WASHINGTON — Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, an erudite combat veteran known for quoting poetry and openly expressing his enthusiasm for "killing the enemy," has been picked to take over U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon announced Thursday.
Mattis would replace Gen. David Petraeus, who is in Afghanistan as the U.S. and NATO's top military officer there. Petraeus took over after Gen. Stanley McChrystal was removed by President Barack Obama on June 23 in the wake of a Rolling Stone article that quoted McChrystal and his staff mocking U.S. civilian leaders.
Mattis is currently the head of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., which coordinates strategy and trains young generals. In June, he was passed over for the job of commandant of the Marine Corps in favor of Gen. James Amos. He had been joking recently that he planned to retire and become an onion farmer in his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash.
As head of Central Command, which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, 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. If confirmed, Mattis would be the fourth Marine to lead CentCom. The others were Gen. George B. Crist, November 1985 to November 1988; Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, August 1991 to August 1994; and Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, August 1997 to July 2000.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that he was impressed with the general's "strategic insight and independent thinking."
He is perhaps best known for leading troops into the bloody battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.
John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate.com, writes, "Mattis is known for his ferocity and his risk-taking—which included regularly riding out into combat . . . despite his high rank. . . . He is also known for his intellect. He is well-read in history and military strategy but has also studied innovation and adaptation techniques.''
In his book Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas Ricks writes, "Small, slight and bespectacled, Mattis didn't fit the Hollywood image of the fire-breathing Marine commander. But retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, himself a widely respected officer, commented, 'I think he's the finest combat leader we've produced since Korea.' Mattis genuinely seemed to thrive on the noise and confusion of battle. He adopted 'Chaos' as his call sign when he took the Marines into southern Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and kept it when he led the Marine part of the invasion force for Iraq in the spring of 2003. After the invasion he sent home his tanks and artillery pieces and went to Iraqi military leaders in each area his troops were in. 'I come in peace,' Mattis recalled telling them. 'I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f--- with me, I'll kill you all.' "
Fond of quoting Shakespeare, Clausewitz and Sun Tsu, Mattis tends to speak bluntly of the harsh realities of war. His candor got him in trouble in 2005, when he asserted in a public speech in San Diego that it was "fun to shoot some people."
Mattis, a three-star general stationed at Quantico, Va., 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 up front 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 laughter and applause from some present, but his then-boss, Gen. Mike Hagee, asked him to watch his words in public.
Gates said Thursday 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 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 McCrystal's career, Gates has in Mattis a general not known for being cozy with 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."
Information from Times staff research and from the Tribune Washington Bureau and Associated Press was used in this report.