James Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps last year as a four-star general, has an enthusiastic following among Marines. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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James Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps last year as a four-star general, is among the most articulate thinkers on a subject that gets very little attention: what it means to be a warrior.
Even in retirement Mattis has an enthusiastic following among Marines, an infantry-oriented service that values espirit de corps, or fighting spirit, above almost all else.
In a speech last month, Mattis tackled a concern that is on the minds of a number of combat leaders: A public that wants to paint veterans as victims and why that is potentially damaging to the fighting spirit of America's warriors.
"I would just say there is one misperception of our veterans and that is they are somehow damaged goods," Mattis said. "I don't buy it."
"If we tell our veterans enough that this is what is wrong with them they may actually start believing it," he said during questions after a speech at the Marines' Memorial Club in San Francisco.
It was a speech that received little coverage, except for a notice on the website Military1, which headlined it, "Gen. Mattis' next mission: Destroying the PTSD victim myth," referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"While victimhood in America is exalted I don't think our veterans should join those ranks," Mattis said.
It's a sensitive subject, since no one wants to appear uncaring or insensitive. America has fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without a draft and the burden of combat has fallen on a small percentage of Americans. It's not easy for the public to understand why there are men who volunteer to go to war.
Mattis didn't point fingers, but the media and political leaders have helped fuel this perception that most or all combat veterans come back from war traumatized.
"There is also something called post traumatic growth where you come out of a situation like that and you actually feel kinder toward your fellow man and fellow woman," Mattis said.
Mattis is legendary for his bluntness, but his words are chosen carefully. He is an avid reader of military history, but also literature.
Mattis' point is that warfare often comes down to a clash of wills. Technology and weaponry matter, but war, even on today's battlefield, is often won or lost at the point of a bayonet.
Mattis said the U.S. military must be steeled to fight a fanatical enemy that has a medieval worldview. The enemy must be convinced that it has a warrior class that won't back down.
"We are going to have to have young people in our country who are willing to go toe to toe with this because two irreconcilable wills exist," he said.
"There is no room for military people, including our veterans, to see themselves as victims even if so many of our countrymen are prone to relish that role," he said.
Mattis speaks of "ferocity" and "slaughtering" the enemy, words that don't always go over well in so-called polite society, but resonate among young Marines, most of whom volunteered so they could go to war. He has led Marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2005 he was counseled by the Marine Corps commandant at the time after he told an audience that it can be fun to kill an enemy "who slap women around."
Even then, Mattis wasn't been flippant or unthoughtful. His words were directed at the audience in front of him, which included a group of Marines just back from Iraq, where they had engaged in intensive fighting. The Marines had traveled to San Diego to see and hear Mattis.
It was Mattis' way of conveying to the young Marines that they did what they were trained to do. He was speaking to the enemy too, letting them know there were American warriors who "are pretty unapologetic about our willingness to fight," he once said in an interview.
But there was a camera in the room and soon his words were echoing around a country that wasn't accustomed to such blunt language from its nation's military leaders.
The general never apologized but has acknowledged his words could have been more carefully chosen.
At the San Francisco speech, Mattis made reference to the controversy. "I'm on record that it didn't really traumatize me to do away with some people," he said.