Be An O.P. Smith: An Open Letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis

Congratulations to you, General Mattis, on your confirmation as Secretary of Defense.

You’ve been handed the reins of the most capable and expensive military in human history. If Senator John McCain has his way, your Department’s budget will balloon to over $800 billion by 2022. You will get updated nukes, new ships and increased lethality across the board.

I’m sure you already know, General: the deck is stacked against you.

A war machine is ill suited to peace. Institutional cohesion fades without enemies, real or figurative, to hone the blade against. Military identity is maintained by use. There must be a return on investment.

Promises were made in this last election. Hard line stances were assured. Postures of incontrovertible strength were adopted. The present administration and its political backers need a man to deliver on those items and you are he.

They’re already trading on your reputation for tenacity. Social media goes bonkers for a general with the gall to say, “It’s fun to shoot some people.” It satisfies our nation’s subconscious need to be victorious.

You can tell what’s expected by the way in which your nickname “Mad Dog” and call sign “Chaos” are trotted out instead of your nom de guerre “Warrior Monk.” One smacks of discipline and focus, the others speak of unbridled fury.

You may wonder why few are repeating your mantra from the Iraq War, “when you lose the moral high ground, you lose it all.”

The answer is simple, General. The administration is expecting you to be a Patton, a Sherman, a LeMay, a Schwarzkopf — brazen and undeterrable, a skilled helmsman sailing on a wind of wrath.

I implore you. If you pick one man to emulate in your time as Secretary of Defense, let it be General O.P. Smith.

You’re no doubt acquainted with the man. General Smith preceded you as Skipper of the 1st Marine Division, your old command. You two are not unlike.

He was a “scholarly” man, an erudite student of the human condition. A man his troops called “The Professor” behind his back. Maybe you drew inspiration from General Smith when you distributed a mandatory reading list to your troops before redeploying to Al Anbar province in 2003.

Secretary Mattis, you are already more famous than General O.P. Smith ever will be. The man is much beloved, but little remembered. What does a General of your stature have to learn from someone many would argue is a footnote in military history?

O.P. Smith was a man of intellect, integrity and moral strength in a world of boorish ambition, self-promotion, arrogance and fatal self-assuredness. His life’s work pitted his uncompromised loyalty to his men and his mission against superiors who used military action as a means to aggrandize their own image.

This conflict is not unique in the annals of history. What separates Smith from all others is his steadfast unwillingness to be compromised and his auspicious presence at two of the greatest near-disasters in Marine Corps history.

At Peleliu during World War II, Smith’s commander, General William Rupertus predicted the battle would last “three days.” A recalcitrant enemy and hellish coral terrain dragged the fight on for weeks as the First Marine Division ground itself down towards oblivion.

Here Smith learned the lethality of arrogance, the fatal foolhardiness of running headlong into a fight with a powerful enemy made all that much stronger by the low esteem with which the American high command treated them. It wasn’t merely that O.P. Smith persevered through Peleliu, It’s how he utilized those lessons he learned there that made him a great General.

A less wise soldier would have locked step with Douglas MacArthur in late autumn of 1950 as UN forces barreled northwards towards the mountains shielding the Chinese/Korean border. A careerist officer would have followed General Ned Almond’s lightning paced marching orders to a T. A mission oriented yes-man would have agreed with his commanding officer and written off Chinese prisoners captured in the hills surrounding the Chosin Reservoir as mere “Laundryman.”

In the days before 120,000 Chinese regulars poured down from the hills on 25,000 beleaguered Marines, O.P. Smith had the wisdom and discretion to ignore orders for an advance. Instead, he consolidated his lines, gathered supplies and built an airstrip at Hagaru (against orders) that would eventually facilitate the removal of 4500 wounded Marines.

The resulting triumph is a matter of infamy — O.P. Smith’s insubordination and grit enabled him to save the lives of 15,000 Marines at Chosin.

Secretary Mattis, in the next four years there will be no shortage of crises. You will be encouraged, cajoled, ordered and badgered into proving once and for all that American forces are the strongest in the world. Your enemy will be underestimated and maligned in the words and opinions of men who will pitch the war and leave the fighting to you and yours.

Be not mistaken: O.P. Smith was a hero to many, but he never became the legend that some egotistical Generals do. He did his job. He served his men and the mission. He survived.

The enemies of the United States, be they an upstart radical Sunni group or a nuclear-equipped state, are looking to America to proceed arrogantly. The yardstick of victory is measured by an application of force that weighs wisdom against opportunity.

In a country waiting with baited breath to call you the greatest Warrior of your age, it is enough to be an O.P. Smith.