ONE OF THE NUMEROUS cringe-worthy moments of the Trump administration was the president’s first cabinet meeting, where, in a scene reminiscent of North Korea, everybody present was expected to express gratitude to the Great Leader. One of the few who refused to participate in the orgy of sycophancy was Secretary of Defense James Mattis: rather than praising Trump, he chose to thank the men and women in uniform for the privilege of representing them. In a cabinet of second- and third-raters — many qualified candidates for office had been Never Trumpers and hence unacceptable to the loyalty-obsessed president — James Mattis stands out as a leader of genuine accomplishments. At his congressional confirmation hearings, the vote was one short of unanimous, no doubt stemming from the hope that he could provide a restraining influence on his mercurial boss.

Jim Proser’s biography of Mattis, No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy, seeks to discover the man behind the general’s stars. The book derives its title from the 1st Marine Division’s motto, which was Mattis’s compact version of Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s comment: “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” As the author notes, the motto provided a concise moral compass for Mattis’s Marines to maneuver by in their double role as protectors and warriors.

Mattis grew up in in Richland, Washington, where his father was a power plant operator. In 1969, he joined the Marine Corps, and three years later he became a second lieutenant. It soon became clear to his superiors that he was an officer with a bright future. A critical moment arose when his fiancée gave him an ultimatum: leave the corps and marry her or stay without her. The corps won, and Mattis eventually concluded that marriage was incompatible with life as a Marine.

A series of incidents became part of his warrior’s aura. As captain, he once admonished a rookie lieutenant, who gave numerous orders but did not pitch in when it came to heavy-duty physical work: “The privilege of command is command. You don’t get a bigger tent.” When he was brigadier general, the Marine Corps commandant, General Charles Krulak, once found him pulling guard duty at Quantico on Christmas Day because he felt the young officer on the duty roster ought to be with his family. In the field, Mattis insisted on sharing the discomforts and hardships of his men.

Marines are normally considered men of action, Proser notes, not overly given to reflection and book knowledge, but Mattis has degrees in history and international security and a personal library of some 6,000 volumes. He gave his officers frequent reading assignments, which he expected them to fulfill. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a favorite source of inspiration, his “therapist and closest advisor.”

Mattis’s concept of command stresses the obligation of the officer in charge to provide a personal example, setting the tone for his outfit. From his staff, he demands initiative and aggression, leaving room for mavericks, whom he encourages his officers to take a chance on:

Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud, but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy […] because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.

In his appreciation of talent, rank is secondary: constantly at his side in Iraq was his intelligence officer, Corporal Osowski, a savant not big on social skills but a wizard with enemy numbers and troop positions.

In Mattis’s eyes, an ability to define the mission in plain language is vital. Since communications tend to break down on the battlefield (Mattis does not much trust electronics and radio), he makes sure that his men have a clear understanding of his intent before they engage the enemy, drilling them thoroughly in his strategy, tactics, and objective.

His directness occasionally startles those unfamiliar with Marine speech. “Be polite. Be professional,” he told his men in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” To the Sunni leaders in Iraq’s Anbar Province, he is reported to have said: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you now, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.” This has earned him the nickname “Mad Dog” Mattis, a moniker he doesn’t much like but which Trump repeats endlessly.

Mattis’s baptism by fire came in the Gulf War, when his 1st battalion, 7th Marines formed the “tip of the spear” against Saddam Hussein’s defenders in Kuwait City. The war was the first test of the US military’s new doctrine of maneuver warfare. Mattis’s immediate superior, Brigadier General James Myatt, provided a master class in logistics — a lesson, says Proser, that was to inspire Mattis’s commitment to the idea of “log lite” or “lightened logistics.” In short, when speed is of the essence, you don’t want excess baggage.

After 9/11, we find Mattis busily preparing for Afghanistan, where he would lead the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade as its commanding officer. As Proser notes, the operation presented a challenge to traditional doctrine, which set a limit of 200 miles to the distance Marines could travel inland. “Doctrine is the refuge of the unimaginative,” Mattis bluntly rebutted. Afghanistan is, of course landlocked; as the author reminds us, the distance from the Arabian Sea to the Afghan border alone is 350 miles, making this “the deepest insertion of Marine seagoing forces.”

For historical models, Mattis drew on Grierson’s raid in Mississippi during the Civil War, in which a small force wrought havoc in the enemy’s rear, as well as on Major-General Orde Wingate’s exploits in Burma during World War II. The latter’s mission, as set out in Field Marshall Slim’s book Defeat into Victory (1956), was to sow “the greatest possible damage and confusion on the enemy in North Burma.” Suitably, Mattis’s call sign was “Chaos.”

Mattis’s Marines, together with their Afghan partners, played the key role in taking the city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home, after which Mullah Omar and his colleagues went into hiding. “Over 2200 service men and women will eventually die over the coming years of war,” Proser writes, “but on Mattis’s watch nearly everyone comes home.”

But it was in Iraq in 2003 that the general public finally became aware of Mattis’s name. Before the invasion, his reading assignment for his men was Russell Braddon’s The Siege (1969), which detailed the siege and surrender of Major General Townshend’s 6th Indian Division at Kut during Britain’s misconceived World War I campaign in Mesopotamia. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mattis, now a major general commanding the 1st Marine Division, was to take Baghdad, with the massed coalition forces following.

During the attack, one of the three prongs ground to a halt at Nasiriyah, where its commander, Colonel Dowdy, was still softening up the enemy with artillery fire, rather than pressing the attack as he had been ordered. Washington was growing concerned. When attempts to prod Dowdy on failed, Mattis relieved him, and the attack resumed. Dowdy was the first Marine commander in over 40 years to suffer such a fate. By putting the lives of his men above the mission, says Proser, the colonel had failed Mattis’s standard of aggression.

During the war’s stabilization phase, Paul Bremer, President Bush’s envoy to Iraq, committed a massive error by disbanding the Iraqi army, thereby making the ensuing insurrection inevitable. To Mattis, Bremer’s cluelessness recalled the situation described in Aylmer Haldane’s The Insurrection in Mesopotamia (1920), in which the British had sent a “scratch and somewhat incongruous team” with “little exact knowledge of the people they were called upon to govern.” 

The situation was particularly serious in Anbar province, where in March 2004, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force took over from the 82nd Airborne. The latter had relied heavily on overwhelming firepower, with civilian casualties the inevitable result. According to the US Army and Marine Corps Field Manual, a cardinal rule of counterinsurgency is that civilians must be protected. For Mattis, “The people are the prize,” an approach that illustrated the split between the traditionalists and the counterinsurgency crowd. According to Mattis’s playbook, success depended on getting the locals involved in running their own country. As T. E. Lawrence had famously warned his superiors in London: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably, than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

But, just one week after the Marines arrived, a Blackwater convoy was attacked in Fallujah, the charred bodies of four contractors strung up on a Euphrates bridge. General Sánchez, the out-of-his-depth commander of the Joint Task Force, wanted immediate retaliation, as did Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Knowing that this would mean considerable civilian casualties, Mattis objected: “This is what the enemy wants.” He and his superior, General James Conway, preferred to “let the mob exhaust itself,” but they had to follow orders. The result was an “epic public relations disaster.”

In a classic case of cold feet, Washington then reversed itself, “compounding the mistake by stopping in mid action.” Echoing Napoleon’s warning against half-measures, Mattis yelled: “If you are going to take Vienna, take fucking Vienna.” When ordered to stop, notes Proser, Mattis’s Marines controlled the city center and some of the rebels’ key defensive strongholds, but the rest remained bandit territory. Proser describes the result as a “standoff for Mattis, a victory for al Qaeda and Iran.”

But Mattis was not one to give up. As part of an outside-in strategy in Anbar province, he launched the Corps’s Combined Action Program of law enforcement and infrastructure building — a project he had been told by the commander of the 82nd Airborne would not work. His Marines cooperated with the Desert Wolves, a tribe in the northwest, in providing basic services and setting up elected local government. The theory was that pacification would spread like “an ink spot” throughout the province.

But controversy struck in May 2004 after Mattis ordered the bombing of an enemy safe house near the Syrian border, killing 42 people. A video obtained by the Associated Press purportedly showed debris from a wedding party, but Mattis didn’t buy it: “How many people go to the middle of the desert to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naïve.”

Under orders from Washington and Baghdad, Mattis was forced, to his regret, to turn the city center over to the so-called Fallujah Brigade, which in no time morphed into an insurgency front group. The situation blew up in November 2004 under Mattis’s successor, Lieutenant General Rich Natonski, with the Second Battle for Fallujah being described by the Department of Defense as “[t]he heaviest urban combat marines have been involved in since the battle of Hue City in Vietnam.”

Overall, however, the so-called Anbar Awakening was a success story. With time, says Proser, even Fallujah quieted down — and well before George W. Bush’s announcement of the famous Surge of January 2007, involving 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines. “The Surge had nothing to do with Anbar,” General Conway says. “We were winning those people over for months beforehand.”

Educating the public on matters military is an important task; regrettably, however, Proser’s book feels like a bit of a rush job. The challenge in military writing is to provide something for both specialist readers and a general audience, which means holding back on the acronyms. Moreover, Dexter Filkins’s 2017 New Yorker article, which Proser cites, achieves in a shorter span a sharper focus on Mattis and his concerns: his regrets about the nation’s “lack of political unity,” his concerns about Americans’ loss of belief in something bigger than themselves, and his support for traditional alliances: “Nations with strong allies thrive, and those without them wither.”

Suffering from delusions of grandeur combined with massive insecurities, Trump likes to surround himself with military men, benefiting from their reflected glory. But at the same time, they make him feel uncomfortable because they remind him of his own weaknesses. Trump is, after all, the draft dodger who referred to his fear of catching VD back in the 1970s as “his personal Vietnam.”

The willingness of a Marine of Mattis’s caliber to serve in such conditions, in the hopes of preventing the nation from going totally off the rails, can only be characterized as a selfless act of duty. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by July’s disastrous NATO summit and the president’s subsequent performance in Helsinki, Trump has proved himself to be unrestrainable, forever putting his own interests above the interests of his country.

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Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic.