Even the usually stone-faced Marine Gen. James N. Mattis had to crack a smile.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, an Army sergeant in Vietnam, had just ditched one of the unspoken protocols of the Corps – that only Marines can utter the famed “Semper Fidelis” motto, and then only to each other.
“Now some of you may believe, and I know Gen. Mattis does, that an Army infantryman is not worthy of the words "Semper Fi" passing from his lips. Well, the hell with it, general. I am the Secretary and I say ‘Semper Fi’ and thank you.”
Hagel was presiding Friday at a combination change of command and informal retirement ceremony for the 62-year-old Mattis, whose call sign was “Chaos.” At MacDill Air Force Base outside Tampa, Fla., Mattis was turning over the colors of the U.S. Central Command to his “battle buddy” and successor, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, and ending more than 40 years in uniform.
In his remarks, Austin, who oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as the last commander of Operation New Dawn, noted that he will be undertaking a similar task at CentCom in the scheduled 2014 pullout of all combat troops from Afghanistan.
His job will be to ensure a smooth transition of lead responsibilities to the Afghan national security forces and “to get the equipment out,” Austin said. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. goal was “to provide their people with the opportunity to come out from under the oppression of a dictator,” Austin said.
Challenges still exist in Afghanistan, Austin said, “but we are seeing some progress being made in some areas.”
As head of CentCom, Austin will be taking over what is arguably the most important of the combatant commands with an area of responsibility, including the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, that has seen constant turmoil from the revolts of the Arab spring and the threat from Iran.
Austin suggested that diplomacy would be a main part of his job portfolio. He commented favorably on the work of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council in easing tensions and said “this is what we hope to see more of.”
In paying tribute to Mattis, Austin recalled the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when he was with the 3rd Infantry Division on the “Thunder Run” to Baghdad up the western bank of the Euphrates. “To our right was the 1st Marine Division, led by my battle buddy ‘Fighting Jim Mattis,’” Austin said.
Mattis, as usual, was brief and blunt in taking leave of CentCom. He said he had tried to lead CentCom “across a tumultuous region in the interests of peace,” and at the same time deliver a message to “the maniacs who attacked us” on 9/11 that CentCom troops stood ready to deliver swift justice. “I would happily storm hell in the company of these troops,’ Mattis said.
In his eventful career, Mattis led the longest ship-to-shore assault in Marine Corps history – more than 400 miles by helicopter from ships to Kandahar in 2001. He also led the longest overland assault by Marines in the race to Baghdad by the 1st Marine Division in 2003.
His bluntness has occasionally led to controversy. At a forum in San Diego in 2005, Mattis said: "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. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight.”
Gen. Michael Hagee, then the Marine commandant, said Mattis should have toned down his remarks, but he was not disciplined. Hagel called Mattis “a legendary figure that Marine recruits will know of and draw inspiration from for many years to come,” and he also noted the slogan for Marines that Mattis made famous in Iraq: “No worse enemy, no better friend.”
“Gen. Mattis has demonstrated to the world that truly there is no worse enemy, and no better friend, than a United States Marine,” Hagel said. “He has devoted his life, his energy, his intellect, and his force of courage and personality to the U.S. Marine Corps, our military, and our country. And our nation is forever grateful for his service.”
Mattis said that the troops he has commanded over the years had proven repeatedly “that free men and women can fight like the dickens,” and he paid tribute to all who volunteer to serve and “sign a blank check payable with their lives to the American people.” Mattis said there was “no one better prepared” to succeed him than Austin and then, before quickly returning to his seat, added “I bid you all a fond farewell.”