Marines’ ‘Mad Dog Mattis’ Battles for Iraqis’ Support

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Times Staff Writer

Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis paused briefly to watch his troops digging fighting holes during a lull in combat with Iraqi insurgents.

“That’s why the good Lord made the earth,” he said to his Marines. “Dig to live.”

Then he jumped into his personal light armored vehicle stuffed with electronic gear he uses to stay in touch with field commanders. The remark was typical Mattis -- confident, even jaunty, a 53-year-old general comfortable with his role as a combatant in perhaps the most volatile region of Iraq.

Mattis is familiar with the dangers of war in inhospitable terrain. As the lead commander of Task Force 58, he pushed hundreds of miles into the Afghan desert to establish bases just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Marines under Mattis aided anti-Taliban forces, secured the strategic Kandahar airport and cut off escape routes for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.


As commanding general of the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, Mattis led 65,000 troops in their furious push toward Baghdad last year, the longest, fastest move of a division-sized unit in Marine Corps history.

In their book, “The March Up: Taking Baghdad With the 1st Marine Division,” retired Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith and former Assistant Defense Secretary Bing West credited Mattis with much of the Marines’ success.

A man of average size and height, Mattis lacks the physical presence of some Marine officers. Nor is he an orator of note. But he is known for his concern for the enlisted ranks and unflagging confidence in his troops.

Behind his back, troops call him “Mad Dog Mattis,” high praise in Marine culture.

“He can swear as much as any enlisted man,” a corporal said.

Never married, Mattis has made the Marine Corps his life. He quotes the classical Greeks and George Washington and reads books about history and military tactics. He doesn’t own a television, although he counts CBS anchorman Dan Rather, a former Marine, among his friends.

He’s done nine tours of duty in the Middle East. “I’m very comfortable here,” he told an Iraqi group recently, shortly after the division took control of much of the dangerous Sunni Triangle region.

For his second Iraqi tour, Mattis has embraced a “hearts and minds” posture, lecturing troops to make friends with Iraqis. He’s laid down strict rules for when troops can fire and requires commanders to seek his permission before using artillery.


“I came out here to listen to and learn from you people and to see how we can help the situation,” Mattis recently told a town council in Taamin, a suburb of Ramadi.

“We did not come here to tell you how to run Iraq,” he told the group. “While we’re here, we’re guests, forced guests maybe, but guests. When we leave we want friendship, not negative relationships.”

But even as he talked of rebuilding schools and restoring water and power delivery, he said that rooting out insurgents is a top priority.

“There are people here whose hatred guides everything they do,” he said.