Marine General: Leading
From Iraqi Battlefield, Informed Key Decisions
Elaine M. Grossman,
Inside The Pentagon,
October 16, 2003, Pg. 1
Reprinted by Permission of Inside Washington Publishers: This
article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without
express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2001, Inside Washington Publishers.
At a time of increasing reliance on sophisticated sensor
and communications technologies to paint a "picture of the battle space" to
top generals far from the war front, a key Marine Corps commander last spring
opted to lead his troops in Iraq the old-fashioned way: He went there.
"In two minutes at the front edge of the combat zone, you know if the troops feel confident, if the battle's going the way they want it to, [or if] they need something," said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commanding
general of the 1st Marine Division. "You can sense it. And you can apply something."
Mattis' troops formed the heart of the Marines' air-land
team in combat against Iraqi forces last March and April. Fighting in parallel
with the Army's V Corps and British forces, the Marines were among the allied
ground troops overseen by the Coalition Force Land Component Command's high-technology
war room at Camp Doha, Kuwait.
Mattis' task in "leading from the front" was greatly facilitated
by a host of modern communications technologies, he said in a Sept. 25 interview
with Inside the Pentagon.
Mattis said a "dozen communicators" accompanied him everywhere
he went, providing him with satellite telephones; radios that use high-frequency,
VHF or UHF bands; and Blue Force Tracker, an Army-developed system that locates
Mattis' communications team "kept all those flowing around me," he said. The general hastened to add that although he remained in close
touch with his troops on the tip of the spear, he was not personally at great
risk for much of the war.
"You'll notice there were no major generals on the casualty lists. There were lance corporals and sergeants," Mattis said. "So when you talk about [leading from] the front, it's relative. There's probably no lance
corporal infantryman who would not have preferred to be in my position at
some point there, on my worst day."
Mattis downplayed the effect the loss of a general officer
might have on troop morale, saying it likely would steel them more in fighting
enemy forces (see box).
Yet Mattis was, by choice, the antithesis of the modern-day
warrior image some Pentagon leaders have sought to cultivate. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, for one, envisions war commanders attacking targets on an electronic map with the click of a mouse from a battle center physically removed from combat.
"I would routinely move up to the assault regiments or to the assault battalion commanders," Mattis said. "If we were going to continue to attack in one area and if it was a pretty sharp fight, I'd move up to get a sense of how sharp the fighting really was."
He said he could "tell within minutes of getting there" how well or poorly his forces were doing—more by sensing the combat atmosphere than by objectively analyzing friendly versus enemy forces.
In keeping with Marine Corps doctrine, Mattis said he
prefers leading through "command and feedback" rather than traditional "command and control."
"And you get your best feedback by . . . going out and sensing what's going on. That's when you really know what's happening," Mattis
told ITP. He said he could not effectively command "as the generals did in
World War I, sitting back at a chateau in France and getting a telegraph key
clicking to them."
Mattis, who earlier led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade
and Task Force 58 in Afghanistan, commanded from the field by leapfrogging
two communications posts as his forces pressed forward.
"In both Iraq and Afghanistan . . . I maintained what
I call a 'forward observation post,'" Mattis said. "One light armored vehicle
C2, [or] command and control, variant and the four humvees that carried my
comm gear—these five vehicles traveled with me. This was my forward observation
post in Iraq."
A "jump" command post, or CP, was set up anew each time
the Marine division moved closer to Baghdad, Mattis said.
"There is a forward and a main CP," he explained. "The
main is where most everything goes on. When they are getting ready to break
down [antennas and computers] and move forward, the forward CP goes up and
takes command and control of the battle."
Troops radioing back to Mattis' division command post
would often be unaware whether they were talking with the forward CP or main
CP, he said.
For example, Marines at the front might call back to the
division CP, saying, "Blue Diamond, I need a casualty evacuation here," Mattis
described. At one given time, a voice from the main CP might respond. But
an hour later—after the two CPs leapfrogged positions—Marines might hear another
voice respond from the forward CP. The two command posts were equally responsive,
Mattis said he was routinely at the division CP "some
time of the day as I get the bigger feeds and understand everything. And then
I go where it's most critical that day."
He said he would often fly by helicopter or travel in a small convoy to wherever an important battle was taking place.
"I get up there and I sense what's going on from the commander face-to-face," Mattis said. "If he's dead tired, that helps me to understand what they're facing. But those human aspects are much more important to combat then all of the mechanical [questions like], 'What level of supplies does this unit have?'"
Mattis offered two other principal reasons, one philosophical
and the other tactical, for leading from the battlefield rather than from
a command center in the rear.
First, "basically war is something that requires courage and it's in the province of fear," he said. "And if you don't move forward yourself, you lose your moral authority to order others to go."
Mattis says "the No. 1 authority you have [as a commander] is moral authority. The No. 1 power you have is expectation. If they expect to see you and they see you, and you expect to see them moving forward, then that moral imperative is what really takes us forward."
Second, from a purely practical standpoint, Mattis doesn't trust that the sensor and communications systems will always function as needed in the heat of battle.
"Why shouldn't we sit back [behind the battlefield]?"
Mattis asked. "All that fancy gear will break down."
He pointed to last month's Hurricane Isabel, which roared
up the East Coast and caused extended power outages throughout the Washington
"We sit here in the most technologically advanced country,
in one of the most technologically advanced parts of that country," Mattis
said. "And a silly hurricane comes through [and] we have [computer] servers
in every building here, and we have people right now who don't have the power
to send a message across the street or to the next floor up.
"And do you think [there won't be similar failures] under
the stresses of combat, where an enemy is trying to interrupt those communications,
where low-cost alternatives exist [like using] jammers that you can't even
find because they're so small and they're hidden inside a box of trash next
to a road you're driving down?" he continued. "There's a million things that can go wrong."
Rather than assume he can track and make sense of virtually every movement on the battlefield—as some advocates of "network-centric" warfare imply—Mattis says he provides his troops clear "commander's intent" about the battle's underlying objectives, leaving the rest largely to them.
"It's all about commander's intent, to me," he said. "Commander's intent does not mean that I have to be monitoring every minute. Do I like to have good situational awareness? Yes, I want the best technology and the best capability I can get. But there is no way that I think that you can take the place of that timeless commander's intent."
Mattis says the sophisticated technologies he and his
forces used in Iraq greatly reduced friendly casualties, but were not necessary
for winning the war.
"We could have had the Iraqis' gear and they could have
had ours, and we still would have gotten to Baghdad nearly as fast," he said.
"It would not have changed [the outcome]. Now what [the advanced gear] does
is it allows us to do it with many fewer casualties."—Elaine M. Grossman