Mattis: Time for a 'Mad Dog' at Pentagon?

May 2007: Lt. Gen. James Mattis speaks to members of Marine Wing Support Group 27 in Al Asad, Iraq. (DoD photo)
May 2007: Lt. Gen. James Mattis speaks to members of Marine Wing Support Group 27 in Al Asad, Iraq. (DoD photo)

Is the time ripe for a "Mad Dog" to lead the Defense Department, just as an unconventional president takes the helm?

Or will the president-elect, with his famously thin skin for criticism, shy away from a defense secretary known for his bluntness?

Marines of all stripes expressed excitement about the prospect of retired Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis -- a revered figure who led Camp Pendleton troops into battle in Iraq -- being considered to head the Pentagon.

Mattis, who retired with four stars in 2013, met with President-elect Donald Trump this weekend as a candidate on the short list to direct the Defense Department. Afterward, Trump called the retired Marine icon "impressive" in a tweet.

Mattis is, perhaps, a dark-horse candidate.

Other prospects are proven politicians, more likely to smoothly navigate Capitol Hill and without the need for a waiver from Congress to serve. Federal statute dictates a seven-year gap after active military service for a defense secretary.

The other reported top contenders are Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri; Stephen Hadley, former national-security adviser under George W. Bush; and Sen. Tom Cotton, a first-term Republican from Arkansas who served as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

San Diego County Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, also a Marine Corps veteran, was discussed as an early possibility.

But Mattis' name has sparked the most excitement -- in the media, and among former Marines who served under him.

"I consider the time I spent on his personal staff as THE formative experience of my time in the Marine Corps. Hands down, he was the best leader that I ever served with," said Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine public affairs officer who did tours under Mattis at Camp Pendleton.

Joe Chenelly was a young enlisted Marine in late 2001 when Mattis led Task Force 58 into Afghanistan.

"It's my personal opinion that we've been at war for 15 straight years because, in part, we haven't had enough real warriors at the helm. General Mattis could change that," Chenelly said.

Task Force 58 was the first large U.S. ground force in that nation, and Mattis was just a one-star from Pendleton at the time. He was already making waves with his blunt talk.

U.S. officials blanched when Mattis was quoted as saying, "The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan" -- even though the White House had said it didn't covet foreign territory.

Mattis went on to lead San Diego County Marines in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the bloody Fallujah campaign of 2004. He later had a hand in writing the counterinsurgency doctrine that helped turn around the deadly Al Anbar district after 2006.

But his frank comments continued to be a headache for Pentagon brass, such as at a 2005 panel discussion in San Diego.

Mattis now famously said: "Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. ... I like brawling."

He added, "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."

Afterward, top Marine generals rallied around Mattis, though they said he should have been more prudent with his remarks.

It's an open question if that's why Mattis wasn't chosen as Marine commandant -- despite leading both the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, usually stepping stones to the Corps' top job. His final position was U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, the former general's no-holds-barred candor is part of why everyday Marines love Mattis.

Many, including some interviewed for this story, have used the phrase "I would follow him into hell."

Also, stories of Mattis caring about the average lance corporal are legion.

Here are a few:

Chenelly said circumstances meant that Pendleton Marines went into Afghanistan in late 2001 without cold-weather gear.

"(Mattis) would walk the perimeters at night, from fighting position to fighting position, asking how each Marine was. Once he realized we didn't have much in the way of warm clothes, he stopped wearing his. He'd bring heating packs (from field meal packages) to the Marines -- likely his and his staff officers'."

Retired Marine Corps officer Gary Solis, a former military judge advocate and Marine prosecutor, remembers that Mattis called each Pendleton infantry battalion, one at a time, into a base theater before the Iraq war. It took some time, but the general wanted the grunts to be informed and to hear their questions.

"I went with him to a couple of those briefings," Solis remembers. "He could talk to just about anybody on a level that allows him to connect to them, not in a bureaucratic way, but in a personal way."

Solis also tells that Mattis discovered a young newlywed Marine in his command had moved his wife into base housing without any furniture. The general ordered the Marine to come to his quarters and take whatever he could use.

"How's that for leadership?" Solis asked in an interview Tuesday.

There was even a push this spring by a group of Republicans to draft the retired general to become a presidential nominee.

He declined, choosing to remain a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Mattis does have a few unsavory notations on his resume.

He was in charge of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command when it failed to act on an urgent plea for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to replace regular Humvees.

The time was 2005, when Marines were losing limbs on a regular basis to roadside bombs.

A 2008 Pentagon inspector general investigation, as reported by USA Today, determined that the development command dropped the ball on the request.

In 2012, Mattis became interested in a Silicon Valley upstart, Theranos, whose blood-testing technology had a chance to be a game-changer for battlefield medicine.

But the company hit regulatory roadblocks.

Mattis pushed to help Theranos gain acceptance from the Defense Department, emailing others, asking "how do we overcome this new obstacle?"

Then, a year later in retirement, he agreed to join the company's board -- which was approved by a Pentagon lawyer, but with the restriction that he shouldn't represent the company in affairs before the Defense Department.

Stars of the American political class have praised Mattis' candidacy.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and himself a war hero, released a statement saying that he hopes Mattis has a chance to serve the nation again.

"General Mattis has a clear understanding of the many challenges facing the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, and our national security," McCain said Monday.

But the question remains: Is the warrior-scholar whose battlefield call sign was "Chaos" a good fit to run a notorious bureaucracy staffed by 742,000 civilians and 1.3 million active-duty troops?

Opinion is mixed.

Some made it sound like it would be fun to watch the fireworks from a man famous for saying, Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

"I think he has an uncanny ability to cut through the bureaucracy and make a great impact fast than just about any other secretary in modern history," said Chenelly, who is now executive director of the national AMVETS organization.

"I realize that sounds grandiose, but we are talking a lot about 'never been done before' these days."

Plenzler sounded optimistic, saying that the general knows what makes people tick and how to motivate.

"He has shown time and again that he has the courage to offer his best military advice to leadership -- even when that advice runs contrary to conventional wisdom," the retired public affairs officer added.

Solis is dubious about the compatibility.

He predicted that Mattis might not last long -- just like another retired Marine leader, Gen. James Jones, who tapped out as National Security Adviser to the Obama administration after less than two years.

"His candor and regard for truth would, I fear, soon put him at odds with other appointees and entrenched Washington interests with less concern for those attributes," the former Marine lawyer said.

But, on Tuesday, there were signs that perhaps Trump might listen to the retired general's counsel.

Mattis is hawkish on Iran, but he is also known for coaching his Marines to try restraint and cultural understanding when dealing with civilians in Iraq.

On the topic of waterboarding, Trump has previously been a fan.

But the president-elect told the New York Times that Mattis' negative opinion of the practice -- the retired general said cigarettes and beer work just as well -- may sway him.

Trump told the Times: "I think it's time, maybe, for a general."

(c)2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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