Marine General James Mattis: The “Warrior Monk”

Originally Published: December 4, 2016

Many are only now starting to become aware of Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, as his selection as Secretary of Defense (pending approval of a waiver of the National Security Act of 1947) has piqued the interest of anyone paying attention to the news. Yet Marines have been broadly aware of him for many years as Mattis served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 2013. Indeed, Mattis has developed an almost cult like following among many Marines, particularly among those who served under him in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For years now, I have seen my Marine friends posting comments about Mattis on social media and hearing all sorts of stories about his bravado. I recall once having lunch a few years ago with an old Marine friend, Christopher LaVigne, with whom I had recently reconnected. I recall that at one point in our conversation, Chris, a big 6 foot 3-inch-tall former Marine Staff Sgt. who has worked as a trucker for the last 20 years, started talking about Mattis, and quoting him, even pulling up quotations on his smart phone to show to me. I recall thinking how if a former Marine twenty years removed from the Marine Corps saw Mattis in such affectionate terms, it suggested a lot about the impact Mattis had on the psyche of the Marine Corps more broadly, as his legend has only grown in recent years since his retirement.

I do not think most civilians have any idea of how highly revered Mattis has been in the military ranks over the past decade. The personal mannerisms, commentary, and the successful combat history of Mattis as a wartime leader come together to frame him in almost mythical proportions in the martial culture of the Marine Corps. Consider how Mattis is depicted in a brief profanity laced appearance in Generation Kill. Mattis, as played by actor Robert John Burke, is depicted as fearlessly striding through wartime chaos, undisturbed by bullets ripping through a nearby road sign, all the while chewing out a colonel who has been stalled in reaching his objective.

I frequently see former Marine friends, many of them veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, share memes on social media highlighting some of Mattis’ most quotable comments, reflecting their unique martial culture, like the one included below in which Mattis was directing his comments to Iraqi tribal elders.


Perhaps more controversially, I have also seen former Marine friends share the following types of images, to which some religious friends of mine have rather dryly responded to them as “blasphemy.”


Above Image: “St. Mattis of Quantico.” -I have no idea of the origin of this picture, but it is widely shared in Marine circles online.

Such images are blasphemous, technically, but Marines don’t quite see it that way. For them it is presented as a sort of inside joke, in good fun, reflecting the high esteem with which they hold Mattis. Religious Marines (at least not the ones I know), and there are many, would not take offense, understanding the spirit and context in which such memes are shared. It’s their way of acknowledging that Mattis understands the culture of the military, particularly the Marine Corps, and so he is a leader they would trust and happily follow into any brutal conflict (as many already have). I think this is reflected in the recent outpouring of support Marines and other military veterans have shown on hearing news of Mattis’ selection for Secretary of Defense.

This is not to deny there is a certain cultish aspect to the Marine Corps. As a recent Politico article put it:

The Marines aren’t just another service, like the Army, Air Force or Navy. They are a tight knit military tribe, with their own beliefs, myths and philosophies. They view themselves as elite, different from the other services. They’re the closest thing our military has to a cult.

The current Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, a former Harvard professor who was trained as a physicist, whatever his virtues as Secretary of Defense (and I don’t deny that he may have many), simply does not have the kind of background to inspire much passion in America’s warriors, whom he now leads. With Mattis taking over the post, this once again puts him in a leadership role for the military and the receptiveness of military members to the announcement is undeniable.

To further ruffle feathers, recently the following “prayer” to Mattis is also making the rounds on social media, which unrepentant combat veteran Marines typically seem to find hilarious. I have no idea of its origin, but it reads:

Blessed be the Mattis my rock. He trains my fingers for battle, my hands for war. Mattis is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down cover fire at the cyclic rate in green pastures: he leadeth me into the raging amphibious assaults. 

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for our Corps’ sake.

And Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Mattis art with me; his Mortars and Naval Gunfire they comfort me.

Mattis preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: he anointest my head with blood; my beer stein runneth over.

Surely death and mercilessness shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the fields of Valhalla with my brothers and sisters forever.

In his name we slay.

Semper Fidelis

So, unsurprisingly, when I posted my comments in support of Mattis for Secretary of Defense on Facebook, a number of my friends who are former military (not just Marines- Mattis’ appeal is broad in military circles) expressed their happiness with the decision as well, either by “liking” the thread, posting on it, or sending me a private message.

Later, when I decided to write this blog post, I reached out to some of them, particularly those who served with Mattis during war time, asking them to give me their views on Mattis. Why exactly did they like him? What made him special as a general, to the point that Military Times would refer to him as “the most revered Marine general in at least a generation”?

Here are some of their responses:

Marine Major Bob Nicol, who served from 1990 to 2011 including a tour as a company commander in Iraq, noted the following:

If I were to sum up General Mattis in a few words it would be something like razor sharp and highly polished. He is a Marine’s marine. He is probably the most read Marine there ever was. A historian who uses the lessons learned to provide insight and guidance as to what to expect in a time of war. Marines of all ranks can feel a sense of comfort knowing that the task they are about to perform has been well thought out.  General Mattis brings this to the game.  He will continue to bring this winning attitude and knowledge as he serves as Secretary of Defense. 

I have had the opportunity to hear him speak to several groups of Marines, he always has the same demeanor. It resonates with the Marines, it’s not just a “you can do it” motivational speech, it is more of a here is what we are going to do and here is why it will work.  There is no failure, as he said, he can’t even spell the word. Marines love knowledge, and experience, no one brings more of both than General Mattis.


Above Image:  Major Nicol notes: “This picture of General Mattis and I was taken at Camp Matilda, in Kuwait. 2003. This was after we came back from Iraq.”

Gunnery Sergeant Robert Germano, a two war veteran of the Middle East, who served under Mattis in 2003, notes the following:

I’ve been thinking about it since I got your request the other day. I suppose what makes Mattis special for the Marine on the ground, is that he is the epitome of what a Marine should be. The general sense is that he is there with you, on the ground with his troops. He is not ensconced in the rear just looking at maps and organizing units, he was on the ground right alongside everyone else, fighting next to you, fully engaged in the war in all of its aspects. That’s pretty damn impressive from an enlisted man’s perspective.

I once met Mattis at a command center at Camp Diwaniyah (e.g. Camp Diarrhea, as some Marines affectionately call it) in Iraq. When he walked in the room, his presence was huge and everyone there felt it. In all my years in the service, fighting in two wars, I have never had that reaction to the presence of any other military leader.


Above Image: Gunny Robert Germano, Iraq, 2003.

In contrast to my former military friends, many of my academic friends were largely quiet on the issue. Most did not respond to my thread announcing my support for Mattis, but a couple of them posted that they were glad to see I thought Mattis was a good pick, suggesting it would help relieve some small degree of their anxiety about the recent presidential election and Trump’s coming to power as Commander in Chief. I communicated with a few others by private message, with the same type of conversations, in which I assured them that Mattis, although a self described “brawler,” was also a thinking man, with a reputation for high ethical ideals and being deeply read in history, which earned him another nick-name (beyond “Mad Dog”) as a “warrior-monk.”

Mattis as a “Warrior Monk”

As a crusade historian, the title “warrior-monk” naturally has a unique resonance for me. Upon hearing it, I could not help but immediately think of the Templars or other military orders from the crusading era that I study, as they truly were the original “warrior-monks.” To be clear, Mattis is no Templar. There are already enough modern myths about the Templars and we do not need to add this one to the list. So far as I know, Mattis’ personal religious beliefs have never been an important part of his professional or public life, or at least it has never factored into his personal popularity with his Marines.

Indeed, many modern U.S. military generals tend to shy away from overt or public expressions of religiosity, as they are often fighting wars or, yes, carrying out acts of diplomacy on behalf of the United States in Muslim lands. To publicly declare a religious (particularly Christian) motivation to their approach to warfare or diplomacy, even if they hold such views privately, would muddy the waters and potentially add unneeded complications to their efforts to accomplish whatever given task they have been assigned. Besides, Mattis’ often tough talk about the realities of warfare, combined with a good dose of salty language, hardly suggest a humble monkish approach on his part. It is unfathomable, for example, to imagine the deeply religious and devout Christian knight Hugues de Payens, the founder of the Templars, saying the following to his troops.


So why then is Mattis called a “warrior monk”?

Beyond the bravado, and tough wartime rhetoric, Mattis was known to be an intellectual among the military’s upper ranks, a thoughtful and well read commander, emphasizing (perhaps in a monkish way) the study of both history and philosophy. Indeed, retired Major General Robert H. Scales (himself a Ph.D.), has referred to “Mad Dog” as “one of the most urbane and polished men I have ever known.”

Moreover, Mattis was known to have had a personal library of over 7,000 books, and prompted the study of history for his troops through required reading lists of various history books for his officers before battle. Indeed, I have often pointed this out to students who have told me they were considering careers in the military as officers, suggesting to them that a history degree would be ideal for a young future military officer.


Reportedly, Mattis even famously went into battle with a well worn copy of the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He also once claimed, in an email written before he deployed to Iraq, that he had never encountered a situation as a military commander that his past reading did not, in some way, help him to figure out. He noted that his reading, “doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”


But there are other reportedly “monkish” aspects to Mattis’ life. He never married or had children, prompting some to see him as living the life of an ascetic, with his military vows taking precedence over any other. On this topic, one might consider a well known story of Mattis relieving a young Marine from duty on Christmas, actually taking over his guard duty overnight, because the Marine had a family to be with and Mattis did not. Indeed, perhaps in the same way cloistered monks would seek to avoid the distractions of the world, Mattis reportedly never owned a television set.

Yet his monkish traits aside, when the conflict begins, Mattis is an intense warrior, once famously telling tribal elders in Iraq, “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.” In another instance, he told them “I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years.” On another occasion, he famously remarked, “Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment (in American democracy) and kill every one of them until they’re so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact.”

So it’s safe to say Mattis is no wall flower in the pursuit of his military objectives or the defense of U.S. interests.

Yet ethically he holds positions that might surprise some who, based on such statements as those provided above, might see him as an unthinking warrior. It has recently come to light, for example, that President-Elect Donald Trump appears to have changed his mind about his support for the use of waterboarding after meeting with Mattis, who opposes its use.


Moreover, Mattis has never promoted a Rambo style approach to dealing with the enemy, telling his troops (in a letter to the 1st Marine Division) “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” Indeed, Mattis emphasized that his Marines always take a reasoned approach to the battlefield, noting “You cannot allow any of your people to avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it’s going to be bad.”

Perhaps most significantly, Mattis’ ethics ensure that he has always told politicians and higher-ups his honest views on often thorny political or military issues. Just as he had the courage to disagree with Trump during a job interview (no less!) for Secretary of Defense, Mattis has a long history of giving his honest views in situations where it would have been easier to be silent. His retirement in 2013, for example, came sooner than Mattis planned, as his willingness to voice his opposition to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran led to his being forced out. Regardless of the consequences, whether he wins politicians to his point of view, as in the case of Trump on the waterboarding issue, or loses his job, as was apparently the case with his opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran deal, Mattis is by all accounts an honest broker, not cowed by political considerations in his advice to civilian leaders.

But there is still the question:  Do the qualities that made Mattis a good Marine Corps general translate well to the job of Secretary of Defense, a much more bureaucratic or even political position?

Frankly, while I have some idea of the challenges that a Marine general might deal with, I have relatively little idea of the daily challenges of a Secretary of Defense. I certainly understand the role of the Secretary of Defense, and their oversight of the armed forces, but the position undoubtedly calls for a certain degree of diplomacy and political finesse to be effective in a presidential administration centered in the political maze of Washington D.C. The most important role for Mattis will be to use his considerable military experience to advise Trump (who has no real military experience) on all matters related to the same, and to make sure his voice is heard in an administration where other powerful personalities will equally have the president’s ear.

Will Mattis’ straight talking and honest approach, which apparently got him into trouble with the Obama administration, eventually also get him into trouble with the Trump administration? Trump has demonstrated that he highly values loyalty, and while Mattis has already demonstrated the ability to influence President-Elect Trump (on the waterboarding issue), will such straight talk eventually wear thin with a President Trump if he continues to disagree with Trump’s views? Or will Trump continue to take the experienced general’s views to heart, embracing his expertise on military and security matters? If so, Trump will benefit enormously from Mattis’ experience and insights.

On this issue, I also reached out to my friend, retired U.S. Army Colonel Bill Cousins, to get his insights about Mattis. I know Bill to be a highly intelligent, well read, and well traveled man, and after an excellent career as an Army officer that began with his service in the Vietnam War, I respect his often sober and realistic opinions on all matters related to the military.


Above Image: Col. Cousins as a young officer in Vietnam, New Year’s Eve 1971. Second one year tour in Viet Nam. On the road between Long Binh and Song Be with about 100 vehicle convoy to evacuate a MACV Advisory team.

Concerning Mattis’ credentials, Bill noted the following:

He [Mattis] is superbly qualified as a combat leader and has written a book on leadership. He has shown he can manage joint strategic forces by commanding Central Command. He has a firm grasp on national security issues, especially those involving the Middle East. He has written extensively for the Hoover Institution about how to resolve issues in the Middle East, and has a plan to do so.

Yet on the more specific issue of Mattis’ fitness for Secretary of Defense, Bill also noted:

We should however, use caution when considering any former military officer for Secretary of Defense. In the case of General Mattis, there is his potential bias to lean toward a Marine Corps only solution for land warfare. There are those who believe, that since the US Navy has its own Army and Air Force, it can go anywhere and do everything. Former USMC Commandant General James Amos wrote a letter to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2011 expressing those views. For the same potential of bias, we should also use great caution when considering a former corporate CEO, especially of a defense contractor corporation. The responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense extend far beyond leadership in combat, and may often require use of the art of the compromise, a skill not usually well-honed in career military officers.

Bill makes a good point. Does Mattis as a career military officer have the personal qualities necessary to effectively carry out the likely often politicized roles required of the Secretary of Defense? His ability to so quickly sway President-Elect Trump on the issue of waterboarding suggests the potential for Mattis to be an influential voice in his administration. I am also sure that, as a lifelong professional military man, Mattis will always follow the orders of the Commander and Chief faithfully, regardless of any disagreements about policy. But will Mattis be able to argue and lobby for his positions on important matters effectively in a Trump administration that will undoubtedly contain a number of powerful personalities with far greater political experience? We will see.

I hesitate to offer any sort of prediction. Contrary to the popular idea that studying the past is a means of predicting the future, historians are generally terrible at predicting the future. We often have enough trouble deciphering the past, much less telling the fortunes of the future. But I can say, definitively, that there are few people as uniquely qualified for the job of advising the president on matters related to the military at the moment, ranging from global strategic issues (particularly in the Middle East) to matters of military training and morale. Also, significantly, his appointment to the position will undoubtedly elevate the faith that men and women in uniform have in their leadership.

It already has.