Gen. James Mattis is named head of U.S. Central Command

Defense Secretary Robert Gates praises the general for his ‘strategic insight and independent thinking.’ The poetry-quoting, blunt-talking Marine once said it’s ‘fun to shoot some people.’

Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, an erudite combat veteran known for quoting poetry and openly expressing his enthusiasm for “killing the enemy,” has been selected to take over U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

Mattis would replace Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is in Afghanistan as the U.S. and NATO’s top military officer there. Petraeus took over after President Obama accepted Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s resignation June 23 in the wake of an article that quoted McChrystal and his staff mocking U.S. civilian leaders.

Mattis is now the head of the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va. That command coordinates strategy and trains generals. In June, he was passed over for the job of commandant of the Marine Corps in favor of Gen. James F. Amos.

As head of Central Command, Mattis would oversee U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as across the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran. In his new position, Mattis technically would be Petraeus’ boss.

The job requires Senate confirmation.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters that he was impressed with the general’s “strategic insight and independent thinking.”

Mattis is a general who is seemingly straight out of central casting, a gravel-voiced warrior best known for leading troops into the battle of Fallouja in Iraq in 2004.

Fond of quoting Shakespeare, Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, he tends to speak bluntly of the harsh realities of war. His candor got him in trouble in 2005 when he asserted in a speech in San Diego that it was “fun to shoot some people.”

Mattis, a three-star general at the time, told the audience that some Afghans deserved to die.

“Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight,” he said. “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.”

He added, “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.”

His comments evoked some laughter and applause, but his then-boss, Gen. Michael Hagee, asked him to watch his words in public.

Gates said Thursday that he raised the issue with Mattis during the job interview and was confident that the general will be careful.

“I think the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned,” he said.

Nonetheless, Mattis has continued to tell reporters that his main job is to “kill the enemy.”

Considered one of the military’s premier strategic thinkers, he is also a deft political operator. Among the members of his advisory board at Joint Forces Command have been Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Although Petraeus gets much of the credit for authoring the counterinsurgency doctrine that governs military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis had significant input.

With the Pentagon now examining its media relations in the wake of the Rolling Stone article that ended McChrystal’s career, Gates has in Mattis a general not known for cozy relations with the reporters. Still, he values good press.

As he was poised to cross into Iraq in 2003 with embedded reporters in tow, he quoted the Greek poet Pindar: “Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”