May 30, 2018

James Mattis may well be a war criminal, and no amount of reading will change that


At, Amanda Macias has written an admiring profile of James “Mad Monk Dog Warrior” Mattis and his voracious reading habits. Macias documents Mattis’s longstanding reputation as a bookworm, citing colleagues who estimate his personal library contained 7,000 volumes at one point and quoting a message the retired general sent to military historian Jill Russell in 2003, in which he claimed, “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed before.”

Mattis has long been hailed as a responsible, adult voice in the room, and profiles like Macias’s only serve to burnish that reputation. If our president is illiterate, we should at least have an erudite Secretary of Defense, right?

Though intellectual life rafts such as these may be comforting as the ship of state careens towards the icebergs of climate disaster, nuclear war, and full-on oligopoly, to completely ignore the nature of figures like Mattis and John Kelly (another legendarily voracious bibliophage and supposed voice of reason in the Trump White House), is irresponsible and dangerous. Mattis may well be legally responsible for war crimes committed under his command in Fallujah. He also appears to take joy in physical violence, and—despite his reputation as a thoughtful moderate—to be itching to get into another disastrous conflict in the Persian Gulf. Liking books, while a good quality in the abstract, is hardly an effective counterbalance.

Another quote that Macias cites is telling: “We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. Winging it and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.” All of which is true, to be sure. But it really is a bummer to see someone who has spent so much time reading about the disastrous history of violent conflict come to the singularly stupid conclusion that it was all a really very productive use of human energy.

Says Mattis, “I can’t tell you the number of times I looked down at what was going on on the ground or I was engaged in a fight somewhere and I knew within a couple of minutes how I was going to screw up the enemy. And I knew it because I’d done so much reading.” Cool.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.