The Practical Wisdom of General James Mattis

By Sarah Telle, Staff Writer


General James Mattis was confirmed as the new Secretary of Defense on Friday, January 20. During his 44 years of service, General Mattis acquired an impressive list of accomplishments, earning the respect of service members, civilians, and most certainly enemies. We need someone like Mattis heading up one of the most bureaucratically bloated departments in our government. He understands the ins and outs of the military and is dedicated to working towards its goals. Known for more than just military prowess, Mattis often drops pithy quotes, which are filled with controversially packed wisdom. In order better understand our new Secretary of Defense, why don’t we let Mattis’ words of wisdom explain why he is the best person for the job.

"Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."

The U.S. Military is the most elite fighting force in the history of the world. While diplomacy has a crucial and important role to play in world events, sometimes words are not enough. Words must be coupled with the ability to act decisively. More importantly, your enemies or would-be enemies must have no doubts that you can and will act. General Mattis knows this. He understands that there are people in the world who want to and will kill, not just soldiers, but civilians, without a thought. He understands the value of thinking proactively. No, he doesn’t want to kill everyone he meets, but he’s prepared for the worst-case scenario. This kind of thinking is foreign to many Americans. Most of us will never face the enemy on a battlefield. We will never have to choose between our life and the life of someone else and we have people like General Mattis who are willing to think like this to thank for that.

"You are part of the world's most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon."

It is important that the Secretary of Defense exhibit restraint in times of crisis. As SOD, General Mattis will be one of many advisors to President Trump. He realizes that just because you have the biggest stick, doesn’t mean that you should actually use it. Prudence and moderation are something that both sides of the aisle struggle with these days. With his military background and strategic genius, Mattis brings to the president’s counsel the type of leadership and experience lacking in D.C

The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.”

This quote can be taken two different ways. First, like the second quote, it can refer to the fact that a soldier’s most valuable tool isn’t the weapon he wields, but the mind, carefully trained and prepared by the military. U.S. soldiers are trained to not merely be sheep. They are trained as a unit, but to a certain extent, each unit has a certain level of autonomy. General Mattis understands this. You don’t become a Four Star General without recognizing that the greatest asset is the men and women under your command. Second, it shows that Mattis values human life, especially the lives of his soldiers. General Mattis might be candid. He might be blunt. He might occasionally say things that cross a line. However, one can never doubt that he respects, honors, and cares very deeply for the men and women who voluntarily put their lives on the line to protect us.

PowerPoint makes us stupid

General Mattis said this after enduring a very lengthy PowerPoint presentation about the War in Iraq. Mattis will be a breath of fresh air in the Pentagon. Earl Long, a former governor of Louisiana, stated, “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.” Mattis would probably have no problem adding, “Don’t make a PowerPoint for anything you can write” to the beginning of that particular quote. PowerPoint presentations have a time and place, but when efficiency and clarity is lost in the presenting, their usefulness is limited. Additionally, simply being exposed to information or ideas does not mean that you are learning how to apply them.  Finally, just because it is new technology or even the habitual way of doing things doesn’t automatically make it an effective choice.

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 often lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

 Okay, this is not exactly a Mattisism, but it comes from a letter by Mattis about the importance of reading. General Mattis has a personal library of over 6,000 books. Upon taking over U.S. Central Command, Mattis sent out a required reading list for all Marines and Sailors under his command. The list included Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile, The Soviet Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost by Russian General Staff, The Crusade Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, and The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History by Peter Bergen. Mattis is a leader who seeks to understand the world and, more importantly, the people around him. He reads. He thinks. He leads. He expects and demands that those around him do the same.

If a man has ever been prepared to be the Secretary of Defense, it is General Mattis. He has a deep understanding of war, the capacity and needs of our military, the world situation and its players, and the wisdom evaluate how they all interact. While instilling a newly retired general into the traditionally civilian-held Cabinet position has only been done once before, we need General Mattis’ non-civilian background to advise and assist a true civilian Commander-in-Chief. SInce Secretary Mattis was confirmed in a 98-1 vote, the Senate obviously agrees