In 1991, Lt. Col. James Mattis took a moment of respite from watching his men attacking the Iraqi Army to commune with nature in the Kuwaiti desert.
“Artillery fire slowed us but could not stop us. At one point I flopped into a crater; crouched down inside it, I noticed an ant trying to crawl out. When I scooped away a little dirt, the ant fell back into the hole and resumed climbing. Again, I scooped away some dirt.
“’Don’t go out there, Mr. Ant,’ I told him. ‘You’re safer in here.’”
Never mind that ants crawling on the ground are almost always female. Digressions like this one are pretty much the only interesting parts of Mattis’ book Call Sign Chaos. Almost everything else is about “leadership” and “values”—not to mention the name-dropping of commanders and statesmen from history. America’s Warrior Monk published the memoir in September with co-author Bing West, his fellow militarist who once wrote The Village. Similarly to the retired general’s letter of resignation as Donald Trump’s defense secretary months earlier, the book was more akin to an infusion of Viagra for the national press than something anyone would bother to read. Not that they were willing to admit that. “In Book, Former Defense Chief Mattis Sideswipes President Trump's Leadership Skills,” panted an NPR headline (he does nothing of the sort).
What was missing was even a half-assed attempt at figuring out why the retired general became the foremost of the “adults in the room,” the career military officers who were supposed to provide a check on Trump’s excesses. I don’t mean how he became a respected commander. He was, by all accounts, an effective military leader and beloved by his troops. So despite his staid and apparently sexless public image, his promotion to sainthood within the military branch whose internal culture is probably the horniest of any organization’s since the Borgia Pope Alexander VI ran the Vatican, wasn’t much of a stretch. If anything, the Marine Corps probably knew on some level it needed a front man who could go five minutes without telling some cocktail-party stopper about the strip club outside the gate of Camp Lejeune. Meanwhile, people on the right, especially neocons, like him because he kills terrorists and is neither ashamed of it nor particularly interested in debating the nuances of the term.
The real mystery was why liberal Democrats adopted Mad Dog with such fervor. This class of people tends not to join the armed forces. As much as they love to watch missiles launched on TV, they generally abhor guns when they encounter them in person. Their adoration of Mattis gets more bewildering if you consider his late-career role in the Theranos debacle, when company founder Elizabeth Holmes (allegedly) achieved a multibillion-dollar valuation by reckless misrepresentations of what the blood-testing machines she was developing were capable of. (Holmes and her partner in multiple senses, Sunny Balwani, now await trial on charges of wire fraud). As John Carreyrou documents in Bad Blood, Mattis tried to have units in Afghanistan outfitted with Holmes’ Edison machines while he led U.S. Central Command. (What the devices would have done for victims of battlefield trauma was never really clear.) Mattis bought Holmes’ shtick enough to confront an Army regulatory expert who had unintentionally brought a federal inspector to the startup’s lab. He relented during the face-to-face meeting with the fellow officer, but went on to join the company’s board upon retiring. His role there likely added to the multimillion-dollar net worth Forbes reported him as having as of a few years ago. Like many of the board members, Mattis was taking his sinecure at the Hoover Institution, a Stanford University think tank. George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, also former Theranos oblates and Hoover thinkers, contributed blurbs for his book jacket. Those men’s names appear multiple times in the text, but not Theranos’ and Holmes’.
Mattis’ glossing over of his conspicuous presence in the orbit of an apparent Silicon-Valley Ponzi scheme provides a clue to how he became the darling of a political bloc that includes centrist liberals and the establishment press. The answer is not in what he says but in what he omits or overlooks. Here’s Mattis on the news coverage of the First Battle of Fallujah, when he commanded the First Marine Division, in 2004:
“By constant repetition, the false allegations acquired plausibility. Although death and damage in the city were real, that damage was not difficult for policymakers to anticipate when ordering us to attack the city. Most noncombatants had fled the area, but not all. I was reporting our increasing progress, but that truth was submerged beneath enemy propaganda. In Baghdad, London, and Washington, the battle seemed endlessly destructive. I had lance corporals who could better express the nobility of our methods than U.S. government spokespeople in Washington.”
If he means allegations about deaths of civilians, those acquired plausibility because they could and did happen. There were some 600 of them—many women and children—according to the database Iraq Body Count. That was three times the number of insurgents killed. If Mattis were serious about refuting accounts that he believes to be untrue, he could offer the official figures, if any exist. Or, if he wants to be legalistic about it, he could apply a theory of comparative negligence to divide liability among various parties. Even then, there’s the inconvenient fact that these people wouldn’t be dead but for the invasion and occupation of the country. At any rate, Mattis writes, people above his pay grade made him call off the assault to allow the City of Mosques to be policed by the Fallujah Brigade, a thrown-together force that was led by a former general of the Saddam regime. Mattis does note that the CIA helped foster these discussions, but doesn’t linger over the agency’s role in creating the unit, whose brief existence strengthened the brutal Islamist insurgency that had taken hold in the city.
Mattis was stateside by the time coalition forces again pushed into Fallujah months later. “The terrorists had taken full advantage of the delay to stockpile ammunition, and we lost hundreds killed and wounded while the top terrorists escaped,” he writes. The 600 or so more civilian deaths during this offensive—per IBC’s count—go unmentioned. He also ignores the use of white phosphorus as a weapon against people—a reality to which Pentagon officials later admitted. The chemical, which ignites on exposure to air, sticks to skin and clothing as it burns its way into flesh. It causes organ damage. Those incendiary munitions and the depleted uranium used in some U.S. ordnance are cited as in a November article by the Middle East Eye’s Alex MacDonald. The report details the effects of the years of fighting in the city—which later fell to ISIS and was retaken by the Iraqi Army—on local public health. As MacDonald writes:
“To make matters worse, for years now, babies born in Fallujah have suffered disproportionately high levels of birth defects, including congenital heart disease, gastroschisis (where the digestive system is found outside the baby's body) and spina bifida.
“Paediatrician Sameera Alani says that she generally sees around 30 cases a month of children suffering from birth defects.”
For Mattis, it’s possible for U.S. political and military leaders to make tactical, operational and strategic blunders. He writes about the 2005 massacre of civilians in Haditha as a situation where he had to distinguish Marines who made unfortunate errors from those within the squad and up its chain of command who’d shown a “lack of discipline.” He elsewhere describes the horrific abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison as the “egregious behavior of rogue guards” that “cost us the moral high ground.” (It’s possible he thinks this is a physical place that can be found on a topographical map and recaptured.) Without irony, he writes that the plan he prepared in late 2001—but never got to carry out—for the capture of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan was modeled after the U.S. cavalry’s pursuit and trapping of the Apache leader Geronimo. (The Obama administration made the same comparison during its 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.) In fact, the 1886 “Geronimo campaign” was the end stage of a genocide that cleared the way for the government’s western land grab. It seems that what isn’t conceivable in Mattis’ worldview—at least as it’s presented in the book—is that people can die for moral travesties and shareholder profits.
His disinterest in engaging with that dimension of U.S. foreign policy—despite his considerable position to do so—is Mattis’ usefulness for supporters of our bloody status quo. In a country where “national security” means the steady export of violence abroad, Mattis is someone who enthusiastically asks how but never really ponders why. Here’s his view of Iraq, a country he invaded twice:
“As with any war or complex situation, there was no cookie-cutter model that would lead to success in Iraq. The country was like looking into a kaleidoscope: change one element and a wholly different, unexpected pattern emerges. The Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Iranians, Syrians, United Nations, European politics, American politics – all the parts shaken together and poured out across the Middle East and onto the desks at CENTCOM.”
If it ever occurs to him that perhaps this is too much for the desks at CENTCOM to handle without getting more people killed, he keeps the insight to himself.
I should disclose here that I’ve benefited from our warfare state. I attended school on the GI Bill and still use VA health care. I spent five years in the Marine Corps, where I was taught some rudiments of Arabic and then deployed twice in the late-2000s to Iraq’s Anbar province as a translator. I’m not a combat veteran. I’d be lying if I claimed I am. I never shot anyone, and I can’t say with certainty that I’d be alive to write this if I’d had to. You’re reading the opinion of a language nerd who never commanded troops—one who probably has a few chemical imbalances but is sane enough not to want to.
I did learn that organizing a society around warfare—especially the digitized and industrialized kind we practice and encourage client states to emulate—is good for nothing but causing more of it. We’ve done that since the 1940s, so it’s deeply ingrained in our sense of what’s normal. You can see that play out in our depressingly silly national discussion around mass shootings. The tragedies that are big enough to register in the news cycle give rise to head-scratching about what to do about all these guns. This ritual is often performed by the architects of the same wars that ensure the manufacture of an endless supply of infantry weapons and their civilian analogs, and that this arsenal is circulated within a populace that’s been desensitized by years of ambient war propaganda. The frequent and public massacres are at least partly a manifestation of how the tide of blood we send overseas is bound to turn back to our shores, sooner or later.
Mattis is a functionary rather than instigator of this state of affairs. He’s someone with great skills for doing something we shouldn’t celebrate, let alone worship. (Attend an NFL game if you think “worship” is hyperbole.) Unless it’s to affirm the goodness of the United States’ actions, he doesn’t inhabit what we might understand as a moral dimension. That’s not to call him a hypocrite—his beliefs helped make him rich and powerful, but he also possesses superlative courage of his convictions. When he commanded a division in Iraq, he and his staff were in enough physical danger that members of the 29-person detail were wounded 15 times in five months. Two were killed. Mattis makes a point of naming those men and others who died fighting for him. In his introduction, he quotes a “handwritten card that lay on my Pentagon desk these past few years” as he signed off on deployments of troops all over the world:
“’Will this commitment contribute significantly to the well-being of the American people to justify putting our troops in a position to die?’ I would like to think that, thanks to the lessons I was taught, the answer to the Gold Star families of those we lost is ‘yes,’ despite the everlasting pain those families carry with them.”
I’m sure he’s dead serious. Do we have to agree with him?