James Mattis: Trump’s Military Decider

By Marjorie Cohn

Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, past president of the National Lawyers Guild and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her at marjoriecohn.com.

“‘Mad Dog’ Mattis ‘Closest Thing We Have to Gen. George Patton,’”1 Donald Trump tweeted, as he nominated retired Marine General James Mattis to serve as his Secretary of Defense. Trump was impressed with Mattis’s tough-guy reputation. War criminal Henry Kissinger, with whom Mattis had worked at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University’s right-wing think tank, vouched for the retired general.2 Trump has given Mattis “total authorization”3 to launch military operations and to determine how many U.S. troops will serve in Iraq and Syria. Mattis changed the rules of engagement in Yemen and Somalia so that lower level generals can authorize some attacks.

A former defense official who has known Mattis for years told Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “Mattis wants to win. He wants victory. He wants to kick ass. The White House is much looser now. They’re turning to the military and saying, ‘You do it. We trust you. You’re the pros.’” He added, “I’m worried the pendulum is swinging the other way, and that the military gets whatever the hell they want. Because General Mattis is a warrior. He has spent forty years killing people, and his whole career has been built to win.”4

“It’s fun to shoot some people”

Indeed, Mattis declared in 2005, “It’s fun to shoot some people.”5 That was a year after he presided over the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, which was triggered by the killing and mutilation of four Blackwater mercenaries. In retaliation, U.S. troops killed between 700 and 1,000 people, at least 60 per- cent of them women and children. NBC News correspondent Kevin Sites, embedded with the Marines in Iraq, heard Staff Sgt. Sam Mortimer radio, “Everything to the west is weapons-free.” That “means the Marines can shoot whatever they see—it’s all considered hostile,” Sites explained.6 The rules of engagement were set at the top, and Mattis was in charge.

“There is plenty of evidence that either the U.S. was targeting civilians or that the U.S. was conducting indiscriminate attacks without knowing, or taking sufficient precautions to determine, whether individuals were combatants or civilians,” Cardozo law professor Gabor Rona, an adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Filkins.7

Civilian casualties on Mattis’s watch

In 2005, as retaliation for the death of their comrade from a roadside bomb, U.S. Marines executed 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in a three-to-five-hour rampage. The victims included a 76-year-old amputee in a wheelchair holding a Koran, and children aged 1, 3, 4, 5, 10 and 14. The Marines falsely and knowingly claimed the civilians were killed by a roadside bomb blast, then said it was in a running gun battle. They didn’t come clean until Time ran an exposé. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania), a former Marine, told ABC there was “no question” that the U.S. military tried to “cover up” the incident, which Murtha called “worse than Abu Ghraib.”8 The following year, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman executed a civilian in Hamdania, Iraq, then put a shovel near the body to make it look like the man had been trying to plant a bomb. Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins told his men, “Gents, congratulations. We just got away with murder.”9

Mattis decided who would be charged for the Haditha and Hamdania incidents. In the Hamdania case, the servicemen were charged with murder and kidnapping, but received lenient sentences.10 But in the Haditha case, Mattis charged four Marines with murder and four for dereliction of duty. Only one of the men Mattis charged was convicted—of dereliction of duty.11

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, with very little deliberation, he accepted Mattis’s recommendation that the U.S. mount a military strike in Yemen. During the resulting firefight, 14 members of al Qaeda, 30 civilians12 and one Navy Seal were killed.13 Reacting to media reports that the attack produced little actionable intelligence, Trump faulted “the generals.” The senior official told Filkins, “Mattis owed it to Trump to let him know that things might go wrong. But there was no process.”14

Since that “botched” raid, the U.S. military has killed record numbers of civilians in Iraq and Syria. Mattis’s statement at a May 19, 2017 press conference, “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,”15 rings hollow.

In April, the Air Force dropped the “Mother of all Bombs” on Afghanistan. The largest conventional weapon ever launched, it weighed 22,000 pounds. And Trump sent 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Bashar al-Assad government. But as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh determined, it is not clear that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.16

Wary of war with North Korea and Iran

As Trump rattles his sabers at North Korea, Mattis appears clear-eyed. In May 2017, Mattis stated on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that a military conflict in North Korea “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”17 And he told the media at his May 19, 2017 press conference, “As you know, if this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale, and so our effort is to work with the UN, work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation.”18 Diplomacy will not work, however, unless North Korea is also included in the process.

When he appeared before the House Appropriations Committee, Mattis said if the U.S. were to fight North Korea, “I will suggest that we will win…It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953 . . . It will involve the massive shelling of an ally’s capital [Seoul, South Korea], which is one of the most densely packed cities on earth.” Mattis added, “It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want, but we would win at great cost.”19

Mattis has been of two minds on Iran. The year after Barack Obama refused Mattis’s request for authority to attack Iran in 2012, Mattis resigned as head of the U.S. Central Command. Mattis had sought to intensify U.S. military activity against Iran, which the Obama administration opposed. In 2016, Mattis said the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace.”20 But although Mattis was a harsh critic of Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, the general said, “there’s no going back” on the deal.21

Wary of what he calls “mission creep,” Mattis insists the Pentagon aims only to defeat the Islamic State and opposes being pulled into a war with Iran. Mattis is reportedly pushing back against some White House officials who wish to open up a border front against Iran and its supporters in southeastern Syria, “viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran,” according to defense officials interviewed in June 2017 by Foreign Policy.22

Critical of Israel, opposes torture—but will he restrain Trump?

To his credit, Mattis is critical of U.S. policy on Israel. He thinks the United States is paying a “security price” in the Middle East because it is considered biased in favor of Israel.23 Mattis criticized Israel for building settlements in the occupied West Bank, noting they “are going to make it impossible to maintain the two-state option.”24 He said the settlements might weaken Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state and could lead to apartheid. “If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote—apartheid,”25 Mattis stated.

During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to reinstitute waterboarding and said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”26 Mattis may have changed Trump’s mind, when he told the president, “I’ve never found it to be useful. I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”27 Trump was “very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy.”28

When he sent the Tomahawk missiles into Syria, Trump went from scoundrel-in-chief to national hero, virtually overnight. The corporate media, the neoconservatives and most of Congress hailed him as strong and presidential. “The instant elevation of Trump into a serious and respected war leader was palpable,”29 wrote Glenn Greenwald. This sent Trump, who is obsessed with being liked, a frightening message: Bombing makes you popular.

“Mattis could well turn out to be a brake on Trump’s impulsive tendencies,” Filkins opined. “But it’s also possible that, with the President uninterested in many details of international affairs, the military will also lack restraint.”30



  1. Official Team Trump (@TeamTrump), TwITTer (Dec. 2, 2016, 11:43 AM), https:// twitter.com/TeamTrump/status/804773050562609153.
  2. Dexter Filkins, James Mattis, Warrior in Washington, NEW YORKER (May 29, 2017), http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/james-mattis-a-warrior-in-washington.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. NBC 7 Staff & Associated Press Reports, ‘It’s Fun to Shoot Some People’: Retired General Mattis in 2005 Appearance, NBC 7 (Dec. 2, 2016), http://www.nbcsandiego. com/news/local/Mattis-Its-Fun-to-Shoot-Some-People–404271786.html.
  6. Kevin Sites, Marines Let Loose on Streets of Fallujah, NBCNEWS.COM (Nov. 10, 2004, 8:09 PM), http://www.nbcnews.com/id/6450268/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/marines-let-loose-streets-fallujah/#.WWzaDoTyuUk.
  7. Filkins, supra note 2.
  8. Bernard Hibbitts, Marine Haditha Killings ‘Worse Than Abu Ghraib’: Congressman, JURIST (May 28, 2006, 1:50 PM), http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2006/05/marine-haditha-killings-worse-than-abu.php.
  9. Tony Perry, Marine Convicted of Murder in 2006 Killing of Iraqi Man, L.A. TIMES (June 17, 2015, 5:40 PM), http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-hutchins- verdict-20150617-story.html.
  10. Marine Involved In Hamdania Killing Sentenced, aBC10 NewS (Feb. 18, 2007, 9:14 AM), http://www.10news.com/news/marine-involved-in-hamdania-killing-sentenced.
  11. Stan Wilson & Michael Martinez, Marine in Haditha, Iraq, Killings Gets Demotion, Pay Cut, CNN (Jan. 24, 2012, 11:05 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/24/justice/california-iraq-trial/index.html.
  12. Yemeni Civilians Killed in First US Raid Under Trump, ALJAZEERA (Jan. 30, 2017), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/yemen-170129101045539.html.
  13. David Jackson, Trump Memorializes Navy SEAL Killed in Raid in Yemen at Dover Base, USA TODAY (Feb. 1, 2017, 3:48 PM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/ politics/2017/02/01/donald-trump-us-navy-seal-team-six/97351640/.
  14. Filkins, supra note 2.
  15. Eric Schmitt, Mattis Says Escalation Against ISIS Doesn’t Imperil More Civilians, N.Y. TImeS (May 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/world/middleeast/ mattis-military-isis-trump.html.
  16. Seymour M. Hersh, Trump’s Red Line, WELT (June 25, 2017), https://www.welt.de/ politik/ausland/article165905578/Trump-s-Red-Line.html.
  17. Jason Le Miere, North Korea War Would Be ‘Catastrophic,’ and ‘Worst in Most People’s Lifetimes,’ U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis Warns, NEWSWEEK (May 28, 2017, 11:37 AM), http://www.newsweek.com/north-korea-war-us-mattis-616943.
  18. AFP, North Korea Conflict Would Be Tragic on ‘Unbelievable Scale’: Mattis, Yahoo! NewS (May 19, 2017), https://www.yahoo.com/news/north-korea-conflict-tragic-unbelievable-scale-mattis-202056939.html.
  19. Jeff Daniels, US, South Korea Officials Push Diplomacy as North Korea’s Dictator Grows Paranoid of Assassination, CNBC (June 15, 2017, 3:24 PM), http://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/15/defense-secretary-says-north-korea-war-would-be-catastrophic.html.
  20. Ted Regencia, Is Trump Leading the US on a Warpath With Iran?, AL JAZEERA (Feb. 13, 2017), http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/02/trump-leading-warpath-iran-170203105946707.html.
  21. Austin Wright & Jeremy Herb, Mattis on the Issues, POLITICO (Jan. 12, 2017, 5:48 AM), http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/mattis-on-the-issues-233522.
  22. Kate Brannen, et al., White House Officials Push for Widening War in Syria Over Pentagon Objections, FOREIGN POLICY (Jun. 16, 2017), http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/16/white-house-officials-push-for-widening-war-in-syria-over-pentagon-objections/.
  23. Matt Duss, Former CENTCOM Head: U.S. Pays ‘Security Price’ For Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, THINKPROGRESS (July 22, 2013), https://thinkprogress.org/former-centcom-head-u-s-pays-security-price-for-israeli-palestinian-conflict-ccee7da82350.
  24. Nick Wadhams, et al., Trump Chooses Settlements Supporter as Ambassador to Israel, BLOOMBERG (Dec. 15, 2016, 10:59 PM), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/ articles/2016-12-16/trump-chooses-settlements-supporter-as-u-s-ambassador-to-israel.
  25. Jeffrey Goldberg, An American General Warns the Israeli Right, BloomBerg (July. 25, 2013, 9:58 AM), https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2013-07-25/an-american-general-warns-the-israeli-right-.
  26. Tom McCarthy, Donald Trump: I’d Bring Back ‘A Hell of A Lot Worse Than Waterboarding,’ GUARDIAN (Feb. 7, 2016, 6:57 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/06/donald-trump-waterboarding-republican-debate-torture.
  27. Kevin Drum, Trump Backs Off Torture Because a Guy Named “Mad Dog” Doesn’t Like It, moTher JoNeS (Nov. 23, 2016, 7:21 PM), http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/11/trump-backs-torture-because-guy-named-mad-dog-doesnt-like-it/.
  28. Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript, N.Y. TIMES (Nov. 23, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/trump-new-york-times-inter-view-transcript.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0.
  29. Glen Greenwald, The Spoils of War: Trump Lavished With Media and Bipartisan Praise For Bombing Syria, INTERCEPT (Apr. 7, 2017, 10:43 AM), https://theintercept.com/2017/04/07/ the-spoils-of-war-trump-lavished-with-media-and-bipartisan-praise-for-bombing-syria/.
  30. Filkins, supra note 2.