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Jim Mattis: New Head of Central Command

The New York Times has a nice article on the general chosen to head Central Command — Jim Mattis. I’ve known Mattis since the summer of 2003, when I spent some time in Iraq while he was commander of the 1st Marine Division. I was struck by how quickly and seamlessly he made the transition from conventional operations to what the military calls “stability operations” in the Shiite heartland of central Iraq. His methods were similar to those being employed in northern Iraq by another divisional commander — David Petraeus, of the 101st Airborne Division. (For my report on their efforts see this article.)

I’ve often wondered since then: whatever happened to those guys? Just kidding.

Petraeus’s stratospheric and well deserved rise to become the most celebrated American general since Eisenhower has already become legend. Mattis has not gotten the same degree of attention, but he completed another tour of duty in Iraq, helped co-author the Army/Marine Field Manual on Counterinsurgency with Petraeus, and went on to head the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

His many admirers, of whom I am one, were puzzled by his failure to be appointed to one of the truly plum jobs, such as that of Marine Commandant or Central Command chief. This was generally attributed to his salty tongue; he got into hot water in 2005 for saying at a public forum: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women 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.” This was seen as a cardinal violation of the rules of political correctness, which hold that soldiers are only supposed to talk about the anguish, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder they experience; they are never supposed to comment on the thrill of the kill.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates and President Obama deserve considerable credit for not letting this minor fracas stop them from appointing Mattis as Petraeus’s successor at Centcom. What they undoubtedly know, and what the rest of the world will discover, is that Mattis is not only a “warrior’s warrior” (as he is described in the Times) but also a “diplomat’s diplomat.” In his JFCOM role, he was for a while responsible for NATO force transformation, which required him to press NATO officials to do more to upgrade their armed forces. He was not always successful (who would be?), but he was by all accounts a compelling and persuasive diplomat. He has become known for sending everyone he meets a personal “thank you” note — not a standard-issue form but rather a letter that reflects on the substance of the conversation.

I got one myself after hosting Mattis for an off-the-record roundtable at the Council on Foreign Relations. Given the ground rules, I can’t discuss what he said, but I can mention the impression he made on some jaded Council members in New York. He wowed them by combining the erudition of a Harvard professor with a combat grunt’s gift for aphorism. He showed why he is revered not only as a combat leader but also as an intellectual whose personal library of military works runs to thousands of volumes. It is hard to imagine a better choice to head Central Command. I trust he will enjoy smooth sailing in the Senate confirmation process.