Howlin’ Mad Warrior Monks

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Mon, Dec 12 - 8:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - Mattis

I don’t have really strong personal feelings against the idea of retired Marine General James Mattis becoming Secretary of Defense. He’s got to be a step up from the now normal western approach to defense, which is to put a broad-smiling woman or metrosexual in charge, keep the name, but make the office’s mission to be the secretary of political correctness, inclusivity, social justice, gender neutrality, gender integration, straight male moral castration, Muslim terrorist infiltration assistance, and pretty much anything but defense. Moreover, assuming Mattis takes the job, he’s a better man than I am; I wouldn’t take it without a fistful of signed but undated pardons and a liberal supply of ammunition. I think he – or anyone – purporting to fix Defense needs to shoot some people. No, not fire, not counsel, not yell at; shoot. Otherwise, the bureaucracy in the five-sided puzzle palace, the Navy Annex, and the various high rises in the area leased by the various services, will obfuscate, delay, deny, lie…whatever it takes to keep nothing from changing, especially their own power.1 Hmmm…did I say “some people”? Let me rephrases; he’s going to need to shoot a lot of people and probably will need a large rucksack full of signed but undated pardons, plus a graves registration unit, not too well trained, to truck the bodies to the Potomac and dump them.

Excuse me a moment, but the idea of a very large number of bureaucrats, in and out of uniform, being summarily shot and then having their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the Potomac to float out to sea has given me the schadenboner of all schadenboners…I need a bit to let it subside.

Ah, all better…well mostly better…now. At least I can continue with the column.

Anyway, as said, I don’t have any strong personal feelings against Mattis as SecDef. I do, however, have one educational observation and one nagging question.

First the educational observation: There’s a meme floating around concerning Mattis, allegedly told by former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak (that’s a purely pro forma “allegedly;” I have no doubt the story is true and that Krulak told it), concerning then Brigadier General Mattis taking Christmas Duty.2 Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already.

The problem with the story is that, while assuredly true, it is also kind of bullshit.

Why bullshit? Well…here’s the way it really, normally works. There are forms, DA 6 in the Army, whatever it might be in the Corps3, and whatever they use in the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard, to manage duty. They’re very important forms, nigh unto sacred, because of the potential for graft and corruption via selling exemptions to duty. They also allow for a certain amount of flexibility, for people to exchange duty days (or, more commonly, duty nights) with prior approval. That prior approval part is important, because it could happen that someone would decide to make a career of pulling other people’s duty, for money, and hardly ever show up at morning formation.

One other way flexibility comes in is during major holidays. The way it normally works is this: the First Sergeant, or battalion or brigade Adjutant, division G-1, etc., makes a list of unmarried or geographic bachelor personnel of the appropriate ranks for the duty, who have not already put in for leave, and asks, “Who’s willing to take holiday duty?” and then adjusts the roster accordingly. I have never seen any occasion, anywhere, where there were not enough volunteers for that to allow the married men (and women, too, I suppose) to spend Christmas with their families. No, it’s not written down anywhere, as far as I know, but it is the merest part of a first sergeant’s, sometimes sergeant major’s, or adjutant’s duties. It’s simply how it’s done in a competent force.

So what was Mattis engaged in in taking duty? It was probably just theater. He either had a competent adjutant to deal with who would have done it as described above, or said adjutant should have been relieved until the command did have a competent one to do it as above. There was almost certainly no need; he wasn’t saving any married personnel from missing Christmas at home; just get that out of your minds.4

Theater: The graphically presented illusion of care and concern. Not to say that Mattis didn’t care or wasn’t concerned; I’m sure he did and was. But this didn’t do anything to prove it.5 Don’t be fooled, yourself; I doubt too many Marines really were. The troops really aren’t dumb, you know.

I don’t much care for theater, personally, but, what the hell, if someone feels the need…6

And then there’s the nagging question…but first, a little history lesson. In 1944, on the island of Saipan, Marine Lieutenant General Holland M – “Howlin’ Mad” – Smith, Commanding Vth Amphibious Corps, relieved Army Major General Ralph Smith, commanding the 27th Infantry Division, over a failure to attack on time. Was the relief justified? Quite possibly it was, but it really doesn’t matter; it was impolitic. And anyone who thinks politics ends when people put on uniforms needs a serious education in military history and the history of people.

The Army didn’t take this well, if I may be permitted a small understatement. That cost Holland Smith the command of the invasion of Okinawa. Indeed, though the toxin is much attenuated at this point, and few even remember who Ralph Smith was, there’s still a small lingering sense in the Army that the Marine Corps cannot be fully trusted when its them or you. (This is despite the fact that there is no more day to day helpful group than the Corps.) Compare that to the Great War, when the 4th Marine Brigade had no issues with being commanded by the Army’s 2nd Division, and the Army’s 2nd Division had no issues with a Marine general taking command of it. It wouldn’t be that cordial now, not under the surface.

I think it’s a fair characterization that, although he had been in the Army National Guard for a while, Holland Smith was still only a Marine, ever a Marine, always a Marine, nothing but a Marine, and didn’t really, deep down, give a shit about anything that didn’t have USMC emblazoned on it, somewhere. This is fine, of course, at battalion or even regimental level. It’s not such a good thing at any level higher than those, though.

Which brings us back to Mattis. Is he more than that? Is he a Marine first, last, always, and only, or is he “an American fighting man [serving] in the forces that guard our country and our way of life.”7 In other words, can we be sure he sees outside the Corps, that he can put the national interest, and the welfare of the other services, on an equal par with his own?8

He’s perhaps written and been quoted on some things that could make one wonder, but they’re trivial, messages from one Marine to another. No harm, no foul, really. Besides, for every jarhead-centric thing Mattis has ever written, he’s written a dozen to gladden the heart of any warrior.

Indeed, those few things would be easily dismissible but for one unfortunate event, which may be Googled as ODA 574. ODA 574 was an A Team in 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group.9 The short version of that is that there was a friendly fire incident, an Air Force bomb misdropped on friendlies. I don’t really know who screwed up the bombing run and it doesn’t matter to this column anyway. There were casualties, including at least one extremely serious one, from the bombing. Aeromedical evacuation was called in to Mattis’ headquarters and refused, one soldier dying [again, allegedly] as a result of the delay.

What actually happened, the circumstances surrounded that refusal, I do not know. I do not know, not because there isn’t information out there, but because so much of it is conflicting and all of it dripping with emotion.10 Did the Army actually fail to give the enemy situation on the ground, such that Mattis felt it unwise to risk his limited aeromedical evacuation capability? Maybe; that’s one story. But maybe, too, they reported “negative” situation and some junior radio telephone operator took that as an “I refuse to report it.” Or, maybe, he just wasn’t very concerned about the Army. I’d very much like to know that it wasn’t the latter.

So am I saying that Mattis is disqualified from becoming SecDef? Not at all. Instead, I am saying that the question of ODA 574, and the implication that he may be another Holland Smith (also a fine fighting general, by the way; give his shade its due), needs to be addressed head on, directly, in the confirmation hearings. I am saying that it needs to be addressed fully and either proven to be nonsense or proven to have a basis, in which case, and only in that case, he ought not become Secretary of Defense. I am saying, too, that unless the allegations around 574, and the then-rising presumption of Holland Smithism, are not utterly disproved, crushed out of credible existence, then Mattis won’t have a peaceful or useful day as SecDef.

Oh, and Army? If the thing is proven to be bogus, and he’s confirmed? Lighten up and give him a lot more support than any recent SecDef has gotten or deserved. He’s going to need all the friends he can find.


1 Once upon a (long) time (ago), IIRC, Congress mandated that the A-10s were to transfer from the Air Force to the Army. Never happened. The term “out of control” doesn’t even begin to cover what it means when the armed forces can ignore a congressional mandate.


3 After just now having finished asking representatives of all three continental Marine Divisions, including the 4th (Reserve), I’m getting a lot of (mixed metaphor alert) auditory blank stares when I mention “Duty Roster…names…mmm… down the left side, maybe….rising numbers…dates along the top…fairness…avoidance of IG complaints. Not ringing any bells, huh?” I did, however, confirm that normal Marine practice is to deliberately use unmarried folks of appropriate rank (and with appropriate qualifications) for holiday duty. Hey, any Marine readers? Get yourself a NAM; suggest to the Corps that they adopt the Army’s DA 6. Really. I mean really fucking REALLY. You cannot imagine how much better a way it is.

4 I say “almost certainly” because there is a slim possibility that he took duty because of unforeseen and unforeseeable exigencies, emergency leave on the part of the rostered duty officer, for example. There is also a slim possibility that the Corps is not as competent as I am giving them credit for, but this seems most unlikely.

5 There’s another sneaking suspicion I have, that Mattis was reliving his youth a bit. Well, if so, why the hell not? I used to enjoy duty myself and can’t really imagine any competent sergeant or lieutenant or captain who loves his work and his life who does not enjoy being a company, battalion, or brigade commander for a day. H/t Wes Taylor.

6 One of these days I’ll do a column on what actual care and concern looks and acts like.

7 No, as a matter of fact, I don’t like the new code of conduct. This was and is mine: starting on page 19.

8 One measure of this might be whether or not he makes sure the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle stays dead.

9 For any non-cognoscenti, that means Army. There are SOF, Special Operations Forces, in the Corps, but SF, qua SF, is Army. I was attached to 3/5 SF for the First Gulf War. The commander of the battalion, at that time, LTC Thompson, was later killed in another friendly fire incident, engaged while flying in a helicopter over northern Iraq. It may be time for 3/5 to send a letter to the Air Force, enquiring, “Have we offended you in some way?”

10 Not all that dissimilarly to how the Army felt about the relief of Ralph Smith, now that I think upon it.

Photo by Getty Images

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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