Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis was named to take over U.S. Central Command today by Defense Secretary Robert Gates because of his "strategic insight and independent thinking." If confirmed, the head of Joint Forces Command -- who had planned to retire within weeks -- would replace Gen. David Petraeus, who recently became commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
But Mattis, whom Esquire magazine called "casually profane," may be best known outside military circles for his blunt-talking ways:
- In 2001, as the Marine task force commander in Afghanistan, Mattis bragged that "we now own a piece" of the country. That remark, which played into Muslim suspicions that the U.S. was out to occupy their country, got a slap from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said, "The United States covets no one else's land, certainly not Afghanistan."
- In 2005, Mattis got himself in trouble again when he spoke at a forum in San Diego. Addressing an approving audience, he said war was "a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people when you like brawling," referring to the Taliban. "When you go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slapped 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."
In explaining his choice today, Gates said he spoke to Mattis about the 2005 incident and was confident such off-the-cuff remarks were a thing of the past. "I think the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned," he said.
Those who have worked with Mattis say he is literally on the same page with the much-lauded Petraeus, having co-authored the counterinsurgency manual that is often solely attributed to the latter.
"It's often overlooked that Gen. Mattis was one of the architects" of the strategy that quelled violence in Iraq and that the Pentagon hopes will do the same in Afghanistan, said Joseph Collins, who worked with Mattis in former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's office during the George W. Bush administration.
Despite his gruff talk, in Iraq Mattis favored a softer approach to win over the population. In 2007, he was quoted as urging restraint to troops and counseling them to be friendly toward Iraqis to gain their trust. "Every time you wave at an Iraqi civilian, al-Qaida rolls over in its grave," he said.
"He is totally devoted and a great student of the game," said Collins, who now teaches at the National War College. "He likes to sometimes emphasize the homespun and even the coarse at times, but he's actually one of the best-read military people I've ever met. ... He'll bring tremendous knowledge and background."
In his book "Fiasco," Thomas Ricks calls Mattis "one of the more intense intellectuals in the U.S. military," and writes that he always packed the "Meditations" of the Roman stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius when he deployed and required thousands of pages of reading material for his officers. Yet, as Ricks quotes the general, one of his rules was, "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."
Kenneth Allard, a former Army colonel, said Mattis -- who has been compared to the legendary World War II leader Lt. Gen. Chesty Puller -- is "my ideal of the perfect warrior." Allard recently wrote of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose dismissal set off the military's recent musical chairs, that he embodied George Orwell's famous line, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." That, he said, applies to Mattis as well.
"He's a Marine right out of central casting," said Jamie McIntyre, a former CNN Pentagon correspondent who now writes a military blog. "He's very can-do, very self-confident, a little bit brash and full of a little bravado but has always gotten the job done."