Mattis Redux: The Truth About War

Military analyst Ralph Peters was on the panel with Lt. Gen. Mattis, in which the latter joked about how it’s “fun to shoot some people.”

The language wasn’t elegant. But we don’t need prissy military leaders. We need generals who talk straight and shoot straight, men who inspire. And I guarantee you that any real Marine or soldier would follow Gen. Mattis.

What was the media’s reaction? A B-team news crew saw a chance to grab a headline at the military’s expense (surprise, surprise). Lifting the general’s remarks out of context, the media hyenas played it as if they were shocked to learn that people die in war.

Combat veterans are supposed to be tormented souls, you understand. Those who fight our wars are supposed to return home irreparably damaged. Hollywood’s ideal of a Marine is the retired co lonel in the film “American Beauty,” who turns out to be a repressed homosexual and a murderer. Veterans are sup- posed to writhe on their beds all night, covered in sweat, unable to escape their nightmares.

War does scar some men. Most vets, though, just get on with their lives — scratch a veteran looking for pity and more often than not you’ll find a supply clerk who never got near a battlefield. And some who serve — the soldiers and Marines who win our wars — run to the sound of the guns, anxious to close with the enemy and kill him. They may not love war itself, but they find combat magnetic and exhilarating. They like to fight.

That’s fine in movies featuring Brad Pitt as a mythical Greek hero. But God forbid that a modern-day Marine should admit that he loves his work. Well, Marines and soldiers don’t serve full careers because they hate their jobs. In peace or war, the military experience is incredibly rich and rewarding. And sometimes dangerous. Goes with the territory. But for most of the young infantrymen in Iraq, their combat experience will remain the highpoint of their lives. Nothing afterward will be as intense or exciting. And they will never make closer friends than they did in their rifle squad.

Gen. Mattis may have been unusual in his honesty, but he certainly isn’t unusual in our history. We picture Robert E. Lee as a saintly father figure, but Lee remarked that it’s good that war is so terrible, since otherwise men would grow to love it too much. He was speaking of himself. Andy Jackson certainly loved a fight, and Stonewall Jackson never shied from one. Sherman and Grant only found themselves in war.

We lionize those who em braced war in the past, but condemn those who defend us in the present. George S. Patton was far blunter than Jim Mattis — but Patton lived in the days before the media was omnipresent and biased against our military.

Of course, Patton had to deal with the media in his day, too. Still, there has been a sea change in how the press and many politicians see military men. Whether it’s a reaction to Vietnam or simply the fact that so few men ever wear a uniform these days, there is a serious disconnect between our fighting men and those whom they serve.

This effect isn’t one sided, either. Too many Republican congressman are too deferential to military leaders, treating them as mythic figures. Those who’ve never served are often too impressed with the baubles of service, especially lesser combat medals. Others, though, seem repulsed that the type of men who can lead others into harm’s way are often profane and matter-of-fact about their business.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Patton had the military to deal with in his day that’s quite true. And irony abounds; He had to deal with what then constituted bowing to the ‘UN’ view of the world. (Yes, I know, the UN didn’t exist as such yet but certainbly the world’s politics often got in the way of getting the job done…)

    The results, I fear will be strikingly similar.

  2. Kate says:

    This was one big fat non story – considering the proliferation of video games in which “having fun shooting people” is the primary selling point.

    Considering the “people” involved, I doubt many ordinary Americans lost any sleep over the revelation.

  3. Kerry Cecil says:

    I recently wrote a letter to the Marine Corps Times justifying Lt. General Mattis’ comments as ones from someone who may have been “weary”. That he has watched his “family” picked off and blown up. Well, to even suggest this great leader is even capable of weariness detracts from just what a great military leader he is. General Mattis shoots from the hip, his language articulate, colorful and entertaining. I regret the letter I wrote already. Both supportive, but for the wrong reasons. As he once said to me… “Keep charging” General.