A General James Mattis Christmas Story

Now that it seems virtually certain that retired USMC General James Mattis will be the next Secretary of Defense it is important to know what kind of a man he is and how he will likely operate. As we used to say in the Army, you are known by your reputation, not by your record. And often an anecdote tells you more about a man than everything he has said or that has been said about him.

If you’ve never served in the military, particularly in a combat arms unit, you’ve really missed a life altering experience. There is a lot of drudgery and more than a little pathetic chickensh** but as the years pass all you remember are the good times and the strong bonds that develop among people who serve together. If you are a young man or woman holding a commission, one of the first things you learn is that with your authority comes responsibility. When hot food is brought to the field the chow line forms in reverse rank order, that is, the senior guy eats last. If you are shorted on meals or if some nimrod has a big spoon, the senior guys are the ones who go without. If I had a dime for every “jam sandwich” I’ve eaten (that is, two pieces of white bread “jammed” together) my retirement outlook would be less bleak. (Let me digress for a moment, this is why I go bonkers when I see police officers stopped at a red light turn their lights on, drive through the intersection, and then turn their lights off. Yes, you douchenozzle, you can do it but every time a citizen sees you do it the moral authority of you and your fellow officers falls in our eyes.) You learn to do things because they are the right thing to do because there is literally no one watching you other than the guy in the mirror. That’s not exactly right. In a lot of ways it is like being a parent. There are eyes on you all the time, you just may not notice them. And when you break those invisible, unwritten, and traditional rules you lose respect. And when you lose respect you learn what it’s like to have people “working for you” rather than “working with you.” In fact, you learn a great deal about what we Catholics call “servant leadership.” (This is not to imply the phrase is uniquely Catholic only that I am speaking for myself.) Soldiers will carry an officer who isn’t all that good if he’s acting in good faith and in accordance with the way an officer should behave. They will utterly kill the career of the most talented guy alive if he violates those unwritten rules.

I say this as a preface, not because I’m all maudlin over my past — though that has been known to happen with good bourbon — but because it is critical to understanding why a guy like James Mattis has the reputation within the service that he has. Civilians like his “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” quotes but real combat troops don’t put much stock is talk like that. If it is done to men inside the fraternity it marks you as the equivalent of an internet tough guy bragging about his Krav Maga classes and the number of Glocks he owns. And, of course, we all talk that crap around civilians for our own amusement. A real officer is known by his reputation for going the extra mile and doing his duty because as Marse Robert said, “Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This is via the US Naval Institute Blog:

A couple of months ago, when I told General Krulak, the former Commandant of the Marine Corps, now the chair of the Naval Academy Board of Visitors, that we were having General Mattis speak this evening, he said, “Let me tell you a Jim Mattis story.” General Krulak said, when he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, every year, starting about a week before Christmas, he and his wife would bake hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cookies. They would package them in small bundles.

Then on Christmas day, he would load his vehicle. At about 4 a.m., General Krulak would drive himself to every Marine guard post in the Washington-Annapolis-Baltimore area and deliver a small package of Christmas cookies to whatever Marines were pulling guard duty that day. He said that one year, he had gone down to Quantico as one of his stops to deliver Christmas cookies to the Marines on guard duty. He went to the command center and gave a package to the lance corporal who was on duty.

He asked, “Who’s the officer of the day?” The lance corporal said, “Sir, it’s Brigadier General Mattis.” And General Krulak said, “No, no, no. I know who General Mattis is. I mean, who’s the officer of the day today, Christmas day?” The lance corporal, feeling a little anxious, said, “Sir, it is Brigadier General Mattis.”

General Krulak said that, about that time, he spotted in the back room a cot, or a daybed. He said, “No, Lance Corporal. Who slept in that bed last night?” The lance corporal said, “Sir, it was Brigadier General Mattis.”
About that time, General Krulak said that General Mattis came in, in a duty uniform with a sword, and General Krulak said, “Jim, what are you doing here on Christmas day? Why do you have duty?” General Mattis told him that the young officer who was scheduled to have duty on Christmas day had a family, and General Mattis decided it was better for the young officer to spend Christmas Day with his family, and so he chose to have duty on Christmas Day.

General Krulak said, “That’s the kind of officer that Jim Mattis is.”

And this is why Mattis’s Marines follow him anywhere and do whatever he told them to do. Because they know the character of the man giving the orders. They know he won’t ask them to do anything he wont’ do himself. And I am confident that Mattis can stop the cultural rot of eight years of Obama’s political appointees and give our men and women a military they can be proud to serve in.