In 2013 General James N. Mattis retired after a 41-year Marine Corps career that included field commands in the Persian Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the theater of combat the hard-charging general was known by the call sign “Chaos.” But it was his respect for history and studious commitment to training in strategy and tactics that earned him the moniker “Warrior Monk.” As head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Mattis furthered the efforts of MCCDC’s Center for Lessons Learned and helped compile the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. He rose through the ranks to head up U.S. Joint Forces Command in 2007 and to replace General David Petraeus at the helm of U.S. Central Command in 2010, with responsibility for ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since retiring, Mattis, 66, has been a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and taught courses on various subjects at other colleges nationwide. He also plans to write a book about leadership. On Dec. 1, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump announced he had chosen Mattis to serve as his secretary of defense. For Mattis to be appointed, Congress had to waive a federal requirement that candidates for defense secretary must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Congress had granted such a waiver in 1950 to confirm General of the Army George C. Marshall as secretary of defense. It did the same for Mattis, who was confirmed and appointed secretary of defense on Jan. 20, 2017. Mattis recently spoke with Military History about the importance of educating warriors for the challenges of modern-day warfare.
You often quote Ecclesiastes 1:9: “There is nothing new under the sun.” What does it mean to you?
Read about history, and you become aware that nothing starts with us. 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.
How did the Marine Corps prepare you for warfare?
The Corps made very clear that I was responsible for my own learning, and that it would guide me with a required reading list. We learned the Corps was as serious about that as it was about 3-mile runs and pull-ups. It set an institutional expectation with a moral tone to it: War is bloody enough without having to have amateurs send young men into a fight.
Don’t superior firepower and combat training alone adequately prepare a warrior?
We deal with a fundamentally unpredictable phenomenon called war, and the idea you’re going to solve this with just technology or training alone does not hold up in a study of history. Yes, the training is critical, that you have ingrained the muscle memory, so when you employ this force in close contact with the enemy, you have a vicious level of harmony built on brilliance in the basics. But you educate them for what we don’t know will happen. They’re like two rails of a railroad track. If you want to run your locomotive down a track, you need both rails.
How did such training inform your decisions?
It meant I was never really bewildered for very long by anything an adversary did. I remember in 2001 when the fleet commander [Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore Jr.] asked if I could get the Marines from the Mediterranean and the Pacific together and move against Kandahar, Afghanistan. I did my reconnaissance in a Navy antisubmarine plane with beautiful telescopes on board. I could see the fighting up north, a little bit going on further east. Out west there wasn’t much. And then down south at Kandahar, this big dark area—no one down there, not scouts, not even patrols. And I knew right away.…I didn’t care how brave their boys were. I didn’t care how many guns they had. I knew I was going to stick a knife in their back. Based on all that reading the Marine Corps had required at each rank, I could see exactly how to take this enemy down.
What are the origins of the Center for Lessons Learned?
It goes back to the interwar period, when the Marines were doing experiments with amphibious warfare and encapsulating lessons from fighting in their Small Wars Manual. Another key development came in World War II, in the midst of the Guadalcanal campaign, when Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift realized his men were not fully prepared for jungle warfare and created schools to take lessons learned and teach the Marines. When I got to Quantico [Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia], the formal organization was already in place.
What changes did you implement?
We simply prioritized the center’s mission, incorporating lessons learned. We had to have product, to put out things that changed pre-deployment training, so we put out the Small Unit Leaders’ Guide to Counterinsurgency and the Counterinsurgency (or COIN) Field Manual, written by both the Army and the Marines. It changed the way we trained and codified what we were already doing in some cases.
Who tops your reading list?
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.
How do you structure your personal reading?
I tried to read very broadly during my early years in the Marine Corps. Then, under the guidance of various senior officers who coached us juniors, I turned to reading deeply about a few battles or a few campaigns, and that really helped. I studied the Geronimo campaign in detail, the Great Sioux War, went deeply into Waterloo and Gettysburg.
Henry Kissinger once said that as you fill a kettle full of water, you fill your mind with knowledge, and then, when you’re on those high-tempo jobs, you pour it out. Then you get out of those jobs and refill it.
And then pour out that knowledge to the next vessel in line?
Well, yeah. We have an obligation to pass on the lessons we learned oftentimes at great, great cost. I would liken it to running the elevator down, opening the doors, bringing on board young guys, and carrying them up a couple of levels, sharing what we learned so they can go make their own mistakes, not the same ones we made.
What lessons would you like to impart to warriors in training?
That small groups of committed people can change things. That ethical, competent and admired leadership is badly needed nowadays. For young officers, certainly to gain trust and respect from their subordinates. But they also have to be able to gain the affection of their troops. Not popularity—affection. By doing that they’ll find people who have coequal commitment across all ranks. That’s what you see in forces that have shown spirit even when a lot of things went wrong.
How would you answer critics who accuse you of espousing “old school” values?
It takes a military with what could be considered old-fashioned values or quaint values to protect the country. There’s always going to be a bit of a tension, a dynamic that has to be understood by those responsible for leading a progressive America that does not want to be militarized yet needs certain military attributes for protection.