Despite his brawler reputation, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis actually tried hard on the battlefield to avoid fights, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said Saturday.
Neller means that as a compliment.
The commandant said he had served under Mattis twice and "I never met anybody who tried harder to win without fighting."
The retired general, selected by President-elect Donald Trump for defense secretary, has a special talent for matching goals with means and "how to engage below the level of conflict," Neller said during a panel discussion at the Reagan National Security Forum in Simi, Calif.
Neller quickly added that he had also "never met anybody -- if you have a fight -- there's no way we're not going to win." Neller called Mattis a rare combination of "accomplished leader, thinker, fighter" whose fitness to lead the Pentagon will soon become evident to Congress.
"He's a very measured guy. He listens and he's decisive. I'm confident that when he makes the calls”to members of Congress and testifies at Senate confirmation hearings, he will be judged to be exceptionally qualified to serve as the next defense secretary, Neller said.
In a later address to the forum, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, a former Marine commandant who served under Mattis as a regimental commander in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, had a curt answer to a question on whether he was concerned about recently retired military officers being considered for cabinet posts.
"Do I have concerns? No," Dunford said. He did not offer, and was not asked, to expand on his response.
Under current law, Mattis would need a waiver from Congress to get past the rule barring military officers from taking posts requiring Senate confirmation for seven years after retiring. Mattis stepped down as head of U.S. Central Command in 2013.
In addition to two fellow Marines, Mattis has strong and widespread support among former colleagues across the services in the upper ranks of the military. "We all congratulate him," said Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
At a Pentagon briefing Friday, Nicholson said of Mattis that "he's a soldier's soldier, a Marine's Marine." Nicholson said he first met Mattis in 2006 during what he called a tough fight in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province.
"He's a very inspirational leader," Nicholson said of Mattis, "I know he inspired me."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.