A Marine’s View: Major General James Mattis
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MARGARET WARNER: Major General James Mattis, a veteran of the Gulf and Afghan wars, led the first marine division into Iraq when that war began March 20. His 24,000 troops charged north from Kuwait, clashing with Iraqi forces and Fedayeen irregulars around Basra, Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, and Kut, before entering Baghdad April 9. That day, with the help of local Iraqis, Mattis’s troops toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein.
When major combat ended, Mattis’ marine division was assigned to occupy seven provinces in south- central Iraq, from south of Baghdad to the British- controlled sphere around Basra. General Mattis ran the area from a command post at the ancient city of Babylon. On September 3, his division transferred military authority over most of the area to Polish- led foreign troops. His marines completed their withdrawal this week, handing control of Najaf to Spanish-led forces. And with me now is General Mattis. General, welcome.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: We want to talk about your experience running the occupation for these months. The most remarkable statistics, in the months running the huge area of Iraq while the army was taking all kinds of casualties up around north of Baghdad, you lost not one marine to hostile attack. How do you explain that?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Well, we didn’t lose one killed. We had about 40 men wounded, but we sat out there to carry out the commander in chief’s intent, and that was that we were going to liberate these people. We were going to try to avoid adversarial relationships and we were going to try to remain friendly one week longer, one day longer, one hour longer than perhaps some of the people who distrusted us coming in might have expected. And that’s worked out pretty well.
MARGARET WARNER: How did you go about it? I read that you said one of your principles was do no harm. Describe that for us.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: We went into the attack with the motto that said no better friend, no worse enemy. So if you want to be our friend, we’ll be the best friends you ever had. If you want to fight us, you’re going to regret it. When we were up there in the stability operations, we added to it, first do no harm. In other words, if the enemy tried to provoke us into a fight and that fight would cause innocent people to die, then we would forgo the fight. We would try to find a way to get them another day.
But we were out to win the trust of the Iraqi people. We knew we were an American foreign force, largely Christian force, and we occupied, for example, two of the holy cities of the Shiia. What we did not want to do was find ourselves in a position of creating a conflict. So I sent about 15,000 of my 23,000 men home. I got rid of all my tanks and armored personnel carriers. Marines went on dismounted patrols. We had wave tactics, waving to the people, assuming we were there as friends. Eventually that expectation paid off.
MARGARET WARNER: I gather — I read somewhere that you gave your troops instructions about things like eye contact.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Yes, when soldiers walk into a city, and they’re foreign soldiers, the first thing people are going to look at is all that gear and the weapons hanging off them. Generally the second place people look is into people’s eyes, to see if they can trust them. So Marines removed their sunglasses and we tried to build the trust one act at a time. They learned quickly to trust us; they would even protest against us at times. On the suggestion of my Catholic chaplain, the marines would take chilled drinking water in bottles and walk out amongst the protestors and hand it out. It is just hard to throw a rock at somebody who has given you a cold drink of water and it’s 120 degrees outside.
MARGARET WARNER: Some people might say that the area you were stabilizing or occupying is the Shiite area, no love lost between the Shiia and Saddam Hussein’s regime. And so therefore that, I’m not saying the task was at all easy, but that you didn’t encounter the same level of inbred hostility that they are farther North. Is there something to that?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: I can’t authoritatively answer that, I suppose because it is always going to be hypothetical. But I’ll tell you this. We were in Baghdad. We took the northern half of the city or eastern half, depending on how you look at it — went up to Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. We used the same tactics there.
We are naval troops used to landing on foreign ground in exercises, exercising and we were 350 miles from the water but the service culture stays with us and helped us to stay attentive in that our tactics were as important in the fighting phase as our cultural awareness was during the stability ops.
MARGARET WARNER: Now even during the stability ops as you called them, you are certainly, as you said, had some troops wounded. There were some attacks, but from what I read, it appeared you didn’t go about frying trying to catch the “bad guys” again in the same way with big, big raids and a lot of firepower.
Is that right? How did you go about trying to roll up the people who were hostile to you and were out to get you?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Well, I think both the First Marine Division and the 101st, Army’s 101st Division up North did somewhat the same thing. We would use human intelligence, satellites do not give you what you need in this kind of a situation. They will not do that. But an Iraqi who trusts you will toll you where the bad guys are. The people we were out to get, we did not want to create enemies. Again, first do no home. If you do a cordon around somebody’s village, you are creating an adversarial relationship.
MARGARET WARNER: With the whole village.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Exactly. But Margaret, if you go in on a medical assistance visit one day and someone takes you aside and says there’s somebody in town who has RPG’s, then we get precise intelligence and go there and take that one person down. So we try to go about doing this in a way that doesn’t create additional problems and having trained up the Iraqi police, obviously they give us a lot of intelligence. On any given day over there, 95 percent of our intelligence comes from the Iraqi people. Many days it’s 100 percent.
MARGARET WARNER: Now in your region, you did have some real intra-Iraqi violence, the most horrific incident of course was August 29 when there was that massive truck bomb, the very revered Shiite cleric was killed, more than 100 people. You had not been protecting that particular area out of deference to the Shiite cleric’s sensibilities. Any regrets about that?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Well, I don’t think so. This is holy ground to them. They recognized the futility of trying to maintain the sacredness of it when you’re up against criminals like this. And so we took Najaf police, who we had already trained, put them through three additional days of training about how you do screening of vehicles and now they have their own Najaf police in there taking care of them.
The point is that these criminals are just that. They’re not a political threat. It is not like they get together and organize a political comeback. They’re simply killers and they will kill as long as they can. So it’s simply a police function to go after them backed up by the marines.
MARGARET WARNER: But are there not Shiite clerics and forces, I’m thinking of this fellow al Sadr, who, in fact, seem to want something different from what the U.S. says it wants, that they want more of a theocracy, less of a sort of democracy as we might know it. How potent do you think they are?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Sadr is impotent. Sadr has no following. He gets more of a following in the international press than he gets inside Najaf. He is in an area where you are not considered to be a grown man until you’re 40. He tries to tell people he is 29. In fact he is about 23 years old. He is just a guy with a very marginal following, and right now the people of Najaf don’t even turn out for his sermons more than a couple hundred of them. He is simply not a big influence in the town.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you concerned about Iranian influence and meddling and trying to stir up, at least this element of the Shiite community? Or has that also been overblown here in Washington?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: I don’t know that it could be overblown because certainly there might be a motive there but we did not see it while we were over there. We would see them trying things, whether through Sadr or through some other people. And by and large, they did not get a big following. That’s one of the reasons why the Hakim murder was so tragic.
Here was a moderate man trying to do something good for his people. So someone took him out. We think it was Baath Party, what we call kind of people who don’t know where they want to go so — a bunch of colorful names for them actually. But the bottom line is somebody went after him just because he was a man trying to make good for his people.
MARGARET WARNER: It sounds as if you were saying the tactics you used and the 101st Airborne up in the North being different from the central part of the country, that you division commanders have quite a bit of independence to design your own strategy.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Well, we do. I don’t want to comment on the tactics elsewhere. Although I saw in print things that made me think the 101st Marine Division are doing things a lot alike. I don’t know how the others are doing it. I simply am not up on that. But we get almost full freedom. We get told the mission is to stabilize the area. And then it is up to us how we do it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you mentioned that you sent a large part of your forces home, so you were running this huge area with what, eight or ten thousand troops. There’s a big debate here in Washington about whether more troops are needed, particularly in that hostile region in the center. What is your view on that whole question of whether we need more troops?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: Well, I sent 15,000 home in May and I had three or four months to live with the decision. I never regretted it. I did not want a heavy boot print, a sense of oppression, everywhere you looked you saw a marine. If we needed more people over there, I wanted to enlist the Iraqis into our common cause and get on with turning the country back over to them.
That was completely consistent with the military and political guidance we were receiving and relatively straightforward to do because the Iraqi people want this. The last couple of weeks I was there, they were tugging on my sleeve saying can’t we keep the marines longer? I reminded them when we first came there, they were not certain whether they wanted us there. They now wanted us to stay but I assured them the 22 nations that freed us up and allowed me to bring the rest of my troops home were going to take good care of them. I think it worked out without having the big troop lift there.
MARGARET WARNER: The other thing is when will the Iraqis be ready to assume full sovereignty based on your experience in that region of the country, what is your view of how quickly the Iraqis will be ready for self-government?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: If you take most politics are local, they have been running their own governments and towns and cities and provinces now since June, July. So they’re already doing it on that level. It’s harder on the national level, of course. It’s more complex. But I would tell you that already they are running the things that are most important to people. Are the street lights on? Is the neighborhood safe? These kinds of things are already in their hands with the marines very much in the background. They’re now turning it over to the Polish-led division. So it is already working.
MARGARET WARNER: You think they could be ready sooner rather than later?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: It’s event driven. Speaking for my area, they’ve come through a storm, the Iraqi people. And as we saw here, when Isabel came through, there’s still a little kick left when it comes to Washington, D.C. The power is not on in every place there. They had a terrible infrastructure that was allowed to degrade. We’ve got to make certain they don’t jump out of the lifeboat that we are providing and the storm is still going on around them. So it is not time yet. And I hate to speculate on timelines on this. But it is coming fast.
MARGARET WARNER: Final question for you. General Abizaid, the overall commander said just yesterday that he is pretty much given up hope, that wasn’t his word, but that there is really going to be a lot in the way of foreign troops coming in to help replace other American troops. And Pentagon people are saying on background that that will mean calling up more reserves and sending marines back for really longer deployments. How do you feel about that?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: It’s no problem. That’s what we are paid to do. I never had to deal with any low morale amongst my people. They knew what they were doing was good. I think right now though, that General Abizaid is a great soldier. He understands the area, and he is also allowing us to bring on the Iraqi security forces, and it may be that we can use Iraqi security forces that would free us up from this sort of thing.
MARGARET WARNER: General Jim Mattis, thanks.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES MATTIS: You’re welcome.