It’s true. Mattis didn’t send help when it was requested.
General Mattis has become a patron saint in our military and especially among Marines. Much of the reputation is well deserved but one incident getting increased attention is bound to raise the ire of many who place their heroes on too high a pedestal.
In late 2001 during the early part of our invasion of Afghanistan a Special Forces team then led by Captain Jason Amerine inserted the future President of Afghanistan into the region to marshal support for the Americans among the Pashtun population and overthrow the Taliban. The specific story from Armine’s book ”The Only Thing Worth Dying For” was recounted by Eric Blehm in the Daily Beast.
The book tells of a disturbing incident toward the end of Armine’s mission. Outside the city of Shawali Kowt allied Afghan troops paused to allow American airpower to expel Taliban holding the high ground overlooking a bridge that led into Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital. Armine’s ODA had recently linked up with a larger element including a new CCT to the fight. The CCT was calling in an airstike of 2000lb GPS guided smart bombs when he errantly sent his grid instead of the enemy target.
The 2000lb bomb struck in the middle of friendly troops killing dozens and creating a mass casualty event. This is a time well before forward operating bases dotting the countryside and there were maybe a couple dozen helicopters supporting all the operations in Afghanistan. A call went out for help. The only support came from deep inside Pakistan where Air Force Special Operations crew and pilots disregarded safety protocols and flew hours to the stricken troops. Once there the single MH-53 Pavelow helicopter carried as many of the wounded it could to the nearby established Marine camp, Camp Rhino.
But before AFSOC dispatched its Pakistan based helicopters, Special Forces troops approached General Mattis the Marine Commander at Camp Rhino 45 minutes away and asked for help they were sure they would get. General Mattis refused on the grounds that that he didn’t know the enemy situation. The excerpt from the book describing the heartbreaking incident was published by the Daily Beast in 2010. One can read it here.
Now that General Mattis has been nominated by the Trump administration the tale is getting a spotlight. Some doubt he veracity of the report knowing Mattis’ stellar reputation and inspiring quotes. Some speculate the news is the effort of a disgruntled officer trying to smudge the General’s reputation. Others, that the whole effort is an attempt to undermine the Trump administration. All but the last are likely true.
The incident is well documented. LTC Amerine is not a disgruntled officer. He himself has been attacked and his career derailed when he had the temerity to become a whistleblower and exposed “our dysfunctional system for recovering hostages”. The effort to throw a monkey wrench into the Trump Jaugernaut can’t be discounted and staining the reputation of General Mattis a man placed so high on a pedestal would harm him and cause others to question the judgement of President Elect Donald Trump.
Make no mistake. General Mattis would make an outstanding Secretary of Defense. The troops love him and he has an intellect that equals the size of the task in front of him. None the less, the latest kerfuffle stings some and enrages others. The truth is that speaks more to us than it does to General Mattis.
War is not a science and it is waged by imperfect people. We though, have a need for heroes and after the blood dried and blew away in the winds sweeping that dusty battlefield of Shawali Kowt we’ve done what we’ve always done. We made our heroes like the Catholic Church canonizes saints, larger than life as well as infallible. A small example of this is in how General Mattis is referred to. “Mad Dog” is often associated to Mattis it’s a name he reportedly doesn’t like and was bestowed on him by Marines after the second battle of Fallujah. A lesser known moniker is CHAOS but it wasn’t given because of what Mattis causes the enemy. It was generated by his staff when he commanded the 7th Marine Regiment and is an acronym. It stands for the “Colonel Has Another Outstanding Suggestion”.
St. Mattis The Patron Saint of Chaos
With half a dozen helicopters on the ground and air superiority Mattis could have and should have sent help to the stricken American unit and afghan allies. Why he didn’t only he knows but our military has become increasingly risk averse. Those early days in Afghanistan were nerve wracking and extremely risky. The Marines had just placed the largest group of conventional troops on the ground in Afghanistan and the lifeline was long and thin. The enemy situation was unsure. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was micromanaging troop levels and what support would be allowed in theatre regardless of what commanders wanted. For instance, artillery was not deployed to Afghanistan for until MANY months later and no one knew what the enemy would do.
Hindsight causes us to look back and forget those realities. The commander on the ground doesn’t have that advantage and a mistake was made. The lesson though is not to castigate Mattis. It is to temper our demand for flawless heroes. During the waning months of WWII another much loved general some have likened to Mattis also made a mistake and it cost many more lives.
Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters was captured in Tunisia in 1943 and spent two years in German POW camp 50 miles behind enemy lines. Water’ father in law was the American general in command of the advancing Americans. He ordered a raid to penetrate German lines. Liberate the camp and return with the American POWs. A force of 300 men was assembled including 16 tanks, 27 armored halftracks and a mixture of jeeps trucks and other vehicles was dispatched.
The task force ill equipped to rescue thousands of US troops fought to the POW but was encircled and destroyed. All 57 vehicles were knocked out. Of the 300 men only 35 made it back. 32 men were killed in the attempt. None of the prisoners were rescued and they were accompanied in their internment by about 230 more Americans. What General ordered the raid 50 miles behind enemy lines that cost so much? General George S. Patton…
Patton later said the raid was a diversion. Some say Patton didn’t know his son in law was in the POW camp. Patton’s diaries differ and you don’t send a Generals’ aide out on a raid. No doubt Patton was a great General and likely the most feared one by the Germans but he wasn’t infallible. Maybe the comparison to Mattis is right on point?
General Mattis is an excellent choice for our Secretary of Defense. Our expectation of perfection from Generals and heroes shouldn’t be the primary reason to exclude him from the position.