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'Warrior Monk' General Up For Central Command Post

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'Warrior Monk' General Up For Central Command Post

National Security

'Warrior Monk' General Up For Central Command Post

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DON GONYEA, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In this country and in Afghanistan, officials are still weighing the fallout from the tens of thousands of secret U.S. military documents published over the weekend by the website Wikileaks. In a moment, we'll get the view from Afghanistan. Questions about the leaked documents are likely to come up today, when Marine Corps General James Mattis goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

GONYEA: He's been nominated to replace General David Petraeus as the commander of Central Command and if confirmed, will oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. General Mattis is known for his blunt talk. He has, for example, spoken out about how much he enjoys killing the enemy.

As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, that kind of language has gotten him in trouble, and also endeared him to the troops.

RACHEL MARTIN: It was the spring of 2004 in Iraq. Four U.S. defense contractors had been killed and mutilated in Fallujah. Instead of using tactical strikes to retaliate, the Marines were ordered to conduct a major assault on the city to wrest control from insurgents. General James Mattis was leading the charge.

Mr. TOM RICKS (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security; Author, "Fiasco"): He launched an offensive and then was told: Stop doing it.

MARTIN: Tom Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of the book "Fiasco," in which he details an angry exchange between General Mattis and his commanding officer at the time, General John Abizaid.

Mr. RICKS: And what he said to General Abizaid - and I'm quoting - was: If you're going to take Vienna, take (bleep) Vienna. It was typical Mattis, to quote Napoleon in a really profane way.

MARTIN: That same colorful language has gotten Mattis in trouble - most notably, when he said this in 2005, during a speech in San Diego about killing members of the Taliban.

General JAMES MATTIS (U.S. Marine Corps): Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight them, 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.

MARTIN: Mattis was taken to the woodshed for those remarks.

Just last month, General Stanley McChrystal was fired for inappropriate comments he made to a Rolling Stone reporter about members of the Obama administration. The comments by Mattis in 2005 were about the enemy, not his civilian leaders, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says General Mattis has learned from his mistake.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think that the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned. Obviously, in the wake of the Rolling Stone interview, we discussed this kind of thing.

MARTIN: But Gates says Mattis has the judgment and intellect to do the job. Mattis is known to carry books of Roman philosophy with him on every combat mission, and he's got a personal library of 6,000 books that he insists on taking with him from post to post. But beyond the books and bravado is a general who can connect with his troops.

Former Marine Captain Seth Moulton describes a speech that he heard Mattis give in Kuwait right before the Iraq war.

Mr. SETH MOULTON: And he talked to us about, you know, how he would like to be the one to capture Saddam Hussein, and how to deal with our girlfriends and our friends when we went home if they disagreed with the war and didn't respect our service - the kinds of problems that we could see ourselves having. And I think we all left that speech really ready to go.

MARTIN: After the war had started, Mattis offered this frank advice to his troops: Be polite, he said; be professional; but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

Again, Seth Moulton.

Mr. MOULTON: You know, if there's one thing we need in today's world, I think it's leaders who can speak the truth, who aren't just constrained by the politics of the moment. And so to have a leader who has this reputation for not being politically correct, for speaking his mind and telling the truth about what's really going on the ground, that means a lot. That means a lot when you're following someone like that into battle.

MARTIN: And leading troops into battle is what James Mattis does. In March 2003, he wrote a letter to all forces under his command. In it, Mattis told his troops to quote, engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit. Demonstrate to the world there is no better friend, no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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