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On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on the future of warfare. Marine Lt. Gen. Jim Mattis was one of the panelists. During his remarks he made a statement about the pleasure that young soldiers and marines feel when killing in close combat, a statement that seems to have gotten him in trouble with the fourth estate — prompting an apology and some counseling by the Marine Corps Commandant.
First, a confession: I know Gen. Mattis. He is a central figure in the book I coauthored with Williamson Murray, “The Iraq War: A Military History.” For those of you who might have the image of a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, let me assure you that he is one of the most urbane and polished men I have known. He can quote Homer as well as Sun Tzu and has over 7,000 books in his personal library.
Jim is the product of three decades of schooling and practice in the art of war. No one on active duty knows more about the subject. He is an infantryman, a close-combat Marine. He is one of those very few who willingly practices the art of what social scientists term “intimate killing.” Those of us who have engaged in the act understand what he was trying to explain to an audience of defense technologists and contractors.
Intimate killing is a primal aspect of warfare unchanged since the beginning of civilization. It involves a clash of two warriors, one on one, armed with virtually identical weapons. The decision goes to the soldier with the right stuff, the one with the greater cunning, strength, guile, ruthlessness and will to win.
For a moment put yourself in the place of a young soldier or Marine fighting house to house in the mean streets of Fallujah. Burdened with over 60 pounds of gear, sweat dripping constantly into your face, you can’t stop shaking from the fear of what the enemy has in store for you around the next corner. Just ahead is a darkened house with doors and windows closed and shuttered. The only sound is the crunching of your boots on the trash and broken glass as you move in slow motion to surround the dwelling. You watch as the sergeant signals you to cover a side entrance. Through the faint haze you can see your buddy kick in the door and immediately come face to face with an insurgent who greets him with a burst of AK-47 fire that tears a hole in his chest. Your buddy doesn’t die. The terrorist wants him to live just long enough for his buddies to rush in for a rescue and become additional trophies to be laid at the altar of heaven.
Now, it’s your turn. You use your superior discipline and skill to approach the insurgent such that you’re detected just at the last second. Both of you raise your weapons simultaneously and open fire in a crushing tear of bullets that scatter and ricochet wildly across the room. One bullet finds the bad guy and he falls in a bloody lump just inches from your boots.
What exactly do you “feel” at this moment? Relief, to be sure, but also something else that cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t committed an act of intimate killing. It’s not joy, exactly, more like exhilaration and an enormous sense of self-satisfaction that in one of the most primal challenges — where all the satellites, planes, ships and smart weapons are of no use whatever — you prevailed, one on one, over a diabolically evil enemy.
Who should be offended by the emotions of “joy” or whatever one feels at the moment of a successful kill? It’s a fair fight, you win and the bad guy loses. It’s that simple. One more terrorist will not threaten your unit or your buddies. Remember, this isn’t a reality show. There are no retakes. Donald Trump doesn’t fire you and the price for second place is death.
My point simply is this: We must celebrate the fact that we have men like Jim Mattis willing to devote (and give) their lives when necessary to commit an act that most of those in our society would be horrified to even contemplate. If you are offended by these emotions, then seriously consider joining an Army or Marine infantry unit so that you can demonstrate how to kill an enemy in a more humane and politically correct manner.
Until such an unlikely day occurs, we must all remember that leaders like Gen. Mattis and the men he commands are the rarest commodities that a protected society like ours can produce. All they want is the opportunity to serve a country that truly appreciates the difficulty and dangers inherent in the duties they perform, duties that very few are willing even to contemplate.
Retired Maj. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.
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