I guess that in this day and age, we shouldn’t be surprised that a high school student was able to obtain Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s cell phone number and call him up for an interview. But should we be surprised that Mattis accepted the call and then answered a series of questions? Those who know him are not. That’s the kind of man he is: a natural teacher who admires his fellow citizens. His respectful responses to the student’s questions and his lack of condescension are earmarks of the man.
Here’s a similar story. When I was teaching at the Naval War College, a young lieutenant commander in the intermediate course was working on a project examining how to conduct military operations in a “degraded” operational environment, i.e., how does a unit carry out its mission when communications don’t work, when the satellites upon which the military depends are blinded, when friction and the fog of uncertainty in war completely engulf the commander and his staff.
I had just seen Mattis, who at that time was the commander of Joint Forces Command, an organization that was examining this question. I sent him an email describing what the student was doing and asked him if there was someone on his staff that I might have the student contact. That’s what I was expecting. That’s what most very busy generals would do. But the next day, the student stopped me in the passageway.
“Sir,” he said, almost awestruck. “General Mattis called me last night and offered to give me any help I need.”
With all the references to “Mad Dog” and the like (an appellation he doesn’t like, by the way; it was given to him by his Marines when he commanded 1st Marine Division during the “march up” to Baghdad in 2003. I believe that the only people who should be allowed to call him that are the Marines he commanded then), the fact is Mattis was a tough but compassionate commander. On the one hand, he relieved a regimental commander whom he believed was not pushing hard enough. On the other, he took care of the troops.