James Mattis, the tough-talking, gung-ho ex-Marine General, whom Donald Trump has tapped as Secretary of Defense, has a glaring hole in his long and, reportedly distinguished, military career. He somehow dodged service in Vietnam, the nation’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.
Mattis was eligible for the draft in June 1968 after graduating high school. He enlisted in the Marines in 1969, according to his bio.
At the time, the U.S. buildup in Vietnam was at its height and the fighting was heaviest.
The number of U.S. forces in Vietnam peaked in April at 543,000 combat personnel. That year, soldiers would face some of their bloodiest battles at places like Hamburger Hill, the A Shau Valley, Binh Ba and Hat Dich.
The battle-hungry Mattis boasts now that “there is nothing better than getting shot at and missed. It’s really great,” according to reports.
Yet, despite his exuberance, Mattis somehow missed his one chance to get into a real shooting war, as a grunt, even though some 2.6 million military personnel–his contemporaries–served in Vietnam between 1965 and March 1973.
Even the quote is unoriginal. It’s a variation of a Winston Churchill remark that first appeared in an 1898 dispatch from the Boer War in South Africa.
“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” Churchill wrote to the London Daily Telegraph.
You would think that Mattis, who boasts that he’s read 7,000 books on history and warfare, would know that and give credit where credit is due.
So, where was Mattis during the Vietnam War?
He was earning a degree in history from Central Washington University while serving in the school’s ROTC program. Back then, “Rot-C,” as it was called, was one of the “honorable ways” to dodge the Vietnam War.
He graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant through the program in January 1972.
Although U.S. involvement in combat was winding down by then, Mattis still had a chance to get his ticket punched for the seminal conflict of his generation. U.S. involvement in Vietnam continued until 1975.
Instead, he remained stateside getting his ticket punched for promotions. As a lieutenant, Mattis served stateside as a rifle and weapons platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division.
As a captain, he was assigned as the Naval Academy Preparatory School’s Battalion Officer. He also commanded rifle and weapons companies in the 1st Marine Regiment before being promoted to major and assigned to head a Recruiting Station in Portland, Ore.
It was only after nearly 20 years in the service that Mattis, by then a lieutenant colonel, first set foot in a combat zone. He was commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The unit participated in “Task Force Ripper” as part of the 1st Marine Division’s thrust into Kuwait City. Despite inflicting heavy losses on Iraqi forces, the campaign was almost bloodless and ended after just 100 hours, according to reports at the time.
As battalion commander, Mattis was not expected to have been in a direct line of fire during the engagement, unless he chose to go to a forward position on his own.
Later, as a colonel, during a stint as commander of the 7th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan, and as a major general, commanding the 1st Marine Division in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mattis liked to mix it up with the front-line troops, according to his bio.
Nathaniel Fick, a young Marine officer added to Mattis’ reputation after seeing him with front-line troops:
“No one would have questioned Mattis if he’d slept eight hours each night in a private room, to be woken each morning by an aide who ironed his uniforms and heated his MREs. But there he was, in the middle of a freezing night, out on the lines with his Marines.”
But his command there would also lead to a major blot on his career. In May 2004, Mattis personally ordered a 3 a.m. bombing attack on a suspected enemy safe house near the Syrian border.
The attack later came to be known as the “Mukaradeeb Wedding Party Massacre.” Some 42 civilians, including 15 children, attending the wedding celebration were killed.
Mattis later said he spent all of “30 seconds” deliberating, before he decided to call in the air strike. Normally such a military blunder would be career ending.
Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in Vietnam, was sentenced to life in prison for killing 22 civilians–half as many as Mattis–in the “My Lai Massacre.”
But Mattis was the Marines’ golden boy. Both he and Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt adamantly insisted no evidence was found that a wedding was taking place.
But The Associated Press released a video showing a series of scenes from the wedding celebration. Other AP footage following the attack showed destroyed tents, broken musical instruments, shattered pots and pans and brightly colored fabric used in Iraqi celebrations.
That incident alone raises legitimate questions about Mattis’ temperament to head the largest military force in the world. Since then, however, he’s only amped up the bravado, although he was also known as one of the Marine’s more intellectual generals.
To his credit, since his retirement in 2013, Mattis has publicly criticized Russia for its aggression and reportedly argued against re-introducing water-boarding in discussions with Trump.
The president-elect was almost giddy about his selection.
“We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense. But we’re not announcing it until Monday so don’t tell anybody,” Trump quipped at a rally in Cincinnati this week.
“They say he’s the closest thing to Gen. George Patton that we have and it’s about time,” he added.
That alone should also send up red flags. Although Patton, commander of the 3rd Army in Europe during World War II, was known as a brilliant leader, he was also an unabashed war hawk and later in life, express growing feelings of anti-Semitism.
He urged a full-scale attack on the Soviet Union in the days shortly after the war to push them out of Eastern Europe. Many have hailed his words as prophetic. But others say continuing the war would have been catastrophic.
Mattis is also said to be a fan of the Roman emperor and general Marcus Aurelius, who is known for his philosophical work “Meditations.”
But Aurelius waged a costly, unrelenting and largely unnecessary war against Germanic tribes for years, simply for personal glory and the glory of Rome.
Normally, all of this would just be interesting trivia, except for the fact that Mattis also glorifies war and killing.
“The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot,” he’s reportedly boasted.
In 2005, he drew scorn for another boast about fighting the Taliban: “Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot,” he said while speaking on a panel about the Afghan fighters.
“It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling,” he added.
Before he can take office as Secretary of Defense, Mattis faces a major hurdle. Under a 1947 law, a military officer can not hold the office until they’ve been out of the service for at least seven years.
And, he’s already getting push-back from Democrats on that score.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said today she will not vote for a special waiver. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule,” she said.
Gillibrand is the ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel.
Democrats have the power to block the waiver because it takes 60 votes to pass. Republicans only control the upper Chamber 52-48.
For someone who’s never seen a war he didn’t like, except the one that would have required him to get down in the trenches and fight, Mattis needs to answer for quite a lot about his background, his career, his military judgment and his temperament.