Book by former SEAL, congressman praises Mattis in field
Rep. Ryan K. Zinke remembers a wartime encounter with then-Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis when the congressman was a Navy SEAL commander in Iraq and the now-defense secretary-designate was planning the first invasion of Fallujah in 2004.
Gen. Mattis, as told in Mr. Zinke’s new autobiography, “American Commander,” was a division chief destined to earn four stars and become head of U.S. Central Command.
Then-Navy Cmdr. Zinke, Gen. Mattis and others did an “eyes-on” surveillance to judge what was needed that spring to purge the city in Iraq’s western Anbar province from the clutches of vicious Sunni insurgents.
“He made a point of being in the thick of things with his troops,” Mr. Zinke writes of the retired Marine who President-elect Donald Trump picked as his defense chief.
“Nicknamed ‘Mad-Dog Mattis’ by his men, he was a command warrior in the old George Patton mode,” Mr. Zinke says. “He wasn’t an armchair general by any definition of that much-maligned term. If a Marine re-upped at a location where he was present, he would personally go to that Marine and thank him or her for rejoining. He put a premium on being connected with his men, and I deeply admire that quality. I could literally go on for pages upon pages about Mattis and how influential this man was to me and many others who fought alongside him.”
Here is the Montana Republican’s description of Gen. Mattis’ battle plan, which might give some indication of how he plans to battle the Islamic State terrorist army:
“Mattis wanted to drop some artillery rounds into some of the insurgents’ fortified positions we’d identified and then bring in tanks, do a pivot, and force the insurgents into an industrial area through what he called a pincer move,” Mr. Zinke writes. “Once the insurgent fighters were there, Mattis would just blow the hell out of that area, completely mowing down the enemy.”
How was his plan greeted at occupation headquarters in Baghdad? “Mattis ran this plan up the line, and the higher brass shot it down,” Mr. Zinke writes.
U.S. and allied forces eventually captured Fallujah. The Iraqis again lost it to insurgents, and there was a second battle in December 2004. (The Islamic State captured Fallujah in 2014. The coalition took it back earlier this year.)
Asked in an interview why the Mattis plan was killed, Mr. Zinke did not answer directly.
“Gen. Mattis is a warrior,” the congressman said. “What I appreciate about Gen. Mattis is he understands the principle that if you go to war, you go to war to win. … Gen. Mattis’s alternatives were routinely the most aggressive” but offered the best shot at victory.
“American Commander” is co-written with best-selling author Scott McEwen, who co-authored the best-selling memoir “American Sniper” by the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most effective sniper in U.S. military history.
Mr. Zinke’s subtitle is “Serving a Country Worth Fighting for and Training the Brave Soldiers Who Lead the Way.”
Now in his second term, Mr. Zinke said it was time to write a book not just about himself but about the mettle and patriotism of the Navy SEALs who have become the most famous warriors in the 15-year fight against Islamic extremists.
“I would characterize it as not a book about me, per se,” he said. “It’s a book about watching and observing America’s excellence. I had a front-row seat.”
It has been years, if ever, since the nation called upon special operations forces such as the SEALs to fight every day, year after year.
“My generation, we spent most of my 23 years training hard,” he said. “Advance technology. Looking at various contingencies around the world and occasionally going into conflict. Today’s special forces and SEALs, they come into the service under conditions of war. They will likely spend their entire career at war.”
At some point, the rapid-pace deployments have to stop for the good of special operators and their families back home, Mr. Zinke said.
“I’m concerned that the answer to every problem set is not special forces,” he said. “The burn rate on our nation’s tiniest force — I think we have to throttle back. We’ve been on afterburners since 9/11.”
Mr. Zinke grew up in rural Montana, the son of a plumber. His grandfather operated a small Chevrolet dealership.
“When I joined the SEALs, no one knew what a SEAL was,” Mr. Zinke said. “What intrigued me was the level of commitment, the love of country and desire to be the best in the world at your vocation. Watching American exceptionalism in action.”
Shortly after the Iraq invasion, Mr. Zinke served in a special operations task force that was hunting former Baath Party leaders, including Saddam Hussein himself.
Mr. Zinke illustrates wartime mistakes by focusing on one of the hunted, an unnamed Iraqi general. He is a metaphor for how the war ordered by President George W. Bush went bad.
The president’s men decided to disband the Iraqi armed forces instead of selectively recruiting them. It left no one to maintain order and drove key field leaders and intelligence experts into the hands of a growing pro-Saddam insurgency. It later melded with al Qaeda in Iraq, confronting the Americans with a deadly, persistent and savvy enemy.
Mr. Zinke writes that the “General” was an example of someone who might have been swayed to the American side and a new Iraq.
“Without Saddam and without fully drinking the radicalism Kool-Aid, people like the General fell back on their traditional loyalty structures — family, community or tribe, faith, and country,” he writes. “In some ways, these priorities made the General in particular more dangerous: he lent his knowledge and expertise to many factions, including Sunni-led Al-Qaeda. Our surveillance revealed that an Al-Qaeda leader we had killed had been part of his circle. But more than that, the General had made himself a connector for a lot of unaffiliated cells. Each of these cells could and did operate independently — some as bandits, preying on the citizenry, others as militia-killing coalition force.”
The “General” was not in Saddam’s inner circle, but a functioning intelligence officer who knew much about how the regime worked.
“We should have left the Iraqi military intact, with the exception of those officers in Saddam’s closest circle,” Mr. Zinke writes. “Instead, we scattered it and lost effective control over those who were bound more to duty than the Ba’athist regime under Saddam. If we’d let the General retain his position, he might not have become such an adversary. He had standing in the military community and could have been a useful tool for us.”
Mr. Zinke is Congress’ lone ex-SEAL. He set up a political action committee to fund other veterans running for office. He will soon be joined in the House by another former SEAL, Scott Taylor, who won a seat from the Virginia Beach area.
In his autobiography, “American Commander,” former SEAL and current Rep. Ryan K. Zinke (right), Montana Republican, recalls the fearsome spirit exhibited in the field by Gen. James N. Mattis (left), President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for defense secretary.