No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy

November 25, 2019
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No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis. Jim Proser. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2018.

With former Defense Secretary James Mattis promoting a new memoir, and raising questions about his service, it’s an opportune time to look at Jim Proser’s fast-paced account of the fabled Marine’s career, teasingly-titled No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy. The author, a journalist who wrote I’m Staying with my Boys, an admiring portrait of a Marine hero, sets out at the beginning of the Trump administration to uncover the “qualities of character…[and] personal magnetism” that accounted for the acclaim then greeting the Mattis appointment, culminating in his confirmation by the Senate in a vote of 98 to 1.[1]  Despite obvious admiration, the author only partially succeeds. Examples that display martial virtues abound, but readers looking for insights into the personality or inner life of Jim Mattis will struggle not only with making political connections to recent events, but also with what might come next in his public life. Mattis’ new memoir,  Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, will undoubtedly address some of these questions.

Taking his title from a saying attributed to the Roman general and politician Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC) that “no friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full,” Proser concludes the lesson Mattis drew early on was that we only wanted to fight our enemies, and others would find, “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”, than a U.S. Marine.[2] That was the motto he gave to the 1st Marine Division before he led it into combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Relying on published accounts by colleagues, subordinates, friends, and journalists, the author concentrates on the public career of Mattis. The reader is deep into Mideast warfare before any personal details are revealed. An early love affair with “a girl named Alice” is briefly described, where the choice came down to the career or the girl, and a long-term relationship with a photographer surfaces near the end of the story, but these private details shed little light on the man and leave the reader wanting more.[3]

Fixating on the day-to-day life of a line marine officer, the author skips over issues that arose in later assignments of greater responsibility, especially Mattis’ tenure at U.S. Joint Forces Command, Transformation at NATO, or at U.S. Central Command. The latter assignment is particularly important, especially against the background of continuing tensions in the Persian Gulf. Ousted from Central Command in 2013 for clashing with the Obama administration over accommodation with Iran, Mattis as Secretary of Defense later resisted the strategy of direct economic, political, and military confrontation. Discussion could have provided context for understanding the evolution of U.S. policy, and the growth of Mattis’ perspective as he transitioned from military service to high political office. In general, the narrative recounts events without a thematic thread, often out of sequence, and if there was any criticism of its subject, or his decisions, it is not readily apparent. It is also true that Mattis is known for his personal discipline, a tight mask of command, and the closeness with which he keeps his own counsel.

For those who have followed the story of this rightly celebrated soldier of the republic, there is much to appreciate. Proser weaves his action-packed story against the campaigns and battles of our time, in an hour by hour, sometimes jumbled sequence of planning, combat, stabilization, and occupation. The routine rhythm of field and staff assignments of a marine officer unfolds: rising through the ranks as a rifle platoon and company commander, leading Task Force Ripper’s assault battalions in Desert Storm, as a brigadier leading Task Force 58 into Afghanistan, and capping his combat record command of the 1st Marine Division in Iraq, culminating in the Battle of Fallujah. In these passages, Proser is at his best putting you inside a choking hot and dust-filled armored vehicle in the desert or aboard an amphibious landing ship in the Arabian Sea sweating out an invasion into a hostile land that Alexander the Great failed to conquer.

…in his experience of war all that matters is excellence, eccentricities are tolerated when the bearer helps win battles.

Some fascinating details about Mattis’ operating style stand out, like sponsorship of a brilliant, but socially awkward corporal with an encyclopedic memory of the Iraqi Order of Battle. Other talented non-commissioned officers occupy positions normally held by officers. Mattis indulges other personal quirks, and, because in his experience of war all that matters is excellence, eccentricities are tolerated when the bearer helps win battles. The cost is close and personal. In one especially chilling moment, Mattis attends a tense meeting with tribal leaders, his uniform covered with the blood of his men just killed and wounded in an IED ambush on the way to the gathering. By the end of his tour, more than half of his divisional Jump Platoon are casualties. His deputy commander, and later White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, loses his son in combat.

Xenophon, graphite on paper, 2007, after a Roman copy of an earlier Greek portrait (S.L. Ossad)

The books and thinkers that shaped the Mattis career, the sayings, and nicknames, real and imagined—most notoriously Mad Dog—are all here, stitched into the action. One example is “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” or another is his famous radio call sign CHAOS, which actually stands for the “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution.”[4] My favorite nugget is that upon receiving the order to lead his Marines into the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, he reread Xenophon’s Anabasis, the story of an ancient Greek army serving in the same terrain and facing a months-long fighting retreat through many hundreds of miles of enemy territory.

With a book tour underway for his memoir, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, Mattis has been pressed for his account of his service as Secretary of Defense. Despite his endorsement of the French diplomatic concept of devoir de reserve, or a duty of silence from former officials to allow policies to proceed, at the 2019 annual Al Smith Dinner in NYC, he publicly (and humorously) mocked the commander-in-chief and criticized administration policy in Syria, one of the reported reasons for his resignation. Against that background, Proser’s brief biography is a quick and easy appetizer for further study of the man, and the Mattis memoir is the entree.

Sulla, Munich Glypothek

Returning to the book title, what lesson would the scholarly, intensely private, and largely self-educated warrior now draw from reading Plutarch’s Lives, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and the rest? What kind of statesman will the creator of the 1st Marine Division motto be if he returns to public service? And to whom does Sulla’s warning, embodied in the title, now apply? The so-called Warrior Monk has suggested that anyone who threatens what he calls our frail “experiment in democracy” should take heed and fear his ire.[5] Sulla made his reputation when he delivered the enemy King Jugurtha into the hands of the Roman general Marius through an act of treachery. Later, in the aftermath of the Social Wars that rent the civil fabric, Marius turned on Sulla, who in turn destroyed his one-time sponsor, his family, and all his supporters. Sulla then broke the greatest taboo of Rome and led his legions into the city, gaining infamy and leaving the Republic ripe for the final fall.[6]

Steven L. Ossad is an independent historian and biographer focused on leadership and command, Civil Affairs, operational art, and the U.S. Army. His latest book, Omar Nelson Bradley, America’s GI General was the recipient of the 2018 Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award for Biography.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Jim Proser. No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), vii.

[2] Proser, 4,7.

[3] Proser, 91, 187.

[4] Proser, 15, 167.

[5] Proser, 2.  John Wagner and Karen DeYoung, “Mattis says he served ‘as long as I could,’ warns of a leader not committed to working with allies,” Washington Post. August 28, 2019.

[6] Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth. Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 694-696.

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