No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis
Jim Proser
© 2018

“In the hyperpartisan political atmosphere of 2017, General James Mattis astonishingly received nearly unanimous bipartisan support for his nomination for Secretary of Defense. What is it about Mattis that generates such respect and appreciation across the political spectrum?”

There’s no doubt that USMC Retired General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis is one of the most colorful and respected American leaders of our time. His tough character, military prowess, and straight talk have elevated him to almost legendary status in the military community and beyond.  (The Mattis memes alone are proof of younger generations’ admiration!)

So obviously… I wanted to know more about him. When I saw this biography in the bookstore, I just went ahead and bought it. I don’t often buy books without reading them first, but a Gen. Mattis biography was sure to be a good purchase.

I wasn’t wrong! While I expected a chronological, “normal” type of biography, Proser actually got more creative with it.

The book begins with a story about Gen. Mattis that has resonated across the military community (and into civilian society as well), the story of him taking duty at a guard post for a young officer on Christmas Day. It then switches to Kuwait in 2003, then Iraq. Proser weaves a picture of Gen. Mattis’ life in hour-by-hour descriptions of operations and battles interspersed with snippets of news interviews, personal anecdotes of people who served with him, and the quippy Mattis quotes we all love.

The story flips to scenes from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Vigilant Resolve, and even Gen. Mattis’ early days of commissioning during the Vietnam War and serving as a Company Grade Officer.  It ends at Fallujah in 2004, followed by a short epilogue summarizing events up until 2017.

While largely focusing on his military experiences, the author shows that Gen. Mattis is successful not just because he’s skilled, but because he’s a man of character.

Particularly as a 90s kid, this booked helped me understand Gen. Mattis in the context of world events that happened while I was still young. The Persian Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s were a little fuzzy to me since I wasn’t old enough to follow them on the news, but they aren’t taught about in history classes or talked about much in general. Reading Proser’s hour-by-hour and day-by-day descriptions of important battles Gen. Mattis played a role in helped me better understand and appreciate his leadership and why he’s so beloved by many in the military.

I can even see myself reading this over again in the future to better grasp all the concepts and events. I not only enjoyed it, I learned a lot from it!

Quotes from the book:

The distance from the sea that Marines can travel inland and still be effective, according to decades-old Marine doctrine, is 200 miles. Just to get to the border of landlocked Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea is 350. Mattis considers this first problem of existing Marine doctrine and eventually concludes, “Doctrine is the refuge of the unimaginative.”

“By our every act and statement, Marine leaders must set a legal, moral and ethical model that maintains traditional Marine Corps levels of discipline.”

On a nondescript desert airfield not too far from Raqqa, Mattis again quietly takes a seat in an indistinguishable military transport plane. He carries his well-worn copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to distract him and help him rest. In moments he is airborne, in the immaculate clouds, free of the heavy yoke of duty for just a few moments. He finds some peace in the Spartan solitude of the big, empty plane. Alone and quiet in his thoughts, he flies on toward his next front line.