From the VG Bookshelf: “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”

From the VG Bookshelf: “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”

From the VG Bookshelf: “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”

If you ever had the idea in your head that Secretary of Defense/ Retired General James Mattis is a mere mortal, forget about it. “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” by James Proser is filled with surprising details about the life of our current Secretary of Defense. No man in the history of the United States of America has been better prepared for the job. Spoiler alert: I am a Mattis Fangirl!

The book is only 235 pages. However, it is dense with details. Settle in and be prepared to take notes when you read it.

The Mattis Family

John Mattis, the General’s father was a Merchant Marine in World War II. His mother, Lucille, was a U.S. Navy Intelligence Officer in South Africa. Mattis’s older brother Tom enlisted in the Marines and deployed to Vietnam.

The Mattis family settled in Richland, Washington. John Mattis was a Nuclear Plant Operator at Hanford Site B. The three Mattis boys fished and read. No television was allowed in the home and to this day, James Mattis does not have a television in his home. The family owned an extensive library and the boys were encouraged to develop the “life of the mind”.

Although military service was strong throughout the family, Mattis was not pushed to enter the service. Indeed, biographer Proser indicates that Mattis was conflicted. He agonized whether to protest the war or join and fight. In a couple of the passages, Proser makes Mattis sound a little like Hamlet. I suspect that is all Proser and not Mattis.

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy

As Commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, Mattis made “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” the division motto. Although Proser claims on page 73 that this motto is four words, I counted six. The phrase itself is taken from Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla. From the book, page 4:

The phrase, “no better friend than a US Marine,” came from Mattis’s reading of Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who once remarked, “No friend ever served me and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” When he took command of First Division in 2000, Mattis fashioned Sulla’s quote into the division’s now famous motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy.”

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 2, 2018. DoD photo by Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.

Mattis Is No Mere Mortal

In addition to studying the above mentioned Roman General, Mattis read the “Yijing” or “I-ching”. Of course, he read Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz. He carries a copy of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius where ever he goes, right into battle. He studies the lessons of every war successful or failure. He even uses lessons from the failures to make successes. Mattis used some strategies from even Vietnam in his war planning.

Several times in his career, Mattis saw the “Melian Dialogues” by Thucydides play out in our times. From the book:

The Melian Dialogue was between the nearly defenseless Greek island people of Melos and the overwhelmingly power military emissaries of Athens who tried to appeal to the Melians’ pragmatism. Instead of fighting a costly war they were certain to lose, they suggested that the Melians should simply surrender under reasonable terms and agree to pay a tribute to Athens. The Melians appealed to the Athenians sense of decency.”

After endless negotiations, the Athenians attacked in order not to be seen as weak. Melian culture was wiped from the face of the Earth. Athenians were powerful and not decent. Mattis saw this play out with Jimmy Carter and later with Iraq and Kuwait.

Mattis on boards information and synthesizes it for military use like no mere mortal.

Best Prepared SecDef Ever

Mattis is well educated, naturally. He has held command at every level. I was unaware that Mattis had worked a Pentagon desk job prior to taking the Oath as Secretary of Defense. He was the executive secretary for Clinton Secretaries of Defense William Perry and William Cohen. He was necessarily read in on absolutely every part of military operations from budgets to weapons systems to uniforms. Mattis also saw first hand what happens when you gut the military. And, when you only keep dithering yes men around.

Alice Stomped On His Heart

Okay, so here is the dishy part. While Mattis is stationed in Hawaii, he meets a girl named Alice. They fall in love. She says she’ll marry him if he resigns his commission. His fellow officers talk to her. She says she’ll marry Mattis even if he stays in. Wedding is on. Wedding is off. Wedding is on and, finally, wedding is off. I am sure Alice is a lovely woman, but she broke my boy’s heart. Le sigh.

Never fear. It didn’t put our boy off for too long. The last relationship that Proser mentions is one Mattis had with a photographer named Barbara.

Alice then Barbara? Maybe by the time Mattis gets to the letters E or F, he will find his one true love.

So Many Names You Know

President Trump’s Chief of Staff, General James Kelly, reported to Mattis during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And, so did General Joe Dunford, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bing West makes an appearance. Tommy Franks makes several appearances and none of them are very flattering. Former President George W. Bush, former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy SecDef Paul Wolfowitz all come off as hardworking and thoughtful.

Paul Bremer, who was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, looks very bad for disbanding the Iraqi military. And, General John Abizaid, who I used to be a fan of, comes off as thick as a brick and intellectually incurious.

The author, Proser, is not on the Trump Train and we’ll just leave it at that.

Final Thoughts

Some of the stories are heartwarming. Some are funny. There is a fun little story about Vaseline and pantyhose in Afghanistan that made me think of the stories my late Marine Dad used to tell about Korea.

There were two big problems in the book for me. The first problem was the battlefield tick tock. There are pages and pages and pages of mind numbing battlefield details. If you are in the military, those details are probably very important. They made my eyes spin in little circles. That leads to the second problem. Proser takes the battlefield details way out of order. I forgot which war I was in and where.

The book is a totally worthwhile read. Just don’t forget to take lots of notes. “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” should be on the reading list of every military personnel and those in authority over them.

Feature photo: HarperCollins

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1 Comment
  • GWB says:

    Proser takes the battlefield details way out of order.
    Ugh. If you’re going to present those sorts of details, you need to present them in a logical fashion.

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