The legend of the Warrior Monk started 45 years ago when 18-year-old Jim Mattis signed up for the Marine’s Platoon Leaders Course, or PLC. He had often admired the challenge to excel offered by the Marine Corps. With typical humility, he now downplays the decision to join up.
“I don’t think I had the intention of making it a career at that point. I wasn’t closed-minded about it, but it was to go in, look around and do my time; in those days we had the draft, so there was little choice. And then look around and see what else was out there.”
But the decision was not as casual as he implies. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive had just killed 10,000 American soldiers and Marines, so the American military was aggressively seeking new blood to refill the ranks. Joining the Marines at the time, even with a temporary deferment as a full-time student, was a socially ostracizing and potentially fatal decision. After six weeks of training — as Jim Mattis was hearing around his college campus of Central Washington College — they put a rifle in your hands and send you to the front of the line, walking the point, on patrol looking for a gunfight in the booby-trapped jungles of Vietnam. And socially, he could forget about the free love, campus hippie chicks that occupied much of his brain space at the time.
Despite the social cost and potential danger, his commitment to the Marine Corps extended through the achievement of his master’s degree in history from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Particularly useful for a career in the Marines was his study of the recently translated Chinese general Sun-Tzu. The duality, the yin and yang of war in Sun-Tzu’s philosophy, coincided with Mattis’ deep appreciation for the ebb and flow of the natural world and human interaction. Sun-Tzu’s eastern philosophy of “winning hearts and minds” was a natural fit for Mattis and would serve him well in wars to come in the East.
On July 20, 1978, Capt. James Mattis took command of Kilo Company of the Third Marine Battalion of the Third Marine Division, or the 3/3, under the command of Col. Ken Jordan, a Vietnam veteran. His life was then out of classrooms and onto the rolling decks of warships. In September, he deployed as part of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit, or MAU, on a “float” to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa and Korea. On this first deployment the Marines rescued hundreds of “boat people” — war refugees in overloaded, open fishing boats often floating aimlessly and out of fuel in the open sea.
This human aftermath of the U.S. military retreat from Vietnam and resulting political instability crowded every available inch of deck space around Mattis. They filled the sweaty hold of the ship, clutching their children and meager possessions, often shaking with fear and trauma. This was Mattis’ first real-world experience of war as a Marine. As soldiers of the Navy, the first in and often the last out of smaller, Third World conflicts, Marines frequently end up with the responsibility for evacuation of war victims. Compassion is a necessary part of an officer’s training and was put to the test as Mattis shared overheated sleeping spaces, food and few toilets, often for days on end, with successive swarms of desperate, frequently ill people who did not speak English.
Back in Haneohe, Hawaii, home base of the 3/3, a place literally crawling with lonely Marines, Mattis somehow found an attractive and unattached young lady we will call “Alice.” (Alice’s real name is being withheld as requested by friends of the Mattis family.) The relationship began slowly and remained unknown to most of his closest colleagues. Alice seemed to share a studious, reverential view of the world and had a deep appreciation for the sacrifices endured by Marines. Quietly, the two kindled a romance. As a young captain, comfortable in the simple, Spartan lifestyle of a Marine officer, Mattis turned to sweet, brown-haired Alice to lead him in matters of the heart.
On Aug. 4, 1980, Capt. Mattis assumed command of the relatively new configuration of a weapons company for the 3/3. Lt. David Pittelkow commanded a Dragon anti-armor squad under Capt. Mattis. While reviewing Pittelkow’s performance, Mattis noticed the young lieutenant giving orders to his men correctly but not pitching in quite as much with the physical work of setting up the heavy and dangerous equipment. He pulled his lieutenant aside and counseled him like a kind uncle on the shared work ethic of the Marine Corps: “Y’know Dave, the privilege of command is command. You don’t get a bigger tent.”
Mattis earned the following fitness report from his commanding officer, Col. Jordan: “Recommended for the Leftwich Award for outstanding leadership, Capt. Mattis exceeds all expectations for tactical knowledge, leadership ability and operational skill. A dedicated, hard-working, dependable officer, he was instrumental in assisting this BLT (Battalion Landing Team) to attain a score of 97 on the recent CRE (Combat Readiness Evaluation), the highest score in the brigade. His company consistently excels in quantifiable areas, and he sets the example for this men. He is intelligent, and expresses himself well verbally and in writing.”
Matters of the Heart
Mattis was engaged to marry Alice.
The ceremony was set for late June to coincide with his return from scheduled extensive exercises of the 3/3 in the East. It was to be a quiet, private ceremony with close family and few friends. A few days before departure, Alice suddenly realized that as a Marine’s wife there would be frequent moves to different parts of the world and the constant threat of having officers knocking on her door one day in full dress uniform to deliver the worst possible news. As much as she respected the sacrifices that Marines make, she was not prepared to do the same. She insisted that Mattis resign, that he choose her or the Corps; he cannot have both.
Mattis frets over the decision but ultimately follows his heart. He agrees to resign his commission and begins the process. The upcoming float will be his last. Alarmed at the loss of such a rising star and well-liked leader, Mattis’ Marines launch a love offensive. They send their wives and fiancees to call and visit Alice, some meeting her for the first time, some with their men in tow to vouch for the realities of life with a Marine. The avalanche of support is overwhelming. Alice has deep misgivings but is reassured by the extended Marine family that surrounds her, pledging their love to her and her Jim, and to their family that may come. She finally relents with only hours left before the 3/3 ships out. The wedding is back on. Mattis trashes his resignation forms and, riding the rollercoaster of his emotions, packs his seabag for a long deployment.
Nothing stays private very long during months at sea in close quarters, so when they make landfall at various ports Mattis is repeatedly subjected to hair-raising bachelor parties. They are at sea this time for more than four months.
Back in Hawaii, preparations for the wedding proceed in the customary frenzy. As relatives from the mainland begin to arrive and caterers prepare, word comes to Mattis that all is again not well with the bride. His rise in fortune within the Marine Corps is not reflected outside of it. Alice has reconsidered. She simply can’t imagine their married life being anything other than an unhappy waiting game for her and so a burden to him and his career.
This time only a few truly close friends rush to the couple’s support. They beg Alice to reconsider, to be patient, to understand that Jim Mattis is worth the wait. The men tell her, truthfully, that he hasn’t looked at another woman since their engagement. Finally, Mattis and Alice have the talk. She is not swayed. Their engagement is off, the wedding is canceled.
On 28 July 1981, Capt. Mattis relinquishes command of 3/3 weapons company Kilo. He is promoted to the rank of major and leaves Hawaii to return home to the Pacific Northwest. He takes command of a quiet Marine recruiting office in Portland, Oregon, near the banks of the beloved Columbia River of his childhood. Like the first Marines who remained unmarried while in the Corps, he returns to the simple, monkish life of reading and fishing that he knew before Alice and the 3/3, even before the Marine Corps.
He will never marry. Instead, he will devote himself to his adopted family of Marines.
In His Place
The legend of Secretary of State Jim Mattis is chock full of tales of heroism and victories on the battlefield, but the story that most reveals the man underneath the general’s stars takes place on a Christmas Day — after 40 years of leading young men and women into battle, always from the front lines.
Gen. Charles Krulak, commandant of the Marine Corps, every year, starting about a week before Christmas, baked hundreds of Christmas cookies with his wife.
They packaged them in small bundles, and on Christmas Day, at about 4 a.m., Gen. Krulak drove himself to every Marine guard post in the Washington-Annapolis-Baltimore area to deliver the cookies to the Marines pulling guard duty that day.
This year at Quantico he arrived at the command center and gave a package to the lance corporal on duty.
He asked, “Who’s the officer of the day?”
The lance corporal said, “Sir, it’s Brigadier Gen. Mattis.”
And Gen. Krulak said, “No, no, no. I know who Gen. Mattis is. I mean, who’s the officer of the day today, Christmas Day?”
The lance corporal, feeling a little anxious, said, “Sir, it is Brig. Gen. Mattis.”
About that time, Gen. Krulak spots in the back room a cot, or a daybed. He said, “No, Lance Corporal. Who slept in that bed last night?”
The lance corporal answers, “Sir, it was Brigadier Gen. Mattis.”
Just then, Mattis came in, wearing a duty uniform with a sword, and Gen. Krulak said, “Jim, what are you doing here on Christmas Day? Why do you have duty?”
Mattis told Krulak that the young officer who was scheduled to have duty on Christmas Day had a family, and Mattis decided that it was better for the young officer to spend Christmas Day with his family. So he chose to have duty on Christmas Day in his place.