 9-11. We know the following stories centred first on Afghanistan right after 9-11 and in March 2003 with operation Iraqi Freedom which will see again the Marine Corps and JM going back to a well known theatre. These events area also described with an angle on the arduous relationship between the Department of Defense (Don Rumsfeld) and the military commanders. In 2007, JM became Commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command and, replacing David Petraeus, Commander of the U.S. Central Command. Iraq will take the last ten years of JM until he retires in March 2013 after 41 years of service in the Marine Corps.
A few months following his retirement JM was invited by the young entrepreneurial prodigy turned infamous fraudster Elizabeth Holmes to join the supervisory board of Theranos (read my book note on the excellent “Bad Blood”), together wth former secretaries of state George Schultz and Henry Kissinger as well as former secretary of defense William Perry, former Senator Sam Nunn, former Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich and Riley Bechtel, Chairman of the Becthel engineering group. This is the dark spot for JM as if he was no longer as good outside the confines of his military environment. He retreats behind the high walls of the Hoover institution and Stanford (incidentally all the Theranos board members with a public sector background were linked with the Hoover Institution). He joins another think tank dealing with public policy and the board of General Dynamics and then the U.S. Naval Institute which look more like the right trenches for the old warrior. He keeps receiving awards (“Semper Fidelis”, also the Marines motto, from the Marine Corps University – which most of us discover the existence), honorary degrees (Doctor of Laws Degree from George Washington College), volunteers for his local food bank back in Washington state, join more boards (The Center for a New American Security, from which he will testify before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee about global challenges and security matters, warning about the growing threat in Iraq). At the Hoover Institution he takes part in a book “Blueprints for America” that is edited by his friend George Schultz and he participates in many college commencement ceremonies and the usual speaking tours. He will co-author “Warriors and Citizens: American Views of our Military”. JM is not actively involved in the 2016 presidential campaign (probably the old soldier’s duty of reserve, which is not the case with former general Mike Flynn as we remember). Late in the campaign as it seems DT might possibly win against Clinton, he gets a call from the campaign team. The rest is history and he is smoothly confirmed as Secretary of Defence. He will agree with DT that there will be no public discussions of American military plans and timetables. JM will go back to Iraq in a different capacity.
The book, while published in 2018, does not touch upon the role of JM as Secretary of Defense or his work relationship with the President. We can speculate as to why this soldier of soldiers, at the pinnacle of glory, decided to accept such a role in such an atypical Administration. It is undeniable and not partisan to recognise that JM and DT are polar opposites in style as well as substance. Did he join as he wanted to still contribute other than “speaking”? Did he join out of fulfilling a great career and finishing it with (one of) the top role(s) in his sphere of expertise? Did he join out of duty, knowing that he could temper the policies and decisions of a very “different” President (the recent books whose accounts seem very plausible given who is the individual focused on have indeed mentioned an assassination order that was ignored by JM). Maybe JM went ahead because of all these combined reasons. We will never know and it is not very important to know. The only memorable exchange we know as it was well covered was when asked by DT whether waterboarding worked, JM replied that it did not work as offering a detainee cigarettes and a beer (also, he could have added, if you wanted solid intelligence not borne out of pain and fear). What is clear to me and many others is that we can sleep better at night knowing the great military might of the U.S. is under control and that we could not have hoped for a better outcome given the odd circumstances.
I dedicate this book note to Adrian, my former “boss” at the greatest, now gone, merchant bank, and a life-long friend, who shares many of the attributes of JM even if working for DT would have been “a bridge too far” (by the way, as we talk “shock and awe” you should all read the recent “Arnheim” book by Sir Anthony Beevor, the great British military historian. I am sure JM will).
Serge Desprat- 15th September, 2018 (Prague)