By Jill R. Russell
In late 2003 a colleague of General James Mattis wrote to him asking for a few words on the
importance of reading and military history for the officer, even where it might seem that one was
“too busy to read.” His response went viral over email – had it been in the time of Twitter this
blog piece would be unnecessary. But it enjoyed a wide distribution within the Marine Corps,
and eventually arrived in my inbox. As a military historian, I cannot minimize my appreciation
that he wrote so eloquently on the subject. If it were only for that, the essay would be valuable.
But his writing is valuable also because we rarely have opportunities to hear the unfiltered
thoughts of leaders as well for his role in the history of recent conflicts.
Much is written and [believed to be] known about the General as a warrior. Less is known about
him as a true student of his profession. I would submit that it is quite impossible to correctly
understand the former without a proper interrogation of the latter. By this I mean that one must
first accept that a significant body of intellectual material sustains his actions and opinions –
as is indicated in the messages, he devotes real effort to this aspect of his work. So, there is a
base of knowledge that is always growing. On top of that are the benefits which accrue to those
who think and critically engage with such material. Furthermore, there is his consideration of
the views of others – as in the breadth of his reading or response to my comments – suggesting
that he had not fallen prey to the hubris of the powerful, which is to believe they have all of the
answers. Good leaders don’t only hear “yes” from the people around them. Thus, the insight
these words give to his thinking and interests is invaluable.
I also have to note that from a historian’s perspective this professional practice is fascinating.
It is Hegel hurled at the maelstrom of emergent Clio, a manifestation of E.H. Carr’s “unending
dialogue between past and present.” There is an awful popular tendency to try to use history
prescriptively. This is a bad, bad idea. Very often the lessons relied upon are incorrect or
inappropriate. However, history – from quality works – as a critical thinking process, whose
substance also furthers understanding [of regions, types of events, etc.] can inform posterity to
good effect. The General’s essay is an exposition of this principle.
Published with his permission, I would like to make perfectly clear that except where I excised
personal details regarding his correspondent, these messages are as he wrote them. I have,
according to the current practice in the historical community, left them as they were in the
originals. If there is shorthand, abbreviations or minor errors, they reflect the reality that these
were originally private correspondence. It was not the General’s expectation at the time that they
would be made public. In return for the odd aesthetic wobble, what you get is a rare insight into
the thinking of a general officer, an experienced and battle tested commanding officer, on how
he thinks about materials and issues critically important to his profession and (by virtue of the
public nature of his profession) posterity.
Finally, note that these messages were written in the months leading up to his deployment to
Iraq in command of I MEF in February of 2004.
Message 1: from General James Mattis, on the matter of professional reading, 20 November
….The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s
experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a
better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of
incompetence are so final for young men.
Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for
how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give
me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.
With TF 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in AFG,
and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was
req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven
Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who
virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman
empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on
Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never
imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).
Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.
For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of
war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not
really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right
now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying
(studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.
We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their
experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the
moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff
officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t
know a hell of a lot more than just the TTPs? What happens when you’re on a dynamic
battlefield and things are changing faster than higher HQ can stay abreast? Do you not
adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has
a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing
circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp
speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly
in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught
flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preps are not
sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?
Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of
what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to
overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.
This is not new to the USMC approach to warfighting — Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I
read (and reread) Rommel’s Papers (remember “Kampstaffel”?), Montgomery’s book (“Eyes
Officers”…), “Grant Takes Command” (need for commanders to get along, “commanders’
relationships” being more important than “command relationships”), and some others. As a
result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that
many of my young guys lived because I didn’t waste their lives because I didn’t have the vision
in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the
Hope this answers your question…. I will cc my ADC in the event he can add to this. He is the
only officer I know who has read more than I.
Semper Fi, Mattis
Message 2: from Jill Russell to General Mattis, 26 November 2003
Your message to [the] Colonel…was forwarded to me by a colleague – as I am a military
historian he knew I would appreciate its content. I offer here a response to one portion of your
message, which, taken as a whole, was as eloquent a statement on the value of history as I’ve
You wrote: “For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that
the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully
say… ‘Not really’ ….”
I would submit that the 4GW thinkers do not at all eschew the study of military history. If you
take Van Creveld’s On Future War as an example of the genre, his entire case is based on an
examination of aspects of war across the full span of military history. Take as an example of
this his treatment of the changing ideas about prisoners of war, who were at one time in history
allowed “parole” to travel home to collect a ransom payment. If there is any concern amongst
4GW thinkers regarding the use of military history to inform current thoughts on military affairs,
it is directed at the dead hand of recent operational and strategic history, where past success
and dominance are used to define the future, even if [the] future of warfare seems headed
If I were going to Iraq in the winter of 2004, I might include a few books on the CAP and Evans
Carlson. (It’s a pity that the new bio of him will not be out in time.) I think of these not because
they are particularly or specifically prescriptive for the current situation, but rather as examples
of Marines in history who looked at a situation and arrived at an answer that differed from
the standard. (Are the donkeys a sign of genius rather than weakness?) That each of these
unorthodox answers turned out to be correct in many respects is gravy. Also, Evans Carlson
was himself an avid reader, bringing many varied volumes with him on his travels throughout
China during 1937/8. My favorite amongst his selections was The Education of Henry Adams.
Of course, I would be more than just curious to hear your selections.
Best wishes for a very happy Thanksgiving to you and your Marines.
Jill Sargent Russell
Message 3: from General Mattis to Jill Russell, 26 November 2003
Dear Ms Russell: Thank you for taking the time to write. I quickly scratched my note off to [the
Colonel] in response to a question and regret if my comments about 4th Generation of Warfare
stuff touched a raw nerve on some folks. I did not intend it personally or to anyone who studies
war; I have a problem with those who carry an ahistorical view of war into acceptance of the
latest bumper sticker; war in its various permutations is not new to me and some folks have
glommed onto 4th Generation of War concepts to say everything is new, history has little (no?)
place anymore because of how different things are, etc.
I regret any misunderstanding that my hastily written note has caused, wholly my responsibility.
That said, I appreciate your reading suggestions (obviously you don’t triangulate using bumper
stickers). My own “list” changes from mission to mission, location to location, etc, and perhaps
one day we can shoot the breeze about good books (my best new ideas, of course, come from
the old books, which are a passion with me). Until then, I am happy to know that we have folks
like you studying military history, engaged in deciphering what is going on from an
unregimented, intellectually rigorous perspective.
Best wishes and Semper Fi, Mattis
Jill S. Russell is a military historian and doctoral candidate at King’s College London who writes frequently on contemporary foreign policy and security issues. She is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. You can follow her on Twitter @jsargentr.