All my first impressions of Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis were negative. One of the most decent human beings I have ever been lucky enough to know — and I really only barely knew her — was a human-rights activist named Marla Ruzicka. In 2005, Marla chastised Mattis, who had recently served in Anbar Province, for a blithe remark about it being “fun” to kill people that remained obnoxious even when weighting for his gung-ho audience.  “I have worked with many of our servicemen who have helped me assist innocent civilians injured accidentally by American forces,” she wrote in protest to the New York Times. “It is not fair that their acts of kindness and care are misrepresented by General Mattis’s undignified remarks.” Marla died in an insurgent attack in Baghdad later that year.

As the years went on, though, Mattis’ impressive intellect made a larger impression on me. He was a major contributor to the counterinsurgency field manual and at Joint Forces Command he’s been one of the military’s premiere intellectuals. I’ve been reading the tea leaves for a few weeks now that Mattis, a four-star general, is open to becoming the Commandant of the Marine Corps as the final act in his service. Last night Marc Ambinder passed along chatter that he’s got the inside track. So I imagine it’s no coincidence that Small Wars Journal this morning promotes a new interview with Mattis that gives some strong hints to the directions in which he would take the Corps. You can’t say he hasn’t thought this through:

Q. WHAT ARE YOUR CAPABILITY PRIORITIES?

A. No. 1, we must be able to fight in coalitions. No. 2, we must recognize that the information warfare, the battle for the hearts and minds of the global audience, is just as heavy a priority as the military operation itself and the tactical events on the battlefield must feed the narrative: that we are living up to our values, that while winning this fight, we are saving the innocent people that we are out there to protect.

Somehow, we’ve got to tie together the capabilities to win the information war, at the same time working with like-minded nations to keep these experiments we call democracy alive against people who really don’t like them.

Q. DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES WANTS MILITARY COMMANDS TO SHRINK. CAN YOU DO IT AND STILL OPERATE EFFECTIVELY?

A. Absolutely. There are tried-and-tested methods: skip echelons is one – don’t replicate every function every echelon; having fewer commands is actually better. I think we’re on the right track to follow the secretary’s lead right now, and it makes a lot of sense.

Contrast all this with the outgoing commandant, Gen. James Conway.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman