President-elect Donald Trump announced Thursday night that retired Marine General James Mattis would be his Secretary of Defense, making him only the second general to lead the department.
Trump confirmed the nomination at a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio on Thursday night, despite his campaign having denied it earlier that day. “ “We’re not announcing until Monday so don’t tell anybody,” Trump said in his trademark style, in front of a televised, public rally.
Mattis’ selection marked uncharted terrain for the Pentagon, as the retired general will be the first at the post in 65 years. He has at various points been nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ and ‘Warrior Monk,’ and went by the call-sign ‘Chaos’ during the invasion of Iraq. He served in the Marine Corps for 41 years until his 2013 retirement, and could become only the second general to lead the department.
During his service, Mattis, 66, was in the trenches, popular with his troops. And that would make him the first Defense Secretary who is both a general and war fighter.
If confirmed by the Senate, Mattis would become the nation’s 26th Defense chief.
The law prohibits a general from serving in the top civilian post unless he has been out of uniform for seven years. Because he has been out of the military for just four years, Mattis’ confirmation would demand Congress to pass legislation allowing for an exception for Mattis.
And it will demand a recently retired general to navigate a job designed to signal that the U.S. military ultimately answers to civilians rule, not the desires of those in uniform.
The Marines after all say, once a Marine, always a Marine. Now, the wartime warrior now will lead the largest government bureaucracy.
Mattis’ last job in the military was as head of U.S. Command, which is responsible for military operations across the Middle East and in Afghanistan.
In the Republican-controlled Congress, Mattis is tremendously popular. Conservatives who were opposed to Trump’s nomination tried to draft him into running as a third-party candidate—an invitation he eventually turned down.
Top defense hawks in Congress, have heaped praise on Mattis, indicating a smooth pathway to approving a waiver. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain recently told The Daily Beast that he was a “great admirer” of the general due to his combat experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, teams of lawyers on Capitol Hill have been working now for nearly two weeks on how to provide Mattis with a waiver.
Mattis was among the most revered generals to emerge out of the Marine Corps from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is known as a blunt man, an orator and a leader deeply devoted to his troops. His way of describing the reality of war has become legendary within the Marine Corps.
“The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears,” Mattis once famously said.
He could also be blunt.
“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all,” he told defeated Iraqi military leaders after the initial invasion.
And sometimes, his words raised eyebrows. In 2005, when speaking to a conference in San Diego, Mattis talked about how much he, at times, enjoyed killing the enemy.
“Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot,” Mattis said. “It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”
Even though Mattis is a widely celebrated general, not everyone was keen on having a recently retired general leading the department. There are some who feel there should be a clear divide between the generals and the civilians who are constitutionally tasked to lead the military.
Mattis is keenly aware of those concerns, those close to him say.
He will not be alone in making the transition to a civilian national security post. The retired four star’s immediate contact within the White House would be retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, a three star, which could be awkward as both men shift to top civilian jobs.
Moreover, a 2008 Pentagon Inspector General report singled out Marine Corps Combat Development Command, which Mattis then commanded as a three star general, for not seeing the urgency in getting vehicles with V-shaped hulls that deflect bombs, known as MRAPs, to the war zones fast enough.
When Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in the homes in the city of Haditha, including women and children, in what survivors described as an indiscriminate shooting spree after a fellow Marine was killed by a roadside bomb, Mattis, then head of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., dismissed many of the charges
In writing of his reasons for dismissing the murder charges against one of eight Marines eventually charged, Lance Cpl. Justin I. Sharratt, Mattis said the death of innocents is a part of war.
“With the dismissal of these charges LCpl Sharratt may fairly conclude that he did his best to live up to the standards, followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made in a matter of seconds in combat. And as he has always remained cloaked in the presumption of innocence, with this dismissal of charges, he remains in the eyes of the law—and in my eyes—innocent.”
Mattis, like Trump, is not a fan of the Iran deal. Indeed, Mattis considers Iran a major foe. But unlike Trump, Mattis is not an isolationist. And where Trump is instinctive, Mattis is contemplative, taking his time before making decisions. Mattis is also an avid reader, often assigning his troops extensive reading assignments before deployments.
That said, like Trump, he is very versed in the power of aphorisms.
He once explained his approach to life to fellow Marines as the following: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”