Hagiography was not my intent: General Mattis e-mail goes viral‏

If anything, I wanted to nerd him up a bit.

I originally received the now famous email in the autumn of 2003. I have shared it with colleagues on every appropriate occasion because it truly is a nifty bit of writing on a subject dear to our (military historians and similar) hearts, the pursuit of knowledge through wide reading. It is the sort of thing to inspire scholarly giddiness.

The decision to publish it came only recently, after a discussion with my King’s colleague, Pablo de Orellana. I shared it with him under the same circumstances as above, and he was as surprised as impressed – it was not the sort of thing that made the Euro academic press. He wanted it on Strife, he was adamant that it was a necessary corrective to usual depictions of American officers.

As for me, I saw two points of interest. The first is that in general the concept of commanding historiographies is fascinating to me – I can see the book, What Generals Read, a collection of essays on the subject by leading historians. Super nerdy and geeky stuff. Lots of footnotes. Sigh. And second, with respect to the emails particularly, my feeling was that while his original message was impressive, his willingness to engage critique was the real gem, what I thought made the whole thing valuable. He’s quite certain he doesn’t have all the answers, doesn’t just want to hear from people that he’s smart and right, and is open to new ideas, corrections, different interpretations, and so forth. And that, my friends, is the result and purpose of wide reading – humility and the unflagging zeal to continue seeking more knowledge.

I would point out, as well, that my decision to publish was premised on obtaining the General’s permission. Not only was it necessary – they were his words, after all – but I also knew that it would reign in any inclinations to get too reverential and lose the scholarly perspective. I’ll admit I got a bit carried away with Clio and Hegel (no, not SecDef), but that was in reference to the idea of General’s entry into the historical process, was a by-product of his action but not his intention. I also specifically eschewed the Mad Dog, in the title or the text. [1]

Bottom line, the purpose was to put to the world an important primary source that had some real meat for discourse. The better conversation about his email – and the one I think General Mattis would enjoy seeing – than an elegy to his greatness would be a scholarly review of his reading. If he read Bell, what did he miss by not reading someone else? Who has the latest and most authoritative work on Lawrence? He cites so many works, it’s a gold mine. Or a discussion of the issue of how historiographies influence the conduct of war.

But if you want to sum it all up with a famous General Mattis quote, I think the admonition against triangulation by bumper sticker – or tweet, or meme for that matter – is particularly apt in this case.



[1] Ok, in my mind I may have toyed with “Professor Mad Dog” for the title, but that was only for fun. And by the way, the original title was important, a play on a military history of the Boer War, With Rifle and Bayonet.


4 thoughts on “Hagiography was not my intent: General Mattis e-mail goes viral‏

  1. Madhu says:

    “He wanted it on Strife, he was adamant that it was a necessary corrective to usual depictions of American officers.”

    That’s an interesting background to the point about stereotypes and American officers.

    From my vantage point and as an American of Indian origin*, it seems that European or British officers suffer from a lot stereotyping too. Heck, I might even have done some of the stereotyping myself around here, as in, “why you, you, you ‘Caroes’! You Wells of Power types, I don’t trust you in South Asia! I see right through you!”

    *This is the latest fad. First I was an America American (but from India, okay?), then an Indian American, then a South Asian American, and then there was that one time a college professor kept calling me Juanita until I told him, “there is no Juanita in this class, Professor” and, finally, ‘other’ for the purposes of filling out various forms.

    Personally, I prefer ‘other’ because it usually comes with little box for free lancing a written answer and then you can have a lot of fun.

    So, to sum up, most people are ‘others’ with whole boxes of personal information to fill up and stereotypes stink.

  2. Madhu says:

    Oh, the other point I wanted to make about the whole stereotype thing is that I sort of had this view that military men–or women–were kind of automatons. Real little robots. I’ve never been in the military and until recently never really knew any veterans so I had only a kind of public mythology to guide me.

    You know what? You are romantics as a profession. I’m not sure you see it but I see it all the time on Small Wars Journal and elsewhere. Everyone is always saying that the American military (okay, maybe this comment is American-centric) is industrial and uses an engineering approach but I don’t see it.

    Military men–and women–seem to romanticize the past a bit, which might sound unfair. It’s not an accusation, it’s just an observation and we all do it.

    I mean, the romanticizing seems to be part of remembering famous soldiers or famous battles. There is the reality of the thing itself and then there is the entire story and mythology surrounding it.

    Again, not a criticism. To be honest, it makes you all seem more human. Not sure it’s a good thing for doctrine but it definitely humanizes everyone.

    (This comment isn’t directed at any one person, just a collective impression).

  3. Jill Sargent Russell says:

    John – there is a Strife blog post about an email that General Mattis wrote about professional reading at –


    which was picked up by Business Insider and then went viral. However, this latter version basically turned the whole thing into a vaguely superficial meme – “too busy to read” as a search will net you massive results. Anyway, the manner in which the BI story was presented was not at all how I had put my piece together.

    Madhu – I appreciate your remarks and the perspective from which you approached and experienced the General’s piece. I would only add that there are far more thoughtful, intellectual military personnel than most would suspect. I would chalk this up to the philosophical wont inspired by the vagaries of military service and war.

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