Sunday, March 18, 2007

My interview with General Mattis

In May 2003 General James Mattis was the commander of the famous First Marine Division in Iraq. As a one star general Gen Mattis had already made a name for himself in the Afghanistan war. Those exploits had led him to command of the First Division, and he had led the Division, often literally, from Kuwait to Baghdad at the beginning of the war.

Gen Mattis had a deserved reputation as a tough, hard nosed Marine. A bachelor, many said that he was married to the Corps. All of us over there held this man in awe and none of us wanted to do anything to get on his bad side. Without intending to, I managed to get him riled up.

With Baghdad taken, Mattis' Division was redeployed to the area south of Baghdad. A Marine infantry battalion was placed in seven of the nine provinces (the British were in the other two). In the unique way the Marines have of conducting military operations, the lieutenant colonels who commanded these battalions were made essentially military governors with very wide latitude in how they managed they civilian populace in their provinces.

The Division gave relatively little guidance to the battalions on dealing with the millions of Iraqi civilians in their area. The one issue made clear to everyone was that General Mattis was very interested in getting the schools repaired and ready to open in the fall. The First Marine Expeditionary Force, or MEF, was the Division's next higher headquarters yet they didn't have a lot of guidance on dealing with the civilian populace either.

This was a frustrating state of affairs for me and the other members of my Army Reserve unit because we had been sent to Iraq and assigned to the MEF to assist them in dealing with civilian issues. We thought that as long as we made the trip we might as well do something.

This was not a universal opinion. Others in our unit thought that if we made ourselves useful and actually did a good job then we might be left behind when the Marines were withdrawn and sent home. We and the Marines expected this withdrawal to happen any moment.

"After all," a Marine staff officer told us, "we don't do occupations. The Army does."

Any efforts that we wanted to take in getting information about the civil populace was foiled by the First Marine Division policies restricting anyone operating in their area. General Mattis didn't want anyone from higher headquarters traveling to see any unit in his Division without his permission. In fact, he didn't really want any of us talking to anyone in his Division. The Division was sending reports to the MEF and, by God, that was all we really needed to know about what was going on.

I wasn't happy with this state of affairs. I was stuck at Camp Babylon with the MEF headquarters, unable to travel to any of the seven provinces in our area and unable to even talk to anyone in those provinces to get a sense of what was happening. Each of the Marine battalions had about a dozen Army civil affairs soldiers assigned to assist them. I had organized the training of these soldiers when they first arrived in Kuwait and now that they were deployed out to the provinces I wanted to get out there and see how they were doing. I had a great suspicion, later confirmed, that the written reports we were receiving were not complete.

After many long arguments I was able to convince our Operations officer, Dale Foster, to submit a request to the MEF staff for permission for me to take a team to the Marine battalion headquarters in each of the provinces. Colonel Foster was doubtful that the request would be approved.

It was.

In the middle of May 2003 I assembled four Hummers and 10 soldiers and proceeded on what I was to later call a Grand Tour of south central Iraq. The morning of my departure I placed a copy of the MEF orders authorizing my trip, signed by the MEF Commander, General Conway, in my pocket. Since General Conway had three stars and General Mattis had only two, I hoped that these orders would be sufficient. Still, I half expected some Marine guard to challenge me as I departed the compound, demanding to see my papers. Little did I know.

My first two destinations were Al Kut and An Nasiriyah, in the area of Task Force Tarawa. While I was in An Nasiriyah, attending a luncheon in a tent with a bunch of local sheiks, I received word that I was to call Colonel Foster immediately on the satellite phone. The next day I was due to travel to As Samawah, in the First Division sector.

When I finally got Colonel Foster on the phone his message was curt and stunning, "General Mattis has ordered that you are not to proceed to any battalion locations in his divisional area until you have reported to his division headquarters in Ad Diwaniyah and explained the purpose of your trip."

I digested this message in silence. "Did anybody tell him that I had General Conway's permission to do this?" I asked. General Conway, as the MEF commander, was General Mattis' boss.

"I don't think General Mattis cares," Foster replied. "He wants to talk to you right away."

Holy shit, I thought. If General Mattis wants to talk to me right away he can't be happy about something, and whatever he is unhappy about must concern me. I felt in my pocket for my permission slip from General Conway. In my military career I had rarely been summoned to a general's presence, and definitely had never been summoned when I was the principal object of the discussion

My convoy of 4 vehicles arrived in Ad Diwaniyah in the middle of the afternoon. The heat of the day was bad but we didn't yet realize how really bad it was going to get. The Marine Division headquarters was located in a miserable hellhole of a former Iraqi army base outside of town. I reported to the Chief of Staff.

The General had me cool my heels for an hour and then I was ordered to report to his office. I entered and gave him my best Army Colonel salute. He told me to have a seat. He made a phone call and a few minutes later his four principal division staff officers entered the room and stood behind him. I sat in a chair facing these five men, quietly anxious.

I had been in a wide and varied number of interviews in my life but this was without a doubt the most uncomfortable interview I had ever conducted. The general was a small man, with a sharp nose, and a calm, nonthreatening demeanor. He probably knew, as I did, that threats were unnecessary as I was already thoroughly intimidated. During the entire interview he never raised his force, but spoke calmly and directly.

I had spent the day going over answers to every conceivable question that I thought that he would ask. Nevertheless, his first question caught me by surprise.

"Colonel, why don't you tell me how what you are doing is benefiting me?"

I couldn't think of a good answer to his question because my trip was intended to gather information for me to do my job, and help my unit do their job to support General Conway. Helping General Mattis never entered any of the equations in my calculus, although I surely understand how that would be on the top of the General's list.

Since I didn't have a good answer for him I launched into a nervous narrative of how I had trained all the civil affairs soldiers in his sector, and how I needed feedback on how they were doing, and how Army civil affairs doctrine said this and that and blah, blah, blah, and he wasn't liking anything that I was saying.

He asked me the same question again. This time I remembered my permission slip from General Conway and I actually pointed to the pocket of my Desert Camouflage Uniform where those precious orders resided. I fell back on the true and unvarnished statement that I was operating under orders from General Conway.

The man had a face of stone and nothing that I was saying was changing one granite line on his craggy face. He did not appear impressed by General Conway's orders, or U.S. Army civil affairs doctrine or any of the other points that I had to say. Finally I figured out that I needed to shut up and listen.

"Sir," I finally said in frustration, holding up both my hands, "I'm ready to do whatever you want me to do."

Once I was thoroughly pinned to the wall, he commenced to give me the "Every Marine Commander Owns His Battlespace" lecture, which I had heard many times before. Then he gave me his "My Commanders Don't Have Time To Answer Silly Questions From Higher Headquarters" lecture, which I had also heard before.

He told me the story of a team from Baghdad that had shown up in his area without notifying either the Division or the local battalion commander. They had gotten in trouble with the Iraqis, and then had screamed for help. How could he go to some one's help if he didn't know that he was there? he asked me.

Obviously, it was a rhetorical question. Throughout this entire time I was the most earnest and studious of listeners. His staff never said a word. Finally, he let me go with a word of warning that I wasn't to do any of those things those other idiots had done to make him mad. I promised that I wouldn't.

I left the interview almost laughing with relief. War is certainly hell. Fortunately for me (and the General) I never had to speak to General Mattis again for the rest of the war.


  1. This is a good story - the tension between a military focused mindset and a civilian focused mindset. And yet you were both in the military. Imagine how much more difficult and complex it is managing this relationship when it's the military and third parties such as NGOs and humanitarian actors. This is basically what I wrote my dissertation about - civil-military coordination. I think it should be the #1 priority of modern militaries.
    This story also reminded me of why I would never be in the military - it strips individuals of their individualism and civil rights (how "un-American" is that?) and is completely contrary to rule of law (his "battlespace" my ass).

  2. The purpose of civil affairs in the U.S. Army is to manage this relationship between the military and the NGOs and humanitarian actors. A lot of the conflict between General Mattis' point of view and mine was the cultural difference between the way that the Marines did business and the Army.

    I don't see how Mattis' insistence on controlling his battlespace was unconstitutional or un-American. In combat strict control is important so that the right people get shot and not the friendlies. My issue was that this way of organizing their affairs was unsuitable to the occupation of a foreign country. A Marine infantry battalion commander had neither the temperment nor the training to be a military governor. The Army civil affairs soldiers assigned to the Marines had the necessary skill sets to do the job. The Marines eventually figured this out but they took too long to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

  3. Anonymous1:33 PM

    Very interesting story Mike. Two things, Marines(navy) do not salute while under arms and sometimes doing nothing is the best course of action!

    Bill Red

  4. Cpl JR4:39 AM

    While I am admittedly a Marine NCO and my first tour of duty was in 2007-2008 as a PFC, I can honestly understand General Mattis. I had heard all kinds of stories about Gen. "Mad Dog" Mattis and the man was a legend even among the younger devil dogs. To this day he's still talked about with an almost god like reverence. As for the occupation, I would imagine that there may have been some sort of reasoning from his perspective that the war wasn't over. Marines had been putting down irregulars even during the invasion from other countries and he undoubtedly knew this. It's possible, to me at least, that he saw that this was a major problem to begin with and simply wanted to keep tabs on all the issues in his area without being circumvented. As for the "Un-American" comment about stripping an individual of their individualism, take another look. You can still be an individual but when it comes time to get the job done and go out there and get back alive, individualism can get people killed more often than not. My personal offense to the comment is irrelevant. Lastly, the "rule of law" in war is not nearly as black and white as you might like to believe. There is doing what you think is right and doing what you can to prevent stuff you think is bad from happening. Sometimes, the mark is missed and that sucks, but it's also war.