2016-12-08 / Views

How Trump’s ‘Mad Dog’ came to love the press

A column by Eric Carlson

A lot of people have been asking me lately if I know the guy President-elect Donald Trump named last week as his Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Gen. James N. “Mad Dog” Mattis. It’s a reasonable question since many folks are aware that I served in the Marines for 25 years as a combat correspondent and public affairs officer before I retired in 1998 and began working at this newspaper.

I served in combat with Mattis during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War when he was a lieutenant colonel and I was a chief warrant officer.

Lt. Col. Mattis commanded one of several mechanized infantry battalions in Task Force Ripper, part of the 1st Marine Division in which I served as public affairs officer. I replaced a higher-ranking officer who had just been fired. I worked directly for the two-star general who commanded the division, two layers above Mattis in the chain of command.

During Operation Desert Shield, Mattis’ battalion was kicking up lots of sand, maneuvering in a forward area along the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — kind of bobbing and weaving like a boxer dancing around the ring before landing the first punch.

This was being done on purpose to keep the Iraqis guessing exactly where, when and how we were going to attack them in Operation Desert Storm.

It’s a matter of historical record that the 1st Marine Division accommodated the largest numbers of civilian journalists covering any unit on the ground in that war. I’d convinced the major general I worked for that having a large press pool “embedded” with us and reporting on our activities in near-real time could help us achieve several of our division’s operational objectives – including keeping Saddam Hussein confused and worried about what we were going to do next.

I sent a radio message through the Division Command Post to Mattis’ battalion to let him know that I was on my way out to his position with two Humvees-full of civilian journalists.

A terse message came back from Mattis’ battalion: “Request denied.”

Of course, I went anyway.

When we got there, Mattis was not amused. He understood, though, that I was carrying out the wishes not only of his immediate boss, but of his boss’s boss.

This was the first time I’d ever met Mattis, and one of only two times I ever talked to him in my entire career. The encounters were telling and memorable, however.

If you were an officer in the 1st Marine Division and hadn’t read Field Marshall F.W. von Mellenthin’s World War II classic, “Panzer Battles,” then you had no clue what any commander or senior staff officer in the division was talking about half the time. The book was the highly technical memoir of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s chief of staff during Hitler’s North Africa campaign. Of course, I’d read the book.

It was expected that Task Force Ripper would become the “schwerpunkt” (focal point) of the division as we charged into Kuwait to eject the Iraqis. Mattis and I both had a deep understanding of what that meant.

“Sir, news media coverage of this war has become so all-pervasive,” I told Mattis, “that we now need to consider the media as just another environmental feature of the battlefield – kind of like the rain. When it rains, you operate wet.”

Mattis just glared back at me.

“Sir, right now, we need you to employ the all-weather capability that we know you possess — and exploit the advantage we have over an adversary who has no credibility with the press,” I told Mattis. “In this phase of operations, our objective is to communicate a threat — and we need to let the civilian news media help us do that.

“You’ve been maneuvering troops and armored vehicles out here in the desert to achieve a tactical objective at about 30 miles per hour. Now, we’re going to maneuver imagery and information around the globe at the speed of light to help us achieve our operational and strategic objectives.”

Back then, there was no written doctrine for battlefield public affairs. But I soon saw a lightbulb appear over Mattis’s head — the same lightbulb I’d seen appear over the heads of my own two-star boss and the colonel who was Mattis’s immediate boss.

The media visit to Mattis’ battalion ended up going very well.

Sure enough, as the ground campaign kicked off, all the air support, artillery fire, logistics and telecommunications bandwidth were prioritized to bolster Task Force Ripper — our division’s “schwerpunkt.”

Immediately following the 100- hour ground campaign, I brought an even bigger gaggle of civilian journalists out to see Mattis and his battalion as they were celebrating and analyzing the U.S. and Allied victory.

Mattis welcomed the press warmly.

That was right after Saddam Hussein’s propaganda machine had gone into overdrive and was trumpeting a “great victory for Islam.”

In response, our two-star general had shifted the division’s “schwerpunkt” from Task Force Ripper to his public affairs officer.

But that’s another story.

Return to top