February 07, 2005,
There is an old adage that says "never miss an opportunity to shut up." I'm guessing that Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis wishes he'd taken this advice last week. As everyone knows by now Gen. Mattis, speaking on February 1 in San Diego as a panel member at a meeting of Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, said:
Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. ... It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling...You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.According to a report in the Washington Times, "his comments evoked laughter and applause from the audience."
Of course his, comments also evoked criticism from many of the usual suspects. For instance the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on the Pentagon to discipline Gen. Mattis for the remarks. CAIR's council's executive director, Nihad Awad said, "We do not need generals who treat the grim business of war as a sporting event. These disturbing remarks are indicative of an apparent indifference to the value of human life."
Knowing Gen. Mattis's record, I disagree with such characterizations but that's because I know his record. Unfortunately, the thrust of the criticism by CAIR and others is, alas, correct. The context of the comments makes clear that Gen. Mattis was having some fun and playing to his audience. My criticism of Gen. Mattis is that he forgot that he wasn't trying to inspire his Marines but was instead addressing a civilian group with press present. We wouldn't want the ladies of the press getting a case of the vapors, now, would we? In addition, anyone who doesn't know Gen. Mattis's record, or who doesn't care about it, can use his comments to paint the Marines as, in the infamous characterization of an assistant secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration, "extremists" out of step with liberal society.
For decades, Saddam Hussein has tortured, imprisoned, raped and murdered the Iraqi people; invaded neighboring countries without provocation; and threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction. The time has come to end his reign of terror. On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.
Note the admonition to "engage your brain before you engage your weapon." This is not the instruction of a man who looks forward to indiscriminate killing. For the most part, his young Marines responded admirably, despite the likelihood that the enemy would take advantage of the Marines' restraint.
But what does one make of his charge to "fight with a happy heart?" Doesn't this suggest, as CAIR claims, that Gen. Mattis and his Marines see the "grim business of war as a sporting event?" In fact, Gen. Mattis was seeking to stir the martial soul of his Marines by invoking the spirit of the St. Crispin's Day speech that Shakespeare's King Henry delivers to his soldiers before the battle of Agincourt:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
And like Henry V, Gen. Mattis always led from the front. During the march up to Baghdad, Mattis had prepared his command well and it responded to his style of leadership.
There is something about Gen. Mattis's remarks that most commentators have missed. He was not saying it is "a hoot" to kill everyone, but those kinds of people who, as they say in Texas, "needed killin'." Ask yourself this question: If you came face to face with Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, you might smile as you put a round though his head? Be honest. I would.
The Marines that Gen. Mattis led on the road to Baghdad made the sort of distinctions that their commanding general directed them to make. They encountered Iraqi soldiers of all kinds: soldiers of regular units, some of whom fought and some of whom didn't; militia, who preferred not to fight but sometimes did because they were intimidated by Saddam's fedayeen; and foreign jihadis.
The jihadis asked no quarter and the Marines gave them none. According to The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division by "Bing" West and Major General Ray "E-tool" Smith, USMC (ret), The Marines knew the difference between these jihad fighters and the militia. Consequently the Marines shot them in the ditches and in the field. They threw grenades into the bulrushes and shot the fighters when they ran out. They threw grenades into the drainage pipes running under the road... A few of the foreign fighters surrendered, but most did not they had come to Iraq to die, and die they would. As one Marine put it, this was the perfect war. "They want to die, and we want to kill them."This is a distinction we once made without compunction: between those who are entitled to the rights of legitimate combatants and those who are not. This distinction was first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval European jurisprudence. As the eminent military historian, Sir Michael Howard, wrote in right after 9/11, the Romans distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and guerra, war against latrunculi pirates, robbers, brigands, and outlaws "the common enemies of mankind."
The former, bellum, became the standard for interstate conflict. It is here for instance that the Geneva Conventions were meant to apply. They do not apply to the latter, Guerra indeed, punishment for latrunculi traditionally has been summary execution. While not employing the term, many legal experts agree that al Qaeda fighters are latrunculi hardly distinguishable by their actions from pirates and the like. Who knows what some silly judge might rule in the future, but at least so far, no terrorist organization has been deemed a combatant under the laws of armed conflict.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.