Retired Marine General James N. Mattis, named on Thursday as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense, is a larger-than-life figure with a fascinating career. Following are some choice details from his biography, and some lines of attack the Trump team might want to be on guard against.
1. His nicknames include “Chaos,” “Mad Dog,” and “The Warrior Monk.” The most commonly used of these nicknames is “Mad Dog” – Trump even called him that when announcing his nomination! – but according to a profile at NBC News, he dislikes that moniker. According to the L.A. Times, his troops began referring to him as Mad Dog Mattis “behind his back” after the battle of Fallujah, intending the name as “high praise.”
As for his other nicknames, “Warrior Monk” is an allusion to his voracious reading habits, combined with the fact that he has never been married, while “Chaos” was his call sign. Mattis has also reportedly said that Chaos stands for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution.”
2. His military career spanned four decades. Mattis retired as a four-star general and head of U.S. Central Command in 2013, after 41 years of service. He is now 66 years old. He was born in Washington State and attended Central Washington University, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant the year after he graduated.
His awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star “with a combat distinguishing device and a combat action ribbon, awarded for close-quarters fighting,” as the Associated Press has described the award.
Mattis literally wrote the book on modern counterinsurgency operations, along with one of the definitive books on operational command. After retiring from the military, he became a fellow at the Hoover Institution and kept writing.
3. He is a scholar of warfare. Mattis at one point accumulated over 7,000 books, before giving many of them away or donating them to libraries. As of 2013, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that he had never owned a television set. The New York Times stated in a 2010 profile that Mattis devoted most of his moving allowance to hauling his books around.
His interest in Native American history and culture, dating back to his youth in Washington, is legendary. “He was once asked which American Indian warrior he most respected. His answer was a tribe-by-tribe, chief-by-chief exposition spanning the first Seminole war to the surrender of the Lakota,” the New York Times recalled.
“Read about history, and you become aware that nothing starts with us,” Mattis reflected in a recent interview with Military History. “It started long ago. If you read enough biography and history, you learn how people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar situations or patterns in the past. It doesn’t give you a template of answers, but it does help you refine the questions you have to ask yourself. Further, you recognize there is nothing so unique that you’ve got to go to extraordinary lengths to deal with it.”
During the course of that interview, Mattis was asked what sits atop his reading list. His reply:
Colin Gray from the University of Reading is the most near-faultless strategist alive. Then there’s Sir Hew Strachan from Oxford, and Williamson Murray, the American. Those three are probably the leading present-day military theorists. You’ve got to know Sun-tzu and Carl von Clausewitz, of course. The Army was always big on Clausewitz, the Prussian; the Navy on Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American; and the Air Force on Giulio Douhet, the Italian. But the Marine Corps has always been more Eastern-oriented. I am much more comfortable with Sun-tzu and his approach to warfare.
4. He is “the most revered Marine general in at least a generation.” So said the Military Times in a 2013 profile, attributing the deep respect for Mattis to his frank, endlessly quotable speaking style, his battlefield success, the confidence he always expressed in rank-and-file service members, and his insistence upon sharing the hardships of his men.
A Slate piece on Mathis from 2010 noted that 17 of the 29 members of the platoon he traveled with in Iraq were killed or wounded during a five-month period in 2004. A photo of the unit is said to be among his prized possessions.
“He has imprinted an entire generation of Marines with regard to engaged, decisive combat leadership. As Marines, we could never have been better served by his command,” Col. Brennan Byrne, now chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, told the Military Times.
“The general has inspired a stream of fan mail from fellow Marines, supplications from jailed young veterans, imprudent tattoos, passages in history books, satirical online spoofs, even a television character,” the San Diego Union Tribune noted. (Mattis appeared in several episodes of the 2008 HBO mini-series Generation Kill, portrayed by actor Robert John Burke.)
One of the best illustrations of the bond between Mattis and his men comes from 1998, when Marine Commandant Charles Krulak visited the Marine command at Quantico, Virginia to deliver cookies on Christmas. (Krulak and his wife baked the cookies themselves – he’s a remarkable man, too.)
To his amazement, Krulak found then-Brigadier General Mattis was the duty officer, spending the night on a cot in the back room. “Jim, what are you standing the duty for?” Krulak recalled asking.
“Sir, I looked at the duty roster for today and there was a young major who had it who is married and had a family; and so I’m a bachelor, I thought why should the major miss out on the fun of having Christmas with his family, and so I took the duty for him,” Mattis replied.
5. Serious efforts were made to recruit him as a 2016 presidential candidate. The movement was described in the Daily Beast as a “Plan B,” hatched by a group of conservative billionaires, to run Mattis as a third-party candidate after Trump secured the Republican nomination. A package of strategic memos outlining ways he could win the race was reportedly sent to Mattis.
There is no indication Mattis himself took this effort very seriously. In fact, the Daily Beast noted that when Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol proposed a presidential run at a Hoover Institute fundraiser in February, Mattis popped up from the back of the room and shouted, “No way!”
Undaunted, Kristol kept talking up the possibility, and Mattis kept dismissing it as “idle chatter.”
A less organized effort to draft him as a presidential candidate was made in 2012, and a petition was circulated in 2014 to make him Secretary for Veterans Affairs. “Gen. Mattis is the most competent general officer of his generation and a natural leader. There is no better individual to lead the VA along the path of needed change,” the petition declared.
6. He’ll need a special waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense. A law dating back to 1947 stipulates a minimum 7-year waiting period between active military duty and serving as Secretary of Defense, which is a civilian position. Mattis has only been retired for three years.
CNN reported in late November, when Mattis became the favorite contender for SecDef, that the House Armed Services Committee was investigating the steps needed to secure a waiver for him.
There is precedent, as General George Marshall was appointed Secretary of Defense by President Harry Truman in 1950 only five years after he retired from the Army, at a time when the waiting period was even longer, a minimum of 10 years.
The waiver must come from Congress, which seems generally well-disposed to Mattis. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ) praised the nominee on Monday as “one of the finest military officers of his generation, and an extraordinary leader,” expressing hope that he has “an opportunity to serve America again.” The Trump transition team has expressed confidence that McCain will back a waiver for Mattis.
However, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is a ranking member on Senate Armed Services, declared on Thursday that she would oppose a waiver. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.” As of Friday afternoon, Gillibrand was the only senator to declare firm opposition.
Politico notes that Gillibrand, or any other senator, can force a supermajority vote to pass a waiver for Mattis, which would oblige Republican leadership in the Senate to find at least eight Democratic votes in favor. Politico further notes that several Democrat-aligned political groups have begun making noise about blocking Mattis’ nomination.
7. His career is not devoid of controversy. There are some items on Mattis’ resume that will probably be used against him, if Democrats decide to dig in and block his nomination, or at least seek to exact a political price from President-elect Trump and the GOP. Mattis himself would recommend studying adversarial tactics closely, so here are some attacks that might be coming his way:
His famously bold speaking style landed him in a bit of hot water in 2005, when he said it was “a hell of a lot of fun” to shoot the Taliban, who “slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil.” Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee was simultaneously supportive of Mattis, and of the opinion that he “should have chosen his words more carefully.”
While many readers of this quintessential Mattisism may regard it as evidence that he belongs in the Badass Hall of Fame, it should be noted that there were calls to discipline him for his remarks at the time.
“We do not need generals who treat the grim business of war as a sporting event. These disturbing remarks are indicative of an apparent indifference to the value of human life,” said executive director Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), for example.
Mattis was also attacked in 2004 for an operation in Mukaradeeb, Iraq that was described as the massacre of a wedding party by critics. The U.S. military said its forces came under fire, and returned fire.
“How many people go to the middle of the desert to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive,” Mattis said at the time.
People on the Left still cite the “Mukaradeeb Wedding Party Massacre” as evidence that Mattis is a homicidal maniac. The so-called “anti-war movement,” of course, went into a hypocritical coma when Barack Obama became president, but they will be emerging from hibernation soon.
A third line of criticism that may emerge against Mattis is of more recent vintage, and it has nothing to do with his military career: he is one of several big political names listed on the board of directors of Theranos, a medical testing company whose signature technological breakthrough did not work.
The Theranos story is long and unpleasant, but in essence, it is a story of political connections and corporate star power overriding good business sense. Mattis played a role in attempting to persuade the military to use Theranos test equipment, by all indications sincerely believing it was revolutionary technology.
Other big names, such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, are stepping away from the company, superstar CEO Elizabeth Holmes has been censured by the U.S. government, and both customers and investors are working on fraud lawsuits.