The Marine general who led 65,000 Camp Pendleton troops to Baghdad in the first furious push of the Iraq war is drawing criticism after saying of battle, “It’s fun to shoot some people.”
Lt. Gen. James Mattis made the comments Tuesday at a San Diego forum on tactics in fighting the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. The general, known by troops as “Mad Dog” Mattis, is commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va.
His comments were criticized by American Muslims, and the Marines’ top commander said he had “counseled” Mattis. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking at a televised news conference after the furor erupted, said he had not seen Mattis’ remarks and refused to discuss them.
Seated at a long table next to other military commanders, Mattis told about 200 people at the San Diego Convention Center: “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.”
Mattis added: “You go into Afghanistan, you’ve got guys who slapped 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.”
His comments were met with laughter and applause from many in the audience of the forum, held by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Assn. and the U.S. Naval Institute and sponsored by many top U.S. defense contractors.
But Thursday, after the comments were reported by San Diego television station KNSD, a prominent Muslim civil liberties group called on the Pentagon to discipline Mattis.
“We do not need generals who treat the grim business of war as a sporting event,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “These disturbing remarks are indicative of an apparent indifference to the value of human life.”
Awad urged that “appropriate disciplinary action” be taken against Mattis.
Asked about the remarks at a Pentagon news conference, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would let Mattis address the issue himself.
“All of us who are leaders have a responsibility in our words and our actions to provide the right example all the time for those who look to us for leadership,” Pace said.
In a statement issued earlier Thursday, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, did not indicate that Mattis faced any discipline.
“Lt. Gen. Mattis often speaks with a great deal of candor,” Hagee said. “I have counseled him concerning his remarks, and he agrees he should have chosen his words more carefully.”
Hagee also said, “While I understand that some people may take issue with the comments made by him, I also know he intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war.”
Hagee and Pace praised the general’s service and leadership. “His actions and those of his troops clearly show that he understands the value of proper leadership and the value of human life,” Pace said. Hagee called him “one of this country’s bravest and most experienced military leaders.”
At a Marine camp in Al Asad, Iraq, a cheer went up when a CNN report about Mattis’ comments was shown on a mess-hall television Thursday night. Troops started swapping stories about “Mad Dog.”
Mattis, 53, has a reputation among the troops he commands as a jaunty, volatile figure fiercely committed to the Marine Corps and to the people he leads.
As the lead commander of Task Force 58, he pushed hundreds of miles into the Afghan desert to establish bases a few weeks after the Sept. 11 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 based at Camp Pendleton, Mattis led that force in their advance on Baghdad in 2003, the longest, fastest move of a division-sized unit in Marine Corps history.
Mattis, who is unmarried, has served nine tours of duty in the Mideast.
Mattis’ comments came in the context of how to transform the armed forces to fight terrorism beyond Iraq. He questioned future spending on new forms of air and sea warfare. “Our very dominance of certain forms of warfare have driven the enemy into historic forms of warfare that we have not mastered,” he said.
He also said it was “almost embarrassing intellectually” that commanders looked to unspecified future wars and enemies to reshape the military, rather than to the insurgents it faced in Iraq.
“Don’t patronize this enemy,” he said of guerrillas. “They mean business. They mean every word they say. Don’t imagine an enemy somewhere in the future and you’re going to transform so you can fight him.
“They’re killing us now. Their will is not broken. They mean it. If they have their way, there’ll be no science or math in school. There’ll be no women in school,” he said.
Mattis added that it was important to recruit and select the right people and to give them training and language skills so they understood whom they were fighting.
“As much emotional ... satisfaction as you get from really whacking somebody [who abused women], the main effort, ladies and gentlemen, is to diminish the conditions that drive people to sign up for these kinds of insurgencies,” Mattis said.
Last year, on his second tour in Iraq, Mattis said he embraced a “hearts and minds” posture, lecturing troops to make friends with Iraqis. He laid down strict rules for when troops could fire and required commanders to seek his permission before using artillery.
Soon after the fall of Baghdad, Mattis called for a criminal investigation into how some Marines were treating prisoners, and that led to several courts-martial.
He also led an overhaul of procedures for handling prisoners to avoid mistreatment.
Times staff writer Tony Perry, traveling with troops in Iraq, contributed to this report.