Gen. James Mattis thinks about when, and how, American troops should put their lives at risk.

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April 22 2010 7:10 AM

A Marine General at War

Gen. James Mattis thinks about when, and how, American troops should put their lives at risk.

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Mattis was at Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego when the call came to return to Al-Anbar. His first response was to turn to his library for a solution to the changing war in Iraq. What at first seems new becomes familiar by historical analogy. Instead of starting from scratch, he looked to apply the lessons of previous counterinsurgencies in Algeria, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Among his key texts was the classic  Marines 1940 Small Wars Manual which outlined principles for identifying and fighting an insurgency. The lessons in the reading were clear: The public was the prize. Win over the public and the insurgency loses its base of support. At the time, U.S. forces were locked in a brutal struggle that was alienating Iraqis. The more doors that were kicked in and houses reduced to rubble, the stronger the insurgency grew.


Mattis assigned his officers hundreds of pages of reading, which included news articles about mistakes the Israelis had committed in Lebanon, several accounts of shootings of civilians in Iraq, and T.E. Lawrence's "27 Articles" about fighting in Arabia. The readings offered two lessons about risk. The first was that the risks of using too much force were greater sometimes than using no force at all. In a struggle to win over the population, collateral damage creates new insurgents with lifetime grudges, creates sympathy in the local population for anyone wanting to hurt Americans, and limits the useful flow of intelligence from potentially sympathetic Iraqis. The second lesson was that in a war for the population, helping restore electrical power or even handing out water can lower the risk of violence more in the long run than rolling tanks down the street.

As his division prepared to ship out, Mattis called in experts in Arab culture to lead cultural sensitivity classes. As Thomas E. Ricks recounts in Fiasco, Marines were taught to remove their sunglasses when talking to Iraqis, and when searching a home, to respect the head of the household by seeking his permission to enter rather than roughing him up. When Mattis led the 1st Marine Division into Iraq in 2003, he had insisted everyone shave as military decorum dictates (and because intelligence reports suggested Iraqis might try to pass themselves off as U.S. forces). Now just months later, he wanted his men to grow mustaches to look more like the people they were working with.

When Mattis had led the first attack on Iraq, his focus was on quick overwhelming force. When he judged a colonel was not taking enough risks, he took the extraordinary step of relieving him of his command. Now he was asking for the same risk taking but at a different pace. When Mattis wrote to his troops before they launched their campaign into Al-Anbar and told them their primary order was "First do no harm." In dealing with insurgents Mattis pushed his Marines to strive to delay hostilities. "Stay friendly one more month, one more week, one more minute." Through restraint and enemy over-reach, the Marines would slowly gain credibility with the locals.

Once the hard-core enemy was identified, they were to be killed as precisely and swiftly as possible. To emphasize the special treatment for this intractable constituency, Mattis changed the rules of engagement before going into Fallujah from "capture or kill" to "kill or capture." He put the emphasis on eradication to make it clear to the aggressive Marines that in the battle for Al-Anbar they were being asked to apply their ferocity more exactly, not give it up altogether.

For Mattis, the teaching didn't stop once the Marines got to the fight. He constantly toured the battlefield to tell stories of Marines who were able to show discretion and cultural sensitivity in moments of high pressure—the Marines who greeted an Iraqi funeral by clearing the street and removing their helmets, or the ones who diffused a street protest by handing out water rather than raising their rifles. He told of a platoon attacked by insurgents in Al-Anbar who, after suffering brutal losses, showed kindness to the civilians caught in the crossfire. "They had just finished scraping up their buddies off the deck but showed the people respect," he says. "Those were Marines the enemy didn't succeed in turning into racists who hated everyone." In other words, Mattis called on his troops to accept more immediate risks—to not shoot, to remove helmets—in order to plant seeds for future peace.

Al-Anbar turned out to be a bad laboratory for Mattis' experiment. In March of 2004, not long after Mattis took control, four military contractors from Blackwater were killed in Fallujah and their burned bodies were hung from a bridge. In response to the attack, the Marines were ordered to wipe out the insurgents with a heavy show of force. Mattis told his superiors they were insane to call for such a massive response. The Blackwater killers could be found and killed precisely and in keeping with his strategy. But he followed orders and led the attack (which was then cut short when political leaders lost their nerve).

Still, even at the end of the heaviest fighting, Mattis met with sheiks to continue the effort to win over the locals. He left Iraq in August of 2004, but the Marines continued to repeat his mantra: "First, do no harm." Two years later, after the province almost slipped out of control completely, the "Anbar Awakening" reduced violence in the province, damaged al-Qaida in Iraq, and turned the war.

"Every Attempt To Make War Easy and Safe Will Result in Humiliation and Disaster"