Ever since Jane Fonda and other activists inserted themselves into the political narrative during the Vietnam War, the American public has often been critical of the United States military.
Generals and presidents who serve in times of war are often called “war-mongers” and “war criminals,” and the troops they command: “Baby killers.” “Too stupid to get real jobs.” “They've never defended my rights.”
Situations like what happened in Abu Ghraib prison — when American soldiers were caught abusing Iraqi prisoners — only lend credibility to the critics.
When Donald Trump nominated Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis to be his Secretary of Defense, many of the same criticisms popped up. Some quoted Mattis as saying he enjoyed killing:
“It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”
But many left out the context of his comment. He was referring to an enemy that didn't just attack him and his men, but also imprisoned, raped, and tortured women within their own culture:
“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”
But a letter that recently surfaced puts Mattis — and the media's portrayal of the Iraq War — into context:
"For decades, Saddam Hussein has tortured, imprisoned, raped and murdered the Iraqi people; invaded neighboring countries without provocation; and threatened the word with weapons of mass destruction. The time has come to end his reign of terror. On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.
When I give you the word, together we will cross the Line of Departure, close with those forces that choose to fight, and destroy them. Our fight is not with the Iraqi people, nor is it with members of the Iraqi army who choose to surrender. While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endure a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression.
Chemical attack, treachery, and use of the innocent as human shields can be expected, as can other unethical tactics. Take it all in stride. Be the hunter, not the hunted: Never allow your unit to be caught with it’s guard down. Use good judgment and act in the best interest of our nation.
You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure. Keep your faith in your comrades on your left and right and Marine Air overhead. Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit.
For the mission’s sake, our country’s sake, and the sake of the men who carried the Division’s colors in past battles - who fought for life and never lost their nerve - carry out your mission and keep your honor clean. Demonstrate to the world there is 'No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy' than a U.S. Marine."
The letter, which was written to troops under Mattis's command in 2003, paints a picture of a very different military. A military that goes into battle out of necessity rather than pleasure, and treats with respect any who offer the same in return.
If the words of those who have served with and under Mattis are any indication of his character, he too is a man who wins whenever he fights, but fights only when it is necessary.