Downrange: An Informal Report on a trip to Afghanistan with Marine Gen. James N. Mattis

Part One of Four

Gen. Mattis in Marjah, Helmand province, 28 Feb 2010

1. Jim Mattis is a four-star Marine general. He doesn’t go out of his way to be quotable; he just can’t help himself.  Here, from Iraq 2004, are his instructions to the Marines under his command on how to conduct themselves with the natives they will encounter.

Be polite.  Be professional.  But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.

In the first battle of Fallouja, Gen. Mattis commanded the Marines assigned to take the city. There came a point during the fighting when Mattis had to negotiate with the Sunni sheikhs and Baathist ex-army officers who claimed they wanted to quit, but whose acquaintance with the truth had been a little dubious.

I come in peace.  I didn’t bring artillery.  But I’m begging you, with tears in my eyes, if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.

Who would be an historical counterpart to Gen. Mattis? My pick would be Epaminondas, the great Theban general (like Mattis, a bachelor) who beat the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 B.C.  When he retired, Epaminondas took nothing home but his clothes and his books.  Gen. Mattis will be packing it in in November. He’ll go home to Washington State and hike the high country. Will he write his memoirs? “No way.” Such a document might break trust with the military and political leaders who expect private, candid counsel from their senior military colleagues and depend upon those colleagues keeping the content of such discussions in confidence. We’re in the library of Gen. Mattis’ spacious, columned quarters, the Virginia House, on the naval base at Norfolk, and I’m trying to talk him into reconsidering. I’m a student of history; I want to hear those stories. The current era is important, and Mattis was there at the center of it. But he won’t budge.

It’s February 24th and Gen. Mattis has invited me to accompany his party on a four-day burst to Afghanistan. I’ve never been there. I want to go. So I’ve flown to Norfolk from Los Angeles, where I live. We take off in the morning.

2.  A couple of disclaimers before we plunge into this narrative. I’m not a journalist, and the piece that follows doesn’t purport to be journalism. It’s not a war story.  Nobody got shot at or blown up. We didn’t live with the tribes or sleep in the field alongside the Marines and the Afghan National Army. We traveled in a bubble and most of what I saw was glimpsed through a bubble-distorted lens. So take what follows with a grain of salt. Here’s what I saw and how it struck me.

3. What’s the first thing you think about when you realize you’re going to Afghanistan? Warm clothes. Good boots. Immunizations. For me the big deal was medical insurance. It took some doing (“I’m sorry,” says the rep at my company, “we do not cover injuries sustained in a war zone”), but my quest ends happily at an outfit called Global Underwriters, via Lloyds of London, that insures reporters and filmmakers who travel to places where bombs sometimes go off.  Bottom line: fifteen hundred bucks for what (I hope) will cover my butt if the shit hits the fan.

4. The day comes. We’re “wheels up” over the Atlantic. How does a four-star general travel? By Gulfstream 5, it turns out. It’s like Mick Jagger but without the girls. The party is fourteen, including pilots, security team, aides and communicators. The other guest besides me, is the Hon. Tobias Elwood, an up-and-coming member of Parliament and a former Royal Green Jacket infantry officer. We’ll pick him up in London. Over the Atlantic it’s Gen. Mattis and me, in seats facing each other, up front in a compartment with a banquette berth and a fold-down table. Gen. Mattis currently heads JFCOM, Joint Forces Command; it’s his job to integrate the all-forces team—Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines—and prepare it for joint operations.  He travels to the front regularly, to check with the commanders face to face and see how they’re doing and how he can help.

Bring briefed in Marjah by BG Larry Nicholson. Member of Parliament Tobias Elwood is next to Gen. Mattis. That's me, obscured in "deep background."

I had imagined we’d fly all the way in one long, spine-crunching haul. But the trip is broken up into two days because the crew stays with the plane; safety regs require that they rest. We stop in London at Stansted Airfield. A four-star general is a serious piece of gear, as the Marines would say. He is a key component in America’s defense apparatus and has to be on call 24 hours a day. Security teams escort the party everywhere. When we land, cars are waiting with the advance team. Zip, we’re in the hotel. Special Agent Jim Rivera is the security chief. He’s NCIS. “Like the TV show,” he says. “Only real.” Our bags appear; our passports are taken care of. The only snag for me is I’m having trouble sleeping. It’s the time zone change. And I’m keyed up. By Day Two, after we’ve picked up Tobias and are flying over the Black Sea, with




on the cabin trip monitor, this jaunt is starting to feel serious. Darkness falls.  There’s Kabul below. It looks like a regular city but without the street lights. What was I expecting? Stalingrad? Pluto? The banquette in the forward cabin is now heaped with flak jackets and helmets. Everyone is suiting up. Magazines are being slotted into 9mm Berettas and M-4 carbines. Tobias and I are the only ones not packing heat. The plane doesn’t come down in a death spiral to avoid rocket fire. It’s a regular landing, just like at O’Hare. KAIA is huge and we taxi for a long time, up to the WELCOME TO KABUL sign and down the stairs to a four-vehicle convoy of armored Suburbans and Expeditions. I’m with Maj. Tom Nelson, Gen. Mattis’ special assistant, in “Chase 2.” Again, I’m not sure what I expected–stopping for flat bread or lamb kebob on the streets? Apparently not. We zig and zag along muddy back tracks for what seems like half an hour, then past a skein of security points and out into actual Kabul. We’re heading for Camp Eggers, which is in the city, not far. I’ve never worn a flak jacket before. It’s heavy. By the time you’ve donned helmet and gloves and wedged yourself into the back seat of a Chevy Suburban, you feel like Spam in a can or a turtle inside its shell. How secure can Kabul be if we have to schlep around like this? Answer: it ain’t. As our vehicles circle the roundabout at Massoud Square with Afghan taxis and Hi-Luxes jostling on all sides, it’s clear that the “security environment” is a free, open city. Risk is accepted by everyone, included the women waiting in the crosswalk and the kids kicking a soccer ball across a field.

We enter Camp Eggers through a maze of chicanes and checkpoints. Signs says NO JAMMERS and TURN OFF ECM–Electronic Counter Measures, i.e. signals to jam cell phone transmissions that might be used to trigger IEDs. The camp itself is smack in the middle of the city, carved out of  … what? Existing shops and apartments? Our quarters are a nest of rooms at the end of a souk-like passage past security doors and concertina-wire-topped walls. It’s warm and raining.  Kabul sits in a bowl at 6000 feet with the Hindu Kush mountains invisible behind dense smoke and fog in the distance. The team sets up its office at one big table in their desert-tan t-shirts.  Everyone is here to serve Gen. Mattis, to keep him on schedule and in touch with whomever he has to be in touch with. “Why have you chosen Mr. Pressfield and me to accompany you?” Tobias asks.  “Because I like you both,” the general answers. “And I want your fresh eyes. I can get all the predictable responses I want already. You gentlemen will give it to me straight.”

5. Breakfast. Before dawn in the chow hall (which is two cramped rooms run by KBR contractors), we hear a bang in the distance. “Did you hear that?” The blast will turn out to be part of a coordinated Taliban attack, including suicide bombers and a VBIED, a vehicle-borne IED, that will leave sixteen dead and dozens wounded. We don’t know that yet, though, as we head out to the day’s round of meetings.

Over two days, Gen. Mattis will be conferring with BrigGen. Jeff Smith, BrigGen. Gus Gilmore, LtGen. David Rodriquez, ViceAdm. Robert Harward, LtGen. William Caldwell, MajGen. Curtis Scaparrotti, and four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal.  These guys are the real deal. Here’s one instructive civvie comparison: Col. Joe Felton whom we meet on the second day (Commander of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team) has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford and an MPA from the Kennedy School at Harvard–and he’s out there fighting the Taliban. We’re supposed to meet Ambassador Eikenberry but that falls through, as does one get-together I had circled on my calendar–with British LtGen. Sir Graeme Lamb. It was Gen. Lamb’s concept of “reconcilables” versus “irreconcilables” that set the mental model for the Anbar Awakening that turned the tide in the Iraq War.

After these meetings we’ll fly down to Marjah in Helmand province, where the Marines are fighting right now. That will be the highlight, for me anyway. But for now, we’re suiting up and heading back out into the capital …

[Read Part Two]

[Photos by 1LT Joshua Diddams, MEB-A Media Officer.]


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  1. andrew lubin on March 13, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Good stuff Steve; glad you made it over! S/F

  2. zenpundit on March 13, 2010 at 9:47 pm

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