Small Wars Journal

The Case for James N. Mattis for President

Mon, 04/18/2016 - 3:32am

The Case for James N. Mattis for President

Tom Ordeman, Jr.

By now, members of military communities on social media are used to seeing "Mattis 2016" posts, photo-shopped images, and even merchandise. For example, highlights from military-themed satire website The Duffel Blog include "Gen. Mattis ‘no ballsed’ into running for president"[1] and "General Mattis Crosses Potomac With 100,000 Troops; President, Senate Flee City".[2]

©2016 Maximilian Uriarte, Used With the Kind Permission of the Author

As both national parties' primary campaigns have unfolded, “Mattis 2016” references have quickly shed their levity. In the wake of Donald Trump's increasingly unlikely effort to consolidate a hostile takeover of the Republican nomination process, The Daily Beast reported on April 7th that a cadre of wealthy conservatives are working to draft retired General James N. Mattis to contest the election in the event that Mr. Trump secures a majority of GOP delegates.[4] On April 12th, Small Wars Journal published an essay by U.S. Army War College Adjunct Professor Ehsan Ahrari in which the author concluded:

"That kind of restraint in the exercise of power would be very hard to implement by a retired general officer, especially a Marine. I wonder, whether a Marine General, whose professional training has been to remain proactive, proactive, and proactive, would even give mild consideration to the proposition of 'not doing stupid stuff,' if he becomes a serious presidential contender, and especially if he is elected President."[5]

General Mattis is almost universally revered by those who have worn the uniform, but virtually unknown to most who have not. As Professor Ahrari's piece cites a solitary encounter with General Mattis, his skepticism can be excused. However, having served under General Mattis at U.S. Joint Forces Command (insofar as the word "service" can apply to a defense contractor), and having followed his career for more than a decade, I can assure both Mr. Ahrari and others who are unfamiliar with "The Warrior Monk" that America could, and likely will, do considerably worse than James N. Mattis for President.

As does any incoming President, whoever assumes office in January 2017 will inherit a unique set of challenges from President Obama. Conversely, and without pointing fingers at any particular candidate, American voters have expressed concerns about the electability, character, and wisdom of those candidates still under serious consideration. The 2016 election has been defined by a sort of nebulous "anger", disillusionment with the American political establishment, and widespread affinity for candidates who refrain from moderating their public remarks. In most of these respects, General Mattis may, in fact, be the perfect candidate for 2016.

General Mattis himself would likely acknowledge, perhaps proudly, that he has run afoul of plenty over the years. Yet one, including myself, would struggle to find a single criticism of his character. Two of the most public examples of this character were his one-page letter to his troops in the 1st Marine Division on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion[6]; and former Commandant Charles Krulak’s anecdote about then-Brigadier General Mattis, a lifelong bachelor, standing the Christmas watch so that one of his young subordinates could enjoy the holiday with his family.[7] While working at USJFCOM, I experienced his character personally, and my future mother-in-law, herself a former nun, shall hopefully forgive me for saying that a few affirming words that General Mattis said to me during a brief meeting mean more to me than would a blessing from the Holy Father. General Mattis is a self-deprecating man of uncommon integrity, and I, personally, I would be more than comfortable with his character should he be elected.

General James N. Mattis with the author, November 2007. USJFCOM Public Affairs Office

What about wisdom? Professor Ahrari calls this, and specifically his capacity for restraint, into question. However, evidence of General Mattis' wisdom is ample. One could consider his lucid, erudite letter to a subordinate about the necessity of constant reading, even while deployed.[8] Or, perhaps some might care to sample his public remarks to the Foreign Policy Research Institute[9] or the Hoover Institution[10], the latter of which serves as his current professional stomping ground. General Mattis' remarks to Congress as Commander of USCENTCOM in 2013[11], and as a private citizen in 2015[12], demonstrate a profound understanding of strategy that has been so glaringly absent among America’s elected officials; as well as, shockingly, many of his contemporaries in America's general officer corps. Furthermore, his remarks advocate for strategic restraint, particularly in cases wherein the use of force has been neither weighed nor planned in a manner commensurate with its risk to American blood and treasure. These displays of wisdom are the sort that Professor Ahrari and any other American voter should deem admirable - dare I say, presidential.

General Mattis’ strategic wisdom extends to international diplomacy. As USCENTCOM Commander, his engagement with Middle Eastern leaders likely rivaled that of America's diplomatic corps. Being fascinated by the Sultanate of Oman, I am particularly fond of circulating the photo of General Mattis' 2012 meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said[13], but his diplomatic activities were, and are, more widespread. General Mattis' tenure at USCENTCOM coincided with some of the most stable periods in recent Afghan and Iraqi history, and his role in leading military-to-military engagement with Egypt's martial government may well have dulled the impact of Egypt's experience with the Arab Spring. His capacity to work with allies to accomplish common goals, and to identify both common interests and points of vulnerability with potential rivals, would make him savvy as both Commander-in-Chief and America's chief executive.

Many Americans currently identify anger as a common sentiment influencing their electoral decisions, and two candidates in particular have seized upon that sentiment. To his credit, General Mattis' record is not one of dispassion; and yet, his anger is distinct from his potential 2016 opponents because it is cunning, rather than erratic. This may be best distilled in one of his most enduring quotes, directed at Iraqi tribal leaders:

"I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: if you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all."

Anyone who would consider General Mattis part of the inexplicably loathed "establishment" is likely unfamiliar with the U.S. Marine Corps, which staves off regular calls to be folded into the U.S. Army, and which packs a disproportionate punch despite surviving on three percent of the defense budget. His own biography underscores that outsider status: Mattis was born in Pullman, Washington, a state that has yet to produce a single President; and he graduated from Central Washington University, which does not even boast a nationally ranked football team. General Mattis' notoriety is the product of merit, determination, and service, rather than arbitrary, round-the-clock news coverage. If voters want someone from outside the "Washington establishment", General Mattis' bona fides as an outsider exceed those of any of the five remaining candidates.

Of the remaining presidential candidates, two in particular have garnered acclaim for "saying what they mean", "speaking truth to power", and being "politically incorrect". Voters are in luck! Not only does General Mattis eschew political correctness, but his straight talk is on the record, and occasionally quite eloquent. While there are many such quotes in circulation[14], best known among these are likely his February 2005 remarks in which he opined publicly that it was "fun to shoot [the Taliban]" - remarks for which he was counseled by then-Commandant Michael Hagee, but for which he has occasionally reminded audiences that he never apologized. (In late 2009, General Mattis jokingly opined that I had grown a goatee with the explicit goal of looking like a terrorist. The tease was well received.) General Mattis confidently delivers controversial and occasionally off-color statements, not for the television ratings, but because he has considered them carefully and determined that they need to be said.

His straight talk extends even to making waves in the military itself. It is beyond the scope of this commentary to opine on the ongoing controversies surrounding the Revolution in Military Affairs and/or Military Transformation. However, voters, and particularly self-confessed fiscal conservatives and critics of the "military-industrial complex", would do well to research RMA/Transformation[15], and General Mattis' role in reducing its influence upon the post-Cold War military.[16] His efforts and their role in the disestablishment of USJFCOM remain controversial, especially among RMA/Transformation proponents and those whose livelihoods were impacted by USJFCOM's closure. Whether one does or doesn’t agree with his conclusions, one must acknowledge that he considered the available evidence from both American and allied campaigns; concluded that an expensive system of operational concepts had grown beyond their battlefield utility; and used his authority to bring them under control. Additionally, given the reticence of recent Commanders-in-Chief to replace subordinates for lackluster performance, General Mattis' record of relieving under-performing and incompetent subordinates also counts toward his qualifications for national office.[17]

My only potential misgiving about a potential "Mattis 2016" campaign is his electability. I would normally be the first to point out that America's electoral system rather wisely eliminates candidates outside the two major parties from legitimate consideration. And, being a trained strategist who pays closer attention to American politics than most, my normal inclination is to conclude that, in the big picture, a vote for one of the two major contenders is virtually always the rational approach. However, this election cycle and a hypothetical "Candidate Mattis" give me reason to question that wisdom. Many of my conservative friends confidently declare that they could never bring themselves to vote for Mr. Trump, while many of my progressive friends are ambivalent about Secretary Clinton's candidacy. It certainly leads one to wonder: if donors were able to successfully cajole him into running, might he be just the man to ride in (presumably astride a grizzly - after all, this is General James "Chaos" Mattis we're talking about) to unite American patriots from both the right and left? Could a straight-talking, self-deprecating, non-establishment war hero with proven character, uncommon wisdom, no partisan agenda, and a proven reputation for results inspire a fatigued and anxious American electorate? In a manner reminiscent of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, could "The Warrior Monk" be just the maverick America can rally behind to tackle our collective challenges and lead us all in welcoming a new golden age?

Of course, such a scenario is almost certainly a fantasy. While Secretary Clinton remains likely (though still not certain) to prevail against the insurgent campaign of Senator Sanders, Mr. Trump appears increasingly likely to fall short of a majority of Republican delegates and lose the nomination on a second or third ballot at the Republican convention. Meanwhile, all indications are that, like Speaker Paul Ryan, General Mattis is more likely to give a "Sherman speech" eliminating himself from consideration than to follow through with an independent run. As Terminal Lance cartoonist and Marine Corps veteran Maximilian Uriarte reported from a 2015 event:

"For those of you wondering if he’ll be running for President… this is what he said about it: 'The qualities that you [Marines] see in me are not necessarily the qualities that would endear me to others.'" [18]

Should that scenario come to pass - should voters find themselves presented with the binary choice of Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton, General James Mattis having declined anxious pleas for him to serve as a modern day Cincinnatus - then America shall have missed an opportunity to elect a candidate who is uniquely qualified to address the challenges they currently face. Regardless, America's county clerks should be prepared to receive at least a handful of ballots with "James Mattis" written in.


[1] Dick Scuttlebutt (pseudonym); General Mattis Crosses Potomac With 100,000 Troops; President, Senate Flee City; The Duffel Blog; 24 December 2013;

[2] Lee Ho Fuk (pseudonym); Gen. Mattis ‘no ballsed’ into running for president; The Duffel Blog; 13 April 2016;

[3] Uriarte, Maximilian; Election Season 2016; Terminal Lance; 08 April 2016; (Comic courtesy of Maximilian Uriarte.)

[4] Mak, Tim; The Secret Movement to Draft General James Mattis for President; The Daily Beast; 07 April 2016;

[5] Ahrari, Ehsan; Thinking About General James Mattis’ Presidential Prospects; Small Wars Journal; 12 April 2016;

[6] Mattis, James N.; Commanding General's Message to All Hands, 1st Marine Division (REIN); 1st Marine Division; March 2003;

[7] Schogol, Jeff; Did Gen. Mattis pull duty on Christmas so a Marine could be with his family?; Stars and Stripes; 16 February 2011;

[8] Ingersoll, Geoffrey; General James 'Mad Dog' Mattis Email About Being 'Too Busy To Read' Is A Must-Read; Business Insider; 09 May 2013;

[9] Mattis, James N.; Reflections of a Combatant Commander in a Turbulent World; Foreign Policy Research Institute; 18 November 2013;

[10] Mattis, James N.; The Worsening Situation in the Middle East–and America’s Role; The Hoover Institution; 20 October 2014;

[11] Mattis, James N. and McRaven, William; Defense Authorization for Central Command and Special Operations; C-Span; 05 March 2013;

[12] Mattis, James N., Keane, John, and Fallon, William; National Security Threats; C-Span; 27 January 2015;

[13] Staff Writers; Qaboos meets US commander general; Gulf News; 28 March 2012;

[14] Washington Free Beacon Staff; The Best from ‘Mad Dog Mattis’: 16 best quotes from the retiring Gen. James Mattis; Washington Free Beacon; 18 March 2013;

[15] Sloan, Elinor; Modern Military Strategy; Routledge; New York; 2012; pp. 49-64

[16] Mattis, James N.; Assessment of Effects Based Operations; United States Joint Forces Command; Norfolk, VA; 14AUG2008;

[17] Ricks, Thomas E.; The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today; Penguin Press; New York City; 2012; pp. 405

[18] Uriarte, Maximilian; Lord Mattis II; Terminal Lance; 17 April 2015;

About the Author(s)

Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an Oregon-based information security professional, freelance military historian, and former federal contractor. A graduate with Distinction from the University of Aberdeen’s MSc program in Strategic Studies, he holds multiple DoD and industry security certifications. Between 2006 and 2017, he supported training and enterprise risk management requirements for multiple DoD and federal civilian agencies. His research interests include the modern history of the Sultanate of Oman, and the exploits of the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any entity with which he is associated.


Mattis is revered universally by those who wore uniforms -- don't know about the Marines, but hardly among others.

Write in all you want -- but try to remember that unless a-candidate for President not on the ballot has registered State by State as a write in candidate, those votes are not counted in most States. They are simply ignored. You still have time to start the registration effort. Don't forget to choose a Vice Presidential candidate.

Suffice to say that now retired Gen. Mattis trained himself his entire career in the Corps for one purpose, and that certainly wasn't to be a politician.

Additionally, sometimes those in uniform and those that once wore it forget most Americans haven't and Mattis's name recognition beyond this small demographic is negligible.