On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division distributed a one-page “Message to All Hands.” It was a succinct warning to those going into battle about what to expect from the enemy and his expectations for them.
His instructions and encouragement on deportment, skill, courage and compassion hearkened back to Shakespeare’s rendition of Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day and Eisenhower’s guidance to his troops going ashore at Normandy. The closing was an admonition paraphrasing the Roman general, Lucius Sulla: “Demonstrate to the world there is ‘No better friend, no worse enemy’ than a U.S. Marine” is now an axiom in the Marine Corps.
Some members of the media who read the letter expressed amazement that a Marine Division commander — about to go into combat — could be so eloquent. Those of us who have known Jim Mattis a very long time weren’t surprised at all.
When we first met four decades ago, James N. Mattis was a brand-new second lieutenant, a bright, enthusiastic student, and I was a tactics instructor at the Basic School in Quantico, Va., where newly minted Marine officers are introduced to what it means to be an officer of Marines. He had a mischievous glint in his eye, a half-suppressed smile and a can-do spirit that matched his physical fitness. Though nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his speed and agility on the O-Course, he was also a voracious reader. It’s my recollection that he was one of the few who completed the lengthy TBS “professional reading list” that began at Sun Tzu, waded through Clausewitz and ended with Vietnam.
While he was a student in 1973, then-Lt. Mattis and Capt. North “co-starred” in a Marine recruiting film that was shot while his class was going through training. His is one of the very few student names audible in the grainy rendition available on YouTube.
After we served in 3rd Division, he told comrades that I had “failed” him in platoon tactics. In 2004, he repeated this story after his “jump command group” repelled an attack on Route Michigan in Anbar province. Not so. He did have a do-over on a live-fire range when I stopped training because the weather made it unsafe to proceed — but James Mattis never failed at anything in his long service as a U.S. Marine.
His command experience at every rank is extraordinary, even by Marine standards. As a second lieutenant, he led a rifle platoon and weapons platoon in 3rd Division. While a captain, he commanded a rifle company and weapons company in 1st Marine Brigade. As a major, he commanded a recruiting station. As a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines in Operation Desert Storm. And as a colonel, he commanded the entire 7th Marine Regiment.
In each of these assignments he honed his leadership skills and unsurpassed tactical proficiency. His subordinates recollect how he inspired them by never asking others to do something he wouldn’t have done. Those who served with him at Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and National Defense University claim that he was already known as the “Warrior Monk” when they met him the first time.
By the time our paths crossed again in 2001, America was at war, and Brig. Gen. Jim Mattis was commanding Task Force 58 — a Marine expeditionary brigade — and I was reporting for Fox News. TF 58, the first conventional U.S. combat unit deployed to Afghanistan, was en route to Forward Operating Base Rhino in Kandahar province. Had it not been for Jim Mattis, I would never have been allowed to go ashore.
Ten years ago this week, Griff Jenkins, my Fox News cameraman and field producer, and I were with Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis and his 1st Marine Division as they closed in on Saddam Hussein’s capital. Though we couldn’t broadcast it then, we heard him order his Marines to “Go heavy kinetic all the way to Baghdad.” They did.
Blunt-spoken “Mattis-isms” are now part of Marine lexicon, folklore and mythology. Some are even tattooed on Marine biceps. But I’ve also heard Jim Mattis in quiet moments of reflection. In 2004, shortly before he relinquished command of the 1st Marine Division, he sat down with our camera rolling at the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines command post in Ramadi, Iraq. I asked him what he wanted our people at home to know about his Marines.
He paused and replied, “We proved to the world that we have young Americans with a level of selflessness … willing to put up with danger and discomfort and protect this experiment we call the United States of America. This experiment will continue so long as we have young people willing to mix it up in a fight. The enemy has learned the hard way: Don’t mess with us.”
Oliver North is the host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel and the author of the New York Times best-seller “Heroes Proved” (Threshold, 2012).