General Mattis on Professional Reading
May 10, 2013 8:53 PM   Subscribe

With Rifle and Bibliography. "In late 2003 a colleague of General James Mattis wrote to him asking for a few words on the importance of reading and military history for the officer, even where it might seem that one was “too busy to read.”" His letter is found about 1/3 down in the linked page, also pasted the entire first letter after the jump.

Message 1: from General James Mattis, on the matter of professional reading, 20 November

….The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

With TF 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in AFG, and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).

Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t know a hell of a lot more than just the TTPs? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher HQ can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?

Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.

This is not new to the USMC approach to warfighting — Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I read (and reread) Rommel’s Papers (remember “Kampstaffel”?), Montgomery’s book (“Eyes Officers”…), “Grant Takes Command” (need for commanders to get along, “commanders’ relationships” being more important than “command relationships”), and some others. As a result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn’t waste their lives because I didn’t have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields.

Hope this answers your question…. I will cc my ADC in the event he can add to this. He is the only officer I know who has read more than I.

Semper Fi, Mattis
posted by amitai (14 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
GEN Mattis is great. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak after that little incident - he semi-jokingly asked if there were any reporters in the audience.

He recently stepped down as CENTCOM commander. Kings of War has a post from the original recipient of the e-mail.

Abu Muqawama has a very detailed critique of the exact books mentioned, arguing that it's not the exact books but rather the methods that are more important, and that GEN Mattis is that rare commander with true coup d'œil.

Also, GEN Mattis' CENTCOM reading list.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:09 PM on May 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm not enough of a student of military history to comment on specific books, but I can't conceive of a military commander thoroughly understanding strategic thinking without reading.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:11 PM on May 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

16 Best From Mad Dog Mattis
“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:17 PM on May 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Being a Canadian, I'm not familiar with the bon mots of Gen Mattis. But that's one hard dude. It's kind of refreshing to read his honesty.

Canadian soldiers are just as fierce and just as effective at what they do, but you don't hear a lot of candour from them like this. We have a quieter and more modest, if no less effective, fighting force.
posted by salishsea at 9:32 PM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

16 Best From Mad Dog Mattis

Wow, what an asshole. If guys like this hadn't joined the military, they'd probably just have become murderers.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:49 AM on May 11, 2013

He seems frank and experienced, but I don't know that I really care about the cultural opinions of a man who earnestly said this:

“Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment [in American democracy] and kill every one of them until they’re so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact.”

All this is no less and no more than I would expect of a man in his position. Read books! Books help Ug kill better!
posted by forgetful snow at 6:26 AM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's also the general Marine Corps reading list.

Heh. Ender's Game.

It's doesn't have an enormous breadth of subject matter, but it looks like quite a good list. I'm pleased to see Grossman's On Killing, which is a good, readable overview of the empirical and anecdotal available evidence for the psychological barriers and costs involved in killing other people, and how the armed forces have been trying to mitigate the problem since WWII.
posted by figurant at 9:55 AM on May 11, 2013

I had the opportunity to meet him briefly and chit-chat with him a few years back, while he was waiting for his flight to depart. And in those few minutes, I got the sense that he was very down-to-earth and personable, which is not a quality that every 4-star officer possesses (In my opinion, the Marine Corps seems to have the generals that don't act holier-than-thou and get caught up in their stars.) He says some pretty wild things, but I think he keeps it real, and that is a rare quality when you have 4 stars on your uniform. Too bad he's retiring; the military definitely needs more people like him.
posted by KillaSeal at 10:31 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

He got pushed out for essentially being too honest. Every time people discussed the situation with Iran he'd be in there with realism. Stating that achieving the policy goals as stated would require a ground invasion and estimating the casualties and cost is not popular in Washington because everyone prefers to use euphemisms like "red line" and "all options on the table". This is the kind of thing that led to the downfall of Eric Shinseki before the invasion of Iraq - noone wants to hear what the blood implications are of their preferred policies.

Some people may not care for his fairly brutal language but I prefer it to the mealy-mouthed bureaucratic military speak that is more common.

Let us be clear - forces under his command were no more violent than any other military force during an invasion, he's just blunt about stating what their jobs actually are.

Just try and get an accurate description of a military operation.

Typically, it'd go like this:

"We supported the ANA and reconstruction teams to improve the quality of life for ordinary Afghans in the area"

Ok, how did you do that?

"We improved the local security situation"

What does that mean?

"We neutralised militant groups operating in the area"

Neutralised? Operating? Gosh, this all sounds quite scientific. How did you do that?

"We engaged in intelligence led operations to disrupt their ability to attack us"

What's an operation? Intelligence-led, that sounds quite surgical and precise! Disrupting again sounds like something sophisticated and certainly not bloody and unpleasant. So how did you do this?

"Intelligence led means that we snatched suspicious looking Pashtuns "of military age" (a phrase which elides the fact that this includes what most Americans would consider children) and then the CIA or some shady ANA guys water-boarded them until we figured out the next person to snatch. Rinse and repeat"

"Disrupt their ability to attack us means that we fired missiles at houses where their leaders where staying, killing them along with any women and young children in a blitz of shrapnel and fire. Some very unlucky people survived the missile and died of massive infections a few days later or lived horribly maimed lives in a country where virtually all labour is physical."

"Operations are where we walk around the country-side until one of the 16 year olds on their side shoots a 19 year old on our side, our guy chokes to death on a fountain of blood from his throat-shot while their guy gets shot through the gut and bleeds out from horrific liver lacerations over the course of 20 minutes or so. Both of them are in horrible pain but only one of them can scream. Both of their mothers will scream when the news reaches them."

I like Mattis because he never forgot what war was and always has been.

Wow, what an asshole. If guys like this hadn't joined the military, they'd probably just have become murderers.

Let's not forget that behind all the high-flown rhetoric it is Barack Obama who signs extra-judicial death warrants for American teenagers. That statement always gets a strong reaction but the only part of it which isn't definitely 100% true is that I don't know if he even signs anything or just casually assents to their deaths with a furrowed brow.
posted by atrazine at 11:51 AM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Asshole? I don't think so. Unless you're getting his people hurt/killed needlessly
UG? Naw, this guy is no UG

He seems to be the rare soldier (ok Marine) who is a student of history and tactician and to whom government leaders dont listen.

To typify him as a caveman or spree murderer is to ignore the hard fact that someone has to fight to keep the chaos at bay and some people are more inclined to do it right that to just lash out and hope for the best. Better someone who reads history books as to minimize needless loss of life.

I can imagine that without the understanding that military service and combat brings all, of this sounds harsh and crazy. And I admit bias, having been raised in a military family (Vietnam Era) and, after swearing never to, serving.

But it's different in there. So if politics and stupidity can get you killed, you want a guy who's got an active immunization program against both in there on your side.

And the plainer spoken, the better.
posted by djrock3k at 1:48 PM on May 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

To typify him as a caveman or spree murderer is to ignore the hard fact that someone has to fight to keep the chaos at bay

That's an interesting characterisation. Casting a quick eye over his service record, the vast majority of it was spent fighting wars of aggression. How different the world looks from the inside of a uniform!

I like the guy - how could I not, I've been trained by enough movies - and it's such a genuine pleasure to hear him talk honestly about the reality of state violence that it makes me want to lay off him for being an unabashed perpetrator of it, but I can't, I can't.
posted by forgetful snow at 3:46 PM on May 11, 2013

Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:44 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

The instigation of state violence starts in the realm of politics and journalism. I fail to see how poorly or unenthusiastically prosecuting a war would benefit anyone, even the losing side. If you're referring to soldiers as murderers in an effort to shame them out of their vocation perhaps you should think about how much worse war would be if only sociopaths and men with no ethics were leading our military.

I say this as someone who opposed both the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:49 AM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

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