Major General James N. Mattis figured out that there might be civilian news media—me—in his briefing a few minutes in. That didn’t seem to inhibit him. He kept on talking like a grunt to grunts who would soon convoy north from Camp Virginia, Kuwait, into Iraq. I didn’t audio-record Mattis’s brief to Battalion Landing Team 1/2 (1st Battalion/2d Marines), but I did jot down his most noteworthy statements.
"The enemy will try to make you racists."
"In a war sometimes bad things happen.”
"We are going to kill and kill and kill—not the innocent, only the enemy—until they are sick of this war."
He quoted Geronimo, but I didn’t get that.
Mattis told the men that the people in their new area of operations were "95% friendly."
"Do not allow yourself to hate these people who had the mistake of being born in this country at this time,” he continued.
About the forces that the Marines would engage in-country, Mattis told them, "they mean every word when they say they hate you.... All they know is hatred. Your job is to kill them. I'm not into you taking a lot of prisoners...."
"We do not become animals. We do not lose our humanity. We don't lose our discipline."
Of the Iraqi National Guard, he said: "A few of them are treacherous bastards, but most of them are on our side."
"You are the most radical dudes in the world,” he told the men, in perhaps his first ungruntly moment. "Keep your sense of humor. It's like a flak jacket around your spirit."
This was July 9, 2004, a little over two months after the 1st Battle of Fallujah (aka Operation Vigilant Resolve), a bloody harbinger (an estimated 600 Iraqis were killed, 1,000 wounded; 30 U.S. Marines were killed), which itself was precipitated by the ambush, killing, and desecration of four Blackwater mercenaries in that city.
"Although a tenuous cease-fire continues in effect for Fallujah,” reads a 2009 report by the USMC's History Division, “the Shi’a [al-Sadr] militia begin spreading violence to several other cities, including parts of Baghdad, Kut, Karbala, and Najaf.” The cities of north Babil—Iskandariyah, Musayyib, Haswah, and other which these Marine would patrol—weren’t on that list. They would be soon. Mattis, commanding general of 1st Marine Division and Multi National Force–West, was sending these men—and a number of women who served with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s support group—into this violence. Marines would be killed, and Marines would kill.
You’ll hear and read that Marines revere him. I saw and heard that. I still do. Mattis is a man of substance—not simply a “mad dog,” a nickname apparently bestowed on him by the troops after Fallujah, but also a “warrior monk.” But is this the substance we need in a Secretary of Defense, “the principal defense policy adviser to the President,” who is responsible for the formulation of general defense policy” and all things DOD? That’s a question for which I don’t yet have an answer.