James Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate for defense secretary, came of age in a cloistered community created by the federal government at the dawn of the nuclear age.
In this town carved out of the sagebrush lands of Eastern Washington, nearly everyone had a parent working at the nearby Hanford Engineer Works, site of a large-scale nuclear reactor. The atom bomb was the town’s business, and Columbia High School, Mattis’ alma mater, bore a mushroom cloud atop its crest.
Mattis, now 66, graduated in 1968, as a shy, skinny kid whose parents never bought a television and encouraged him to read from a big home library.
In a storied Marine career, he emerged as a keen student of history known for compassion and respect for those he commanded, impatience with bureaucracy and a relentless determination to pursue enemy forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Never miss a local story.
All the while, Mattis has returned home again and again. In recent years, he has spent most of his time at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank in California. But he still lists a modest wood-frame Richland house, built by the government for Hanford workers, as his residence. He serves on the board of a food bank, stops by the VFW, and in November reported for jury duty on a gross-misdemeanor case.
“I owe this town a great deal because it gave me the values that allowed me to be where I’m at today,” Mattis told the Richland Rotary Club during a 2011 visit. “It was this town that formed me.”
If Mattis gets a congressional waiver, exempting him from a law that requires a defense secretary to have been out of the military for at least seven years, the relationship that emerges between Mattis and Trump will be an intriguing subplot in the new administration.
In a 2014 interview at the University of California, Berkeley, Mattis said leaders without experience in the military can have an exaggerated view of its power. So he sees himself as duty-bound to offer blunt talk about what the armed forces can and — more importantly — cannot do.
Mattis gave Trump an early taste of such counsel in November, according to Trump’s account of their meeting. The retired general said waterboarding, advocated by the president-elect, did not work as well as offering a detainee cigarettes and a beer.
The Washington Post reported that, in recent weeks, Mattis has clashed with Trump’s transition team over who will get top jobs in the Defense Department.
His views on Israel also could put him at odds with Trump.
Mattis, in public remarks, has repeatedly supported a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has called the two-state solution “an illusion.”
Mattis’ willingness to serve was indicated in his speech more than five years ago to the Richland Rotary. Mattis said he would be comfortable with whomever the American people elected as commander in chief, and would strive to carry out that president’s orders.
But if ever asked to do something he considered “immoral,” Mattis declared, he “would be back fishing on the Columbia River tomorrow.”
A tight-knit town apart
The Richland of Mattis’ youth was born of a radical intervention by the federal government.
In 1943, the Army Corps of Engineers, as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic weapons, took over what was then a rural hamlet of a few hundred people, evicting nearly all the residents. Contractors then moved in to build a boomtown open only to the families of the thousands of men and women working at the secretive Hanford site.
The plutonium they made was used in Fat Man, the bomb dropped in 1945 on the Japanese city of Nagasaki that killed more than 70,000 people as World War II drew to a close. After the war, as a new conflict emerged with the Soviet Union, Hanford kept producing plutonium and Richland kept growing with more workers joining the bomb-making effort.
Among the recruits was Mattis’ father, John Mattis, who moved his family from Pullman to Richland in the early 1950s to take a job as a power-plant operator at Hanford after a career that had included sea duty as a merchant mariner during World War II. Mattis’ mother, Lucille, was a war veteran, too, having served as an Army intelligence officer based in South Africa.
“They had both traveled around the world,” Mattis recalled in the 2014 interview. “They introduced us to a world of great ideas — not a fearful place — but a place to enjoy.”
Mattis was drawn to books on geology and the American West, and relished the opportunity to hike, camp and hunt for jack rabbits in the desert around Richland, according to interviews with childhood friends.
Most everyone in Richland came from someplace else. But it was a tight-knit town, with residents united by a common pride and purpose in their Hanford work.
“Nobody had extended families, so the families that you relied on were neighbors,” recalled Jim Albaugh, a retired CEO of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division and a classmate and childhood friend of Mattis.
By the 1960s, Richland had opened to anyone who wanted to take up residence. But Hanford was still the dominant employer, and the town remained largely apart from the decade’s counterculture and Vietnam War protests.
As a teenager, Albaugh recalls a life centered on the Spudnut Shop that featured potato-flour doughnuts, the Uptown movie theater and the high school, where Albaugh played on the Bombers basketball team and Mattis was the JV team manager
In a class of nearly 600 students, Mattis didn’t rank in the top 10 percent, according to the program from his high school graduation. He was thoughtful and interested, Albaugh said, but “I don’t think anyone would have singled him out for greatness.”
And, although Mattis, the never-married Marine, would later gain the nickname “Warrior Monk,” Albaugh says his friend enjoyed high school social life and was no straight arrow.
Others recall a kid willing to stand up for the underdog. “I was bullied a lot, but this was one of the … guys who respected me for who I was and what my character was,” said Lloyd Campbell, a high school classmate.
After graduation, Mattis went to what is now Central Washington University, where he majored in history and followed his older brother Tom into the Marines as he enrolled in ROTC and obtained a commission as a second lieutenant in 1972.
In the 2014 interview, Mattis noted there was a draft back then and little choice about military service.
“I don’t think I had the intention of making it a career at that point,” Mattis recalled.
‘Have a plan to kill’
Mattis would stick with the Marines for more than 40 years, achieving the rank of four-star general.
He joined at the tail end of the Vietnam era, and didn’t face combat, yet he would eventually lead Marines into battle in three other wars.
He commanded a battalion in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. He led an air-ground assault in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, in the aftermath of 9/11 and a Marine U.S. division during the 2003 Iraq invasion, returning again as the U.S. forces faced a growing uprising in Anbar province.
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” was some of the advice Mattis gave his Marines in Iraq, according to author Thomas Ricks.
In his book “Fiasco,” Ricks called Mattis one of the U.S. military’s more “intense intellectuals,” who could quote Homer and brought along the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, when he deployed to a war zone.
Yet Mattis could also be coarse and profane. While a lieutenant general, talking on a 2005 panel in San Diego, he offered this view of fighting the Taliban:
“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them …”
Those comments stirred controversy for the general who acquired the nickname “Mad Dog” in Iraq and a commander’s admonition to choose his words more carefully.
But they did not slow his career. Within two years, Mattis was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, then chosen to head U.S. Central Command, in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Retirement, in January 2013, came earlier than expected. Some analysts attributed it to friction with the Obama administration, including Mattis taking a more hostile view of Iran than other high-level officials.
Mattis’ perspective on Iran was reflected in his talk to the Richland Rotarians when he pointed to a map of the Middle East and noted the actions of Iranian-backed forces in various locations. “Everywhere you go, you find Iran’s hand …”
‘Do what your duty tells you’
Some who have enormous respect for him question whether overseeing a massive bureaucracy would play to his strengths.
“Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for,” wrote Erin Simpson, a former assistant professor at the U.S. Marine Command and Staff College, in a commentary.
But Albaugh, the former Boeing leader, thinks Mattis would delegate wisely. Albaugh rekindled his childhood friendship with Mattis after the two had an unexpected encounter in the Pentagon in the late 1990s, and he says they “compare notes” whenever they find themselves in the same place.
“I think it was a terrific pick,” Albaugh said.
Mattis certainly has long pondered one of the most grave questions a defense secretary may confront: When should a country go to war?
In the 2014 interview, he said you must start with a clear political goal, and that the costs of a war must be clearly spelled out, regardless of career consequences.
“You do what your duty tells you, and let God sort out the rest,” Mattis said.