There are decisions that military leaders must make in times of war that live with them forever. Recently, a 15-year-old combat decision made by retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who has been selected to served as Secretary of Defense in the Trump Administration, has drawn scrutiny. But at least one legendary Marine spoke to us about the complexities of such decisions, and the life-and-death nature of combat leadership.
On Dec. 5, 2001, 11 men with Special Forces A-Team ODA 574 were sent on a mission to protect future Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai in Kandahar. Karzai, who had been exiled, was raising a Pashtun militia to overtake the Taliban while the U.S. Army provided cover with precision airstrikes. But things went to hell when a 2,000-pound joint direct attack munition was dropped on the team. It was friendly fire.
Immediately, unit leader Capt. Jason Amerine sent a mass casualty evacuation request to Camp Rhino, a base 45 minutes away by helicopter. In charge of personnel on the base for a mere 10 days, was Brig. Gen. James Mattis , then-commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who was briefed on the situation by Maj. Rob Cairnes and B-Team member Master Sgt. David Lee.Eric Blehm, author of “The Only Thing Worth Dying For,” a book that chronicles the events of that day, wrote that Mattis rebuffed the men: “‘… if they’ve taken fire,’ said the general, ‘and you can’t tell me definitively how they got all scuffed up, I’m not going to send anything until you can assure me that the situation on the ground is secure.’”
Business Insider, when reporting on this story earlier this year, wrote, “This may have been legendary Marine Corps General Mattis’ one mistake in battle.”
In recalling the events for Blehm, Cairnes and Lee said Mattis further explained that there were around 1,000 Marines at Camp Rhino for him to worry about, and he was not willing to dilute base security or the safety of his men by sending a squadron on a dangerous daylight mission to assist an unknown number of casualties.