Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense, and he is one of the most quotable figures in modern public life.
He rarely gives a speech without saying something that should be emblazoned on coffee mugs, or in some cases stenciled on the side of bombs. Here are some of his greatest hits:
- “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” – from a speech Mattis delivered to Marines arriving in Iraq in 2003. This is widely acclaimed as the ultimate Mattisism, winning extra cool points for being compatible with Patrick Swayze’s famous advice to new bouncers in Road House.
- “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” – probably the other most widely-repeated Mattisism, it has been quoted in contexts ranging from the Iraqi troop withdrawal to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
- “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure. Keep faith in your comrades on the left and right and Marine Air overhead. Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit.” – from a letter Mattis wrote to the 1st Marine Division, the day before they began their assault on Iraq in 2003. He is restated his point about using your head on the battlefield many times; another popular formulation was, “The most important six inches on the battlefield are between your ears.”
- “From our first days at San Diego, Parris Island, or Quantico, NCOs bluntly explained to us that the Corps would be entirely satisfied if we gave 100%, and entirely dissatisfied if we gave 99%. And those NCOs taught us the great pleasure of doing what others thought impossible.” – from a speech Mattis gave when receiving the Marine Corps University Foundation’s 2014 Semper Fidelis Award.
- “Now from a distance, I look back on what the Corps taught me: to think like men of action, and to act like men of thought!” – from the same 2014 Semper Fidelis Award speech.
- “I’ve never found it to be useful. I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I do better with that than I do with torture.” – Mattis’ thoughts on waterboarding, according to Donald Trump.
- “Every morning I woke up and the first three questions I had, had to do with Iran, and Iran, and Iran. It remains the single most belligerent actor in the Middle East.” – Mattis on Iran, from an April speech to the Center for Strategic & International Studies
- “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” – Mattis on the Taliban, at a 2005 panel discussion in San Diego, California. This one caused some trouble for Mattis. Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee defended him, but said “should have chosen his words more carefully.”
- “There are some people who think you have to hate them in order to shoot them. I don’t think you do. It’s just business.” – Mattis choosing his words more carefully, after the above-mentioned controversy.
- “The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot. There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, cunning, obedience and alertness, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim. It’s really a hell of a lot of fun. You’re gonna have a blast out here! I feel sorry for every son of a bitch that doesn’t get to serve with you.” – Mattis drawing an important distinction between assholes and sons of bitches to a group of Marines in Iraq, as quoted by Thomas E. Ricks in his book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005.
- “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f**k with me, I’ll kill you all.” – Mattis to Iraqi tribal leaders, also quoted by Ricks in Fiasco.
- “In a country with millions of people and cars going everywhere, the enemy is going to get a car bomb out there once in a while. There are going to be good days and bad days. Bottom line.” – Mattis on the grim realities of counter-terrorism operations in a 2007 interview. He was talking about Iraq, but unfortunately his observation would be valid anywhere.
- “I think it’s very clear that this enemy has decided that the war, the real war for them, will be fought in the narrative, in the media. This is not a place where we’re going to take the enemy’s capital and run up our flag and drink their coffee and that sort of thing.” – from the same interview.
- “Marines don’t know how to spell the word defeat.” – proudly cited by the USMC as the retired General’s salute to the indomitable spirit of the Corps. Misusing this quote to tease Marines about their spelling abilities is not recommended.
- “I get a lot of credit these days for things I never did.” – Mattis on his own legend, to midshipmen at the Naval Academy in 2004. He also gets a lot of credit for things he never said, as hilariously satirized in a Twitter hashtag full of phony #MattisQuotes. (A sample: “Build a man a fire and he will be warm for a night. Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”)