Why Mattis is No Hero

Photograph Source: James Mattis – Public Domain

Last week the corporate media were going all out to lionize former Marine General and Secretary of Defense James Mattis in tandem with the publication of Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, his memoir of his lengthy career (Co-authored with former Undersecretary of Defense, Bing West, also a marine officer and veteran of Vietnam). As this celebratory gala of war and warrior hood lapses yet another military idol will have joined the pantheon. When George H.W. Bush launched Desert Storm in 1991 and “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” he also claimed to re-elevate the glory of the American way of war whereby the exceptional U.S. would defend the underdogs of the world against the predations of Hitlers reborn. Thereafter “Mad Dog” Mattis’s career would unfold.

I was struck by a statement Mattis made in one of his interviews to the effect that prior to the second siege of Fallujah in 2004, which he commanded, he said that he at first objected to the tactics to be employed because they would “harm too many civilians” in the Iraqi city. He earlier had caused a stir in military circles when he removed a subordinate for not being aggressive enough in the capture of Baghdad. The lower ranking officer had been too careful protecting the lives of his troops.

Despite his claim of moral reluctance, Mattis unleashed an enormous cyclone of deadly force in Fallujah resulting in an immense massacre of those very civilians. As he stated in an interview, “That’s why orders are not requests.” He continued to explain that his orders required him to do what was necessary to uproot and defeat the enemy. Mattis has also been quoted as follows: “a good soldier follows orders, but a true warrior wears his enemy’s skin like a poncho.”

The U.S. invasion of Iraq the year before had been claimed by the Bush II administration to prevent Saddam Hussein from employing weapons of mass destruction, and to sunder his averred alliance with al Qaeda. Scott Ritter, ironically a former marine officer, from 1991 to 1998 was a United Nations weapons inspector who later became head of UNSCOM, the UN special Commission charged with destroying all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction left over after the First Gulf War. He declared unequivocally that Iraq had been purged of all such weapons. In fact, al Qaeda was a mortal enemy of Saddam and viewed him as an apostate. Al Qaeda did not exist in Iraq until the U.S. occupiers disbanded Saddams’s army and it was from that disbanded and profoundly disaffected military that the entirely separate and more ruthless ISIS soon emerged to wage warfare against American troops and Iraqi Shia. The slaughter in Fallujah had nothing to do with Saddam or al Quaeda. At that stage of the American invasion U.S. policy makers like John Bolton were obsessed to halt the growing influence of Iran in Iraq. Fallujah was primarily Shiite and there were few Sunni al Qaeda fighters in the city. Weakening the growing Shia movement was the paramount goal and so it citizens paid the price in blood.

Mattis enlisted in the marine officers reserve program in 1969, while an undergraduate at Washington Central University. The Pentagon Papers had been published by the time he got his 2nd lieutenants’ bar some years later. Since no institute of higher education at that time lacked antiwar activists Mattis could not have been ignorant of the demonstrated facts that the war in Vietnam had been sold to the public on utterly false pretenses, just as an “intellectual” he must have known that the Bush War in Iraq was also based on malevolent fabrications. In both cases marines and soldiers obeyed orders ultimately gave their lives for worse than nothing; they died for lies.

I have interviewed a number of veterans of that campaign, among them Ross Caputi, whose powerful documentary, Fear Not the Path of Truth: A Veterans Journey After Fallujah has garnered attention in antiwar quarters but the film has been ignored by the mass media which still depicts the invasion as a noble cause intended to rid Iraq of dictatorship and lay the basis for democracy but gone off course by the unintended rise of the Islamic State. (Another suppressed documentary is Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre, an Italian production that documents the illegal use of white phosphorus, banned under international law in use against civilians.) Caputi makes evident that the entire war in Iraq was an “atrocity” in multiple dimensions and clearly expresses his own remorse at having served the ruthless juggernaut that utterly demolished the city of Fallujah and much else of Iraq.

Most citizens, for that matter most soldiers and marines, do not know that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (military law as opposed to civilian) troops are not obliged to follow illegal orders. But just what are such orders? Who determines when they violate law? As Mattis has acknowledged, he knew that civilians would pay the highest price for the deadly onslaught his orders demanded. Marines rained all manner of deadly ordnance on the city, including depleted uranium shells and “Willy Peter,” on the helpless civilians. Mattis was well educated and experienced enough to know that, judged by the standards of international law established at Nuremburg after World War II, and the fact that he could not have been ignorant of the reality that the war was based on lies asserted by a mendacious clique the entire war was illegal,so he was issuing illegal orders. No matter, orders are orders.

In numerous interviews and appearances Caputi, and many others, note the high rate of suicide that afflicts veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges that about 20 veterans kill themselves each day. In 2018 321 active duty personnel took their own lives. From 2008 to 2016 6,000 veterans committed suicide. No one reason explains this unholy manifestation but it is certain that deployments into the ghastly maw of war play a fateful role. I have been active with various antiwar veterans organizations all my adult life. I have personally known too many veterans who killed themselves. Their deaths stunned me and yet, based on what they had told me about the horrendous memories of actions they took and emotional burdens they carried, I felt their torment but felt felt helpless to aid them.

I recount the following not to disturb the reader but to underscore how “orders” that troops believe they are required to obey play a major role in the extreme post traumatic disorders that accompany all wars. A marine veteran I’ll call “Max” was attached to a major combat unit in Vietnam. One night after setting up an ambush designed to catch local Viet Cong guerrillas as they made their way through darkness the unit opened fire on a considerable movement of people they could not see. No fire was returned and the young men, most teenagers, went to examine the casualties. Turned out the group was comprised of women and children making their way under cover of night from one village to another in hopes of escaping violence. About 20 victims lay dead or dying. Under international and American law the troops were required to call in medevacs to treat the wounded, even if they were the “enemy” which these unarmed victims were not. Instead the commanding officer, in extreme violation of military law, ordered my friend to shoot the survivors. He and others questioned these orders but were told they would face severe punishment back at base camp if they did not comply. He did. From that moment he said that the dead women and children “stood at the end of my bed every night.” Throughout the years I knew him he was the most disturbed victim of PTSD I have ever known. Max was found dead of a heroin overdose on the street.

How do we explain the fact that that this is a real dimension of the American way of war? Troops are conditioned and induced and often ordered to commit such atrocities. Another former marine who killed a woman and her child as he sprayed a village with automatic fire told me in a tormented voice that he had been raised in the Catholic religion; he had been an altarboy. “How could I have done this?” he begged. He drank himself to death in his thirties.

Hollywood, of course, has produced many major films about American wars. Few are critical of their origins, or of the way they have been waged. All but two of which I am aware ignore the way in which troops are trained, especially the unforgiving rituals visited on troops headed for combat (only about one-sixth of the total). Many will remember Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket based on the novel The Shortimers by Gustav Hasford, a marine veteran of the 1968 bloody battle of Hue. I and another marine veteran saw the film as soon as it came out and found ourselves surprised that so many in the audience seemed astonished both at the depiction of the brutal basic training scenes and of combat during the Tet Offensive. Another is Jarhead based on the memoir by Anthony Swofford of the same name (the monicker is applied to marines because their shaved heads make their ears appear as jug handles). The boot camp scenes in both films do approach- but that is all- the reality of such brutal conditioning.

I rarely discuss my own experiences in the military except with those I trust, chiefly other vets and have never put any to writing. I had the following experience in basic training that for many may be difficult to believe but it was by no means out of the ordinary. I had arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Base at Parris Island, South Carolina in the summer of 1965 three days previously during which time we were punched, kicked, choked, shaved and stripped down to skivvies inside the barracks. On this day we were being issued all of our uniforms. A huge pile of trousers, blouses, boots and other paraphernalia was dumped in the squad bay and slowly distributed to each recruit. Near the end of the process the Senior Drill Instructor was bellowing piercingly that “one of you scumbags is missing a web belt and you better figure it out now.” Suddenly I realized it was me. I ran down and stood in front of him at what I hoped was the proper pose of attention. “Sir, the private is the one missing the web belt.” The D.I. a Force Recon staff sergeant and Korean War veteran, grimaced at me, belt in hand, and in one motion wrapped it around my throat and twisted me over his back in true garrote fashion, utterly cutting off blood to my brain. I immediately lost consciousness and fell to ground but came to quickly as I resumed breathing. I could not, however, coordinate my legs. I was like a floored boxer. The sergeant was standing over me shouting at the top of his lungs “Get the fuck off my deck dirtbag, you’re messing up my deck, get on your feet you fucking puke.” I could not stand so I began to crawl away on all fours. At that the D.I. raced up behind me and, as though kicking a field goal, rammed his boot up my rectum launching me further down the barracks floor and sending extreme shock waves and pain through my body. I wanted no more such “discipline” and somehow scrambled to my feet and raced back to stand in front of my bunk, by now wondering what hell I had got myself into.

About an hour later as I was packing my gear into my foot locker the D.I. approached me, apparently somewhat concerned since he knew that his kick had delivered enormous force, and walked a circle around me and said “Did you shit yourself maggot?” I, standing rigidly, answered “No Sir.” “Then why is that shit stain on your trousers? Get the fuck in the head.” He ordered “drop your drawers” and I discovered that I was bleeding from my anus more than enough to discolor my utility trousers. In theory, and according to official regulations, what occurred was a violation. He said “You don’t want to go to sick bay do you sweet pea.” Of course I answered “No Sir.” At that he grabbed a roll of toilet paper, matted some up and said “Now stick this up your pussy and we’ll hear no more of this will we?”

That was not the last time he struck me though not so viciously as the first time. I could go on with many tales of such treatment meted out to everyone in my platoon, some of it worse. All of this was declared as necessary to toughen us and break our civilian spirits so we could function as moving parts in the “mean green killing machine.” We were told too, daily, this is how “real marines” are made. Should we fail to stand up to such discipline we would likely fail the test of “real manhood” and show cowardice when faced with the enemy. Nothing, absoluthing nothing, was worse than the failure of courage in battle. The fear of showing cowardice – of revealing it to one’s fellows- overpowers the fear that one may be killed and more than any other factor explains how men can march into the very jaws of death. That is why so many veterans can be seen with tattoos that announce “Death before Dishonor.”

In 1956 a Drill Instructor marched his platoon at night to an area on Parris Island known as Ribbon Creek. He ordered the boot recruits into the swamp that surrounded the island and six young men drowned. Much public outrage followed including a Congressional investigation into the “sadistic” training methods at work in the Marine Corps. A court martial was ordered and the sergeant responsible was cleared of manslaughter but convicted of negligent homicide. No prison time was mandated and he was given a “bad conduct discharge” but that was remitted by the Secretary of the Navy. The D.I. was busted down to private and served out his career in the Corps. As numerous high ranking officers testified during the trial the brutal training methods were “necessary to survive in combat.”

Sometime after my experience I described above my D.I. marched us to Ribbon Creek in daylight. He stood on the spot where a small stone memorial had been placed in memory of the drowned recruits of 1956. Scowling he began to roar that the memorial was misdirected. It “should have been dedicated to the drill sergeant ” he bellowed because, by drowning, those six “pukes and maggots” had demonstrated that they were not fit to be U.S. marines. The D.I. had done his country a service by winnowing the unfit from the Corps. He then ordered us to “about face” and march into the swamps. We did so without hesitation. He ordered us out before another tragedy could occur.

I’ve known a few former marines who experienced both Parris Island as enlisted recruits and who later qualified to enter the Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. To a man each said that the training at Parris Island was far more brutal and de-humanizing than what they experienced in officer school, where the emphasis was on study and tactics and physical training and bore no comparison to what enlisted men endured. The cruelty meted out to the enlisted ranks was thoroughly absent at Quantico. I am certain that General Mattis never received the sort of treatment to which his underlings could be subjected.

It is a curious fact that the name of the most honored marine in the Corps history, Major General Smedley D. Butler, has been all but expunged in our time. During his career, from the Spanish-American War to the eve of World War II, Butler was the nation’s most celebrated “war hero,” having been the only marine to be awarded two Congressional medals. When I was in basic training at Parris Island all recruits learned of the exploits of Smedley Butler. He was the “marine’s marine.” But we only got half the story. We were never told that he became the nation’s most renowned anti-war figure.

By the 1930s Butler was well-known, especially among World War I veterans, who in the depths of the Great Depression conducted the Bonus March in 1932 after the Hoover Administration and Congress failed to fund the bonus payments promised for their wartime service. Earlier he had charged that he had been approached by men representing forces on Wall Street who wanted him to lead an army of veterans to overthrow the U.S. government on the model of Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy. When he went to the press Congress had no choice but to open an investigation into Butler’s charges of a nascent conspiracy that reached into the depths of the nation’s hidden rulers. The records of that inquest are still classified. In his widely read War Is A Racket he condemned American involvement in World War I as fraudulent and corrupt, serving the immensely increased profits of banking and corporate America immensely while sacrificing the lives of 110, 000 American soldiers, and until his death in 1940 he warned against what he correctly saw as equally cynical efforts on the part of business and government to engage in the next round of global war.

As I viewed numerous interviews with Mattis I wondered what he thought of Butler since I am certain he well knows of his reputation and the views he publicized so widely. I know why so many veterans cannot live with themselves. I cannot fathom how the Mattises of the world do.


Paul Atwood is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.