THE MATTIS MYTH
Secretary of Defense Mattis might be the first cabinet official to have his job thanks to Facebook memes. While cool Mattis quotes became fodder for veterans and their boosters he became a legend. A legend created by Mattis himself. Military leaders historically used the press before to achieve psychological aims at home and abroad. Napoleon so deftly controlled his image that disasters like the Egyptian campaign were sold as victories at home. The problem with propaganda is that it is an omnidirectional weapon that harms friend and foe alike. Unlike many famous generals in history Mattis has never won a war, nor waged a decisive campaign. He found victory in the minds of the American people by creating a legend based upon his selflessness, standards, and intelligence. When you look closely you find that all of these were overhyped and distorted. Mattis’ story remains essentially unchallenged. I believe that no public figure is above scrutiny and I write this in the spirit of openness and accountability.
On Christmas day of 1998 General Krulak was delivering cookies to the unlucky Marines who had guard duty in Quantico, VA. He was surprised to learn that then Brigadier General Mattis was the duty officer. Mattis explained that he took the shift from a young Major so he could spend time with is family. It’s a story of self-sacrifice and kindness that warms the heart. Until you start to look. First off Mattis is a lifelong bachelor. You can’t really say that you’re sacrificing your time when you have nothing better to do. Second General Krulak delivered cookies every Christmas which means that Mattis knew his boss would see his kind gesture. What at first glance is a selfless act came at no personal cost to Mattis and gained the favor of his commander.
Tom Ricks is an influential author, reporter, and columnist for national security affairs. His books are best sellers and he frequently contributes to such high profile publications as Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post. In “The Generals” he laments the American military’s refusal to fire generals for incompetence. He cheerfully approved Mattis’ firing of 1/1 commander Colonel Joe Dowdy as a return to the standard of accountability.
Dowdy’s regiment encountered unexpected resistance from the Fedayeen Saddam in the city of Al-Kut. The Fedayeen were loyal to Saddam personally they operated as stay behind guerrillas. The Fedayeen fought the initial invasion of Iraq more effectively than the Iraqi Army or Republican Guard and were the first major force in the subsequent guerrilla war. The CIA reported the capabilities of the Fedayeen, but bureaucratic processes devalued this intelligence for the invasion plan. No invasion plan considered the Fedayeen at all.
Generals Mattis and Kelly were disappointed that Colonel Dowdy wasn’t moving as fast as the plan demanded. When he couldn’t complete his fighting on schedule Mattis relieved Dowdy of command. For added humiliation Mattis ordered Dowdy to surrender his pistol. This reflects poorly on the competence and character of Mattis. Mattis is a voracious reader who served during the abortive reforms of commandant Al Gray should have known the difference between a command push and a recon pull. Reviewing the doctrine of maneuver warfare reveals that unplanned delays, like what Colonel Dowdy encountered, are both inevitable and opportunities for tactical maneuver by adjacent units. Mattis’ inability to grasp the intelligence on the ground made a mockery of his intent to be a general that briefed his staff. His unwillingness to make a bold tactical adjustment reveal incompetent officership and lazy scholarship. Tactically the firing was a blunder. Morally the firing was cruel. By stripping Colonel Dowdy of his pistol in a hostile country Mattis’ revealed a deep contempt for his subordinate as a person. The fact that this incompetent and immoral act added to the Mattis mystique is as deep an indictment of his boosters as himself.