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Old 07-10-2010, 07:55 PM
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Default Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis, USMC

Tech Skeptic Is Petraeus’ New Boss

Meet the new prospective leader of all American forces in the Middle East and South Asia: Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, whom Defense Secretary Robert Gates tapped this afternoon to take charge of U.S. Central Command. Not many intellectuals have such mean-muchacho nicknames. But Mattis is the kind of guy who rabidly gnarls through the gristle of pretty much every military shibboleth.
He was into counterinsurgency before it was dogma. At a time of tech-driven constant communication, he thinks the military should be switching its radios off. Want to ensure that all levels of the force are networked together? Mattis wants a hierarchical organization like the military to embrace decentralization. And now, pending Senate confirmation, this guy is going to be running the most important command the military has.
Don’t get it twisted: Mattis will mess you up. He has commanded Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan and a coined a favorite Marine motto in the process: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” Nathaniel Fick, who served under Mattis as a young officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, calls him “a Marine’s Marine. He’s a war fighter.” When he got tapped for his current position in charge of the military’s Joint Forces Command, a Marine Corps Times profile put him in the Corps’ pantheon, calling him “a leader with almost mythical, rock-star status like Chesty Puller and Al Gray.” Check the #Mattisisms hashtag on twitter.
But like the officer he’ll be succeeding and commanding, General David Petraeus, Mattis has a larger reputation as a big brain. When both were three-stars, Mattis helped Petraeus author the 2006 Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. COIN may be conventional wisdom right now, but back then it was still a dissident preoccupation among the officer corps, adopted by those who thought the wars were going badly because they were waged without sufficient consideration of their complexities.
And from there, he’s not been satisfied with letting COIN win the debate. “He is a proponent of smart COIN, but he’s very quick to recognize its limitations, that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Fick, now the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. “He’s one who has maintained his ability to think despite being in one organization for many decades, and that’s rare.”

At the helm of Joint Forces Command, he’s had three years to shape the training, doctrine and capabilities of the next generation of officers. He’s dubious of tech-heavy fixes for the human dimensions of war. And he wants to see officers cut against the intellectual grain — a necessity, he’s argued, to prepare them for what he’s called the “unpredictable … fundamental nature of war.”
Indeed, in the last few months, Mattis has launched broad and public rebukes of the military’s persistent love affair with technology. At a conference in May, he derided technological fixes “that take geniuses on the battlefield to operate.” All our generals and officers and grunts and drones getting networked together? Hates it. “I don’t think we have turned off our radios in the last eight years,” Mattis said. “What kind of systems are we creating where we depend on this connection to headquarters?” In his view, subordinates should be clear that they understand their commanders’ intent and then freed to implement it amidst the circumstances they confront — not the circumstances that a distant headquarters imagines over the radio.
In June he drove the critique further. He devoted a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to warning that technology-driven centralization was yielding “the single most vulnerable military in the world.” Tech isn’t just a neutral enabler in Mattis’ view. It shapes people’s thinking away from the fights the military is most likely to face in the future. “We’re going to have to deal on human levels with human beings and not think that technology or tactics by targetry will solve war,” he said. Surprise, surprise: These are the wars fought in the Central Command area of responsibility, as well as the challenges of destabilization from Iran, Yemen, Somalia and the various non-state actors operating there.
But nothing will change, Mattis has warned, until officers start thinking differently. “I believe the single primary deficiency among senior U.S. officers today is the lack of opportunity for reflective thought,” he told Fick’s think tank in February. “We need disciplined and unregimented thinking officers who think critically when the chips are down and the veneer of civilization is rubbed off — seeing the world for what it is, comfortable with uncertainty and life’s inherent contradictions and able to reconcile war’s grim realities with human aspirations.”
That perspective may have earned him his career’s primary blemish. During a 2005 panel discussion in San Diego, Mattis gave a blunt perspective on misogynist insurgents: “It’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” He was rebuked for the remark, both by the Marine Corps commandant and by a human-rights activist in Iraq, Marla Ruzicka, who considered Mattis’ remarks to be beneath the compassion that she saw Marines demonstrate to Iraqi civilians.
In announcing Mattis’ career-capping assignment, Gates told reporters that the unfortunate quote was long behind the general. At Central Command, he may get reacquainted with some of his other aphorisms, which Jason Sigger helpfully cataloged a few years ago. “Both the insurgency and the military force are competing for the same thing: the support of the people…. While learning from experience is good, learning from others’ experiences is better.” Get the man his own book of quotations.
Photo: USMC

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