- - Thursday, January 12, 2017


The media often caricatures rather than analyzes its subjects. Marine generals, especially those with colorful nicknames, are often pigeonholed as overly aggressive and less than analytical when facing complex situations.

Any attempt to portray Marine Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Trump’s nominee for secretary of Defense and Gen. John Kelly, nominee for secretary of Homeland Security as “attack now and sort ‘em out later” military types overlooks the truth about two of America’s finest leaders — military or civilian.

On the drive to Baghdad in 2003, Gen. Mattis, the commander of the first Marine Division was charged with driving up the plains between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, while the army’s Third Infantry Division assaulted to his West. Between the American forces and Saddam’s headquarters in Baghdad were some-17 Iraqi Divisions. Some were combat ready, some rag-tag.

Nonetheless, they represented a force of 300,000 enemy soldiers with armor and artillery that the Americans had to confront. Gen. Mattis and his deputy commander Gen. John Kelly performed magnificently. “We’re not here to kill a bunch of mother’s sons,” Gen. Kelly admonished his officers, ” … but to take Baghdad.” And they and their Army brethren did, with lightning swiftness and low casualties.

Speed was the order of the day, with Gen. Mattis landing C-130 aircraft on the highway to fuel up his attacking armor. Gen. Mattis “head-faked” an assault up the middle, isolated Saddam’s Baghdad Division with two of his regiments and brought his Fifth Regiment (commanded by present-chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford) in from the East flank with lightning speed.

By April 6, Gen. Mattis‘ forces were in Baghdad. Throughout the historic assault Gen. Mattis and Gen. Kelly used intelligence and solid decision-making to win quickly with low casualties.

Later, when four U.S. contractors were killed, burned and hung on the Euphrates Bridge in Fallujah, President Bush’s civilian lead in Iraq, Paul Bremer, called for a massive Marine assault on the Sunni City. Gen. Mattis and Gen. Kelly advised against the assault, arguing that it would polarize the Sunni tribes against America. Their message: “Don’t take the bait kill the murderers with surgical strikes.”

Mr. Bremer’s insistence won out. The Marines cussed the amateurs and attacked, then were ordered to stop the attack four days later when they were halfway through the city. Through it all Gen. Mattis and Gen. Kelly led their forces effectively through the fog of war and politics.

Later, as the top Marine in Anbar Province, Gen. Kelly was a leader in splitting the Sunni Tribes from their one-time allies, al Qaeda. While the latter brutalized the tribes, the Marines and soldiers built water-lines and medical centers and monitored elections. When the widows of a tribe needed income, Gen. Kelly brought in milk cows. When a tribal leader died, Gen. Kelly sent his body home in his personal helicopter. The Marine and Army campaign to divide al Qaeda from the tribes worked, with the Sunni leaders turning on the terrorists in 2006 and joining the U.S. in crushing them in 2007.

In the years since they were prime movers in winning the Iraq War, Gen. Mattis and Gen. Kelly have been entrusted with big chunks of U.S. military forces. They have performed superbly, gathering respect among Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. President-elect Trump knows he is will be getting straightaway answers on the big issues from the always-candid Gen. Mattis. The same goes for Gen. Kelly, whose sense of duty is daily strengthened by the family legacy of his heroic son Robert, who fought in Fallujah as a Private First Class and later was lost in combat as a platoon leader in Afghanistan.

For those who assert the “Marshal” prohibition which bars, in the absence of a waiver, a general from becoming secretary of Defense, a glance at the operational “chain of command” is in order. Under the Constitution and U.S. statute, the command of the Armed Forces flows from the president to the secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders around the world.

The idea that a link in that chain of commanding operations, namely the secretary of Defense, cannot be a military leader is nonsensical. Gen. Mattis will bring insight to the job that no background in academia or business could ever provide. With respect to Gen. Kelly, his last major job as commander of SOUTHCOM, overseeing all of Central and South America has given him tremendous understanding of our porous borders and the drug cartels that penetrate them.

Gen. Mattis and Gen. Kelly, both are better-than-ideal candidates for secretary of Defense and secretary of Homeland Security. On this one Donald Trump’s judgment was superb. And if it’s any indication what type of commander in chief Mr. Trump will be, we can all rest easy.

A former Marine, Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, is chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.

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