News and Commentary

Why General James Mattis Inspires Such Devotion In His Men

General James Mattis, who may well be Donald Trump’s pick as Defense Secretary, inspires absolute devotion in the men who have served under him. In a stirring tribute to Mattis titled “I Served With James Mattis. Here’s What I Learned From Him,” Stanton S. Coeer, who served under Mattis when he was a colonel, a major general, and a lieutenant general, illustrates exactly why Mattis evoked such zealous loyalty among his men.

Coeer commences, “Those of us who served with him know that he is a caring, erudite, warfighting general. We also know that there is a reason he uses the call-sign Chaos: he is a lifelong student of his profession, a devotee of maneuver warfare and Sun Tzu, the sort of guy who wants to win without fighting—to cause chaos among those he would oppose. To Marines, he is the finest of our tribal elders. The rest of the world, very soon, will know how truly gifted he is. Our friends and allies will be happy he is our new secretary of war; our enemies will soon wish he weren’t.”

Coeer first imparts what occurred the first time he met Mattis, in July 1994, when Coeer was a captain in Third Battalion, Seventh Marines and Mattis was a colonel and the Seventh Marines regimental commander. Coeer notes, “I was not only just a brand-new captain, but an aviator in an infantry regiment. I was a minor light in the Seventh Marines firmament: I was not in any measure a key player.”

Coeer reminisces that he expected a meeting of five minutes, a cursory greteing and a quick, “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”

Nope. Mattis not only gave Coeer his chair, offering to get him coffee, but took his phone off the hook “and spent more than an hour knee-to-knee with me. Mattis laid out his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals, and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting and where, and how he was getting us ready to do just that. He laid out history, culture, religion, and politics, and he saw very clearly not only where we would fight, but how Seventh Marines, a desert battalion, fit into that fight.”

Coeer comments, “Many years later, when Seventh Marines got into that fight, he was proven precisely right. It would not be the last time.”

Flash forward to February 2003; Mattis, now the commanding general of First Marine Division and a Major General, led a meeting with hundreds of men, who, as Coeer notes, were “firsts among equals, and were almost always the best and often most senior of the young officers in a battalion.”

“The rest of the world, very soon, will know how truly gifted he is. Our friends and allies will be happy he is our new secretary of war; our enemies will soon wish he weren’t.”

Stanton S. Coeer on General James Mattis

The men were going up against the Iraqi 51st Mechanized Division. Coeer states, “They were not the Republican Guard, but had a reputation as having some tough fighters who could shoot straight. The word was that officers were taking all civilian clothes from their men and having them burned, to prevent the conscripts from stripping off their uniforms and fleeing the war, trying to blend back into the civilian population.”

Coeer recalls:

Mattis was a great officer. His “Log Light” configuration for the division was meant to get people north fast, and not try to shoot our way through every little town on the way. As only he could do, he described it thus: “If you can’t eat it, shoot it, or wear it, don’t bring it.” … As always, he spoke without notes, having long ago memorized everything. “Gentlemen, this is going to be the most air-centric division in the history of warfare. Don’t you worry about the lack of shaping; if we need to kill something, it is going to get killed. I would storm the gates of Hell if Third Marine Air Wing was overhead. There is one way to have a short but exciting conversation with me, and that is to move too slow. Gentlemen, this is not a marathon, this is a sprint. In about a month, I am going to go forward of our Marines up to the border between Iraq and Kuwait. And when I get there, one of two things is going to happen. Either the commander of the Fifty-First Mechanized Division is going to surrender his army in the field to me, or he and all his guys are going to die.”

One month later:

First Marine Division was holding their first ROC Drill, the rehearsal of concept of what we were about to do. I had never seen a walk-through like this before. Marines had spent days building an enormous reproduction of southern Iraq in a bowl formed by a huge, semicircular sand dune. Each road, each river, each canal, each oil field was built to scale and even in proper color (water was blue dye poured into a sand ditch, and so on.)

Each Marine unit wore football jerseys in different colors, and with proper numbers. First Battalion, Fifth Marines, known as one-fifth, wore blue jerseys with “15” on the back, and other units were similarly identified. Principal staff from those units stood on the “border” drawn in the sand. About 300 officers stood and sat on the dune above. It was the perfect way to visualize what was about to happen.

General Mattis stood up and took a handheld microphone. Without referencing a single piece of paper, he discussed what each unit would do and in what sequence, and outlined his end state for each phase of the early war. He spoke for nearly 30 minutes, and his complete mastery of every nuance of the battle forthcoming was truly impressive.

… At the end of the drill, questions were answered and then Mattis dismissed everyone. No messing around with this guy. Mike Murdoch, one of the British company commanders, leaned over to me, his eyes wide. “Mate, are all your generals that good?” I looked at him. “No. He is the best we have.”