Back in the ‘60s, Arlo Guthrie sang (in “Alice’s Restaurant”) about trying to get out of serving in the U.S. military by saying “I wanna kill!” Today, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates have chosen Marine Gen. James Mattis to replace General Petraeus as commander of Centcom. Mattis, of course, is best known for describing his enthusiastic desire to kill people in wars:
“Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.
“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.”
Predictably, the appointment of Mattis has drawn similarly enthusiastic support from the neocons and the right. Peter Feaver, a Bush administration national security official, wrote:
"When Obama picked Petraeus to take over the Afghan war role, the primary downside I saw was the hole it created at CENTCOM. General Mattis is probably the best possible pick to fill that hole."
Over at the American Spectator, more high praise, from John Guardiano:
“This is stunningly good news, which must give our enemies serious cause for concern. Mattis, after all, is a fighting general whose battlefield exploits and historical erudition are not fully known or appreciated. Suffice it to say that he is a better general than Patton ever was.”
And at National Review, Victor Davis Hanson compares it all to the U.S. Civil War:
“We now have, with General Petraeus as ground commander, our two most gifted senior combat generals in charge of Afghanistan, who have worked well together and who were brilliant in Iraq in its darkest hours. I think all this is somewhat analogous to the final rise of Grant and Sherman in spring 1864.”
What caught my eye, however, was the endorsement of Mattis by Tom Ricks on his blog, The Best Defense, over at Foreign Policy. “This is the best news I have heard in a long time,” says Ricks. Now, I am no fan of Ricks, and not long ago I blasted Ricks for his contention that Obama should postpone the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, in a piece I titled, “Shut Up, Tom Ricks.”
But to check out Mattis I took a look as Ricks’ book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. And if there is any silver lining in the appointment of Mattis, it might de divined in Ricks’ account of Mattis role in battles there.
Certainly, Mattis comes across as a gung-ho commander. But a telling incident involves the eruption of the first Fallujah crisis the spring of 2004. That’s when a carload of American contractors was seized, murdered, dismembered, and their carcasses strung up on a bridge in the city. It was, at the time, the most violent and provocative encounter between Americans and the Anbar-based insurgency that was just getting off the ground. Mattis had just taken over the the local commander. Back in Washington, the neocons and the rabid, right-wing officials in charge of U.S. Iraq policy waxed bloodthirsty, demanding revenge. As Ricks tells the story, Robert Blackwill on the NSC staff and Paul Bremer, the U.S. czar in Iraq started pushing the military to go all-out to crush Fallujah and teach the Iraqis who’s boss. Reports Ricks:
“’This is what the enemy wants,’ Mattis protested. He had been preparing to take Fallujah for months, but didn’t want to do it this way—hastily, clumsily, acting in anger rather than with cool detachment. He was ordered nonetheless to get into Fallujah within seventy-two hours. He requested do see that order in writing, but didn’t get it.
“’Mattis wanted to do a police operation: Let’s find out who did this, and get them, this is a city of 300,000 in which a few hundred people did something,’ said another Marine general. ‘The answer was, No, go in there with the power of a Marine division.’ He argued against this. What would be the consequences of doing this? Mattis knew that the consequences of sending in a big conventional unit inevitably would be large amounts of damage.’”
Of course, the operation in Fallujah was a bloody disaster.
Now, there’s pressure from the far right on the Obama administration, and on Petraeus and Mattis, to take the gloves off in Afghanistan. They want to unleash the U.S. military from the restrictions on rules of engagement that were imposed by General McChrystal, who famously limited air strikes and artillery to minimize civilian casualties. Will Mattis resist that pressure? Seems likely. That hardly makes him a peacenik. He’s a Marine general who likes to kill. It’s a thin reed on which to place any hopes, but here’s hoping that Mattis remembers the First Battle of Fallujah.
The bigger question, of course, is the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, whose chief advocate, Petraeus, is now running the war. Mattis is said to be a devotee of the COIN doctrine, though perhaps not the Petraeus’ fervor. Still, in Iraq, Mattis seemed to enjoy killing, including through the use of lethal, hit team-style units of American forces that decimated the Iraqi insurgency in several years of ultimately futile, but very bloody, fights.