A Leader's Job Is To Set The Vision, Retired Gen. Mattis Says
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What can Americans learn from 18 years of war? That's what the U.S. has faced since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. James Mattis was in position to learn. The Marine veteran served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was defense secretary under President Trump until he resigned. Mattis has a memoir - "Call Sign Chaos." He avoids direct criticism of the president. When we spoke yesterday, we asked if the president thinks long term, and Mattis said only that people around him do. The general describes his own detailed planning. Before leading a force into Iraq in 2003, he read thousands of years of history of Alexander the Great and others who invaded that region before him.
What could a multi-thousand-year-old battle teach you that would be relevant in the 21st century?
JIM MATTIS: Well, there's enduring aspects of leadership, and plus geography doesn't change. And so when you read about the challenges they faced, it gets you thinking about your own. I knew we were going to be operating very deep inside the Middle East, and I had to decide what was the right manner in which I wanted the troops to go in. So I used words from antiquity. From a Roman general, I used no better friend, no worse enemy. We were going in to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam. We were not going in to dominate them. I didn't want triumphalism. I wanted to go in with a sense of first do no harm.
INSKEEP: So you read thousands of pages and then tried to boil it down to a few phrases, or in some cases even a word, that you could pass on to thousands of people.
MATTIS: Well, that's a leader's job, to clearly set the vision. And oftentimes, it's as important what you don't say as it is what you say. For example, I left how to carry out first do no harm to the young troops. And I remember coming up behind a squad fighting in Baghdad city when we'd crossed the last river going into the town, and I remember him saying, don't shoot into the apartment on the right. The guy's got women and children in there. Circle around. We'll come back and get him later. But don't - I saw right there by a young 21-year-old sergeant how no better friend, no worse enemy was being imposed, how at first do no harm was being imposed.
INSKEEP: Was that young man adding to his own risk by not firing into that building for the moment?
MATTIS: Absolutely. As I was leaving, I saw him guiding his troops around the building, and clearly he was going to take care of the problem and in as precise a way as he could, but he was not going to slow down on his mission to get into the heart of the city. It's one of those things that just sticks in your mind forever. I still remember the tone of his voice and his troops nodding and sprinting forward across the street at risk as they made certain they didn't hurt the innocent there.
INSKEEP: You also spend a lot of time describing almost endless rehearsals, practicing again and again and again and trying to get your people to visualize what they were going to do. What were some of the techniques you used to make sure that your more than 20,000 people could visualize what they were going to be doing in Iraq?
MATTIS: Well, you're using the right word, Steve. I needed them to visualize, to image their way through what this was going to be like when they go forward to the line of departure. I commanded an infantry division - infantry, infant soldier, young soldier. That's how they got their name. And for many of them, it would be the first time in combat, not for the senior NCOs, not for the officers for whom it was not their first war or their second war. But I needed 23,000 troops, sailors and marines to understand what their role was.
INSKEEP: But you also figured out ways to, like, draw giant maps in the desert and have them march around on the map. Is this right?
MATTIS: That - yes, and that's no new technique. Generals have done that probably for time memorial. I would just point out that we would, you know, have the actual leaders, the battalion commanders, the regimental commanders, actually walk those giant maps so that the pilots who would be supporting them from overhead, the logistics troops, the artillery supporting troops, could all watch.
INSKEEP: Like, how big? Are we talking about the size of a football field, even bigger?
MATTIS: Even bigger than a football field, you know. And we would walk our way across it and everybody who needed to observe this, the staffs, other commanders of supporting elements, fighter squadron commanders, bomber squadron commanders, helicopter commanders, they'd all be gathered around on the sand dunes around watching as we walked our way through it. And we did this repeatedly.
INSKEEP: Did anybody in your experience rehearse what would happen after you closed in on Baghdad?
MATTIS: Yes, as a matter of fact, my boss at Camp Pendleton during a war game that we had in June of 2002. And on the first day of the war game - this is really about how does a battle unfold? We were looking at Iraq, of course. And he said - he pulled out the entire planning staff that usually is playing the next day or the next week's fight. And he said, you're going to concentrate on the post-combat phase. He said, I'm not getting enough guidance on it. I want to know what we're going to do when the fighting is done.
INSKEEP: Although I get the impression from your book and from having covered the war in Iraq as a journalist that the United States reached a point where there had been no plan, where people had not rehearsed it a thousand times, where on a very high level it was not clear at all what the United States wanted to do in Iraq and how the United States wanted to achieve it.
MATTIS: I think that's fair.
INSKEEP: General, one other question. You have described your leadership style as preparing deeply, setting out a clear vision, then leaving your subordinates to figure out how to enact that vision. I'm thinking about the fact that as a Marine, your boss was - chain of civilian command - was the president of the United States and ultimately us, the people of the United States. If you look back at your career from 9/11 to the time that you resigned as secretary of defense, did we collectively do that for you, prepare intensively, set out a clear vision and leave you to do your job the best you could?
MATTIS: Well, probably not in all cases. And I wouldn't expect perfection. I'd leave perfection to God. But I think we still have got to have a more rigorous establishing of strategy, a more clearly enunciated policy, something we can sustain from Republicans to Democrats, from Republicans to Democrats as we did during the Cold War. I think that the biggest challenge we face is in all the Western democracies - it's not just America, but in all the Western democracies, we don't study history in a way that we can apply it. And we are not rigorously applying ourselves to strategy. There's too much of a short-term view.
INSKEEP: Jim Mattis is the author of "Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead." General, thanks so much.
MATTIS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.