Mattis v Testimony

by Nathaniel R. Helms | June 4, 2008

The not surprising testimony of General James N. Mattis on Monday in response to alleged undue command influence charges during the Haditha investigation was a serious setback for the highest ranking officer to be criminally charged in the cover-up case.

Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani is charged with dereliction of duty and orders violations for failing to investigate and report an incident on November 19, 2005 when one Marine and 24 Iraqis died during an Al Qaeda inspired complex ambush in a squad of Marines.

Mattis, the Marine Corps general known as the ‘Warrior Monk’, said Monday he wasn’t influenced by his personal attorney and long-time confidant Col. John Ewers during 25 meetings in which Chessani and his role at Haditha were discussed. At the time, Mattis was deciding whether or not to prosecute Chessani.

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Before joining Mattis at Camp Pendleton as his personal lawyer and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Staff Judge Advocate, Ewers investigated the Haditha incident for Army Maj. General Eldon Bargewell. The Army general’s scathing indictment of Chessani and his superiors led to charges against Chessani and three other officers in 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Two of those officers have been exonerated and a third is in trial at this time.

Mattis’ long anticipated testimony regarding Ewers revealed that the dynamic lawyer known in the Corps as ‘Golden Ass’ for his ability to always come up shining sat mute while Mattis discussed with another attorney the case Ewers had investigated. Mattis told the military judge hearing the defense’s undue influence motion that he never asked Ewers for advice or information.

The Mattis Ewers relationship is a long and involved one, the evidence revealed. When Mattis was a Major General commanding the 1st Marine Division in 2003, Ewers was the divisions top lawyer. He is also the architect and implementer of the Reportable Incident Assessment Team (RIAT) adopted Marine Corps wide to afford the Commanding General with a means to counteract media backlash, Ewers had projected.

A failed exercise by a RIAT public relations officer two years later created the climate of suspicion that triggered the initial inquiry by a Time magazine reporter challenging the veracity of the Marine’s account of the Haditha incident, evidence has already revealed.

Ironically, Ewers envisioned RIAT would provide Mattis with “ground truth” regarding serious incidents, ranging from friendly fire shootings to war crimes perpetrated by one side or the other, according to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force ‘Lessons: Learned’ post-deployment report. 

His intention was to put together a ‘small, internally sourced team’ that could ‘help the Commanding General decide whether additional investigation and reporting to higher headquarters were required.’  The RIAT core team consisted of the SJA as team leader; the Division Public Affairs Officer; combat cameraman; and the Division Surgeon. 

When the RIAT effort fell on its face in February 2006 somebody had to take the blame and Chessani was the battalion commander on the ground where the incident happened. He isn’t the first fall guy in Marine Corps history.  Two hundred and thirty-two years of unpredictable politics have left more than a few good Marines to satisfy the gods.

The past lives

One legendary scapegoat was Marine Major Littleton Waller Tazewell ‘Tony’ Waller, in 1901 the commander of 315 hardcore Marines serving under US Army command in the Philippines. His story will seem vaguely familiar.

His boss was Brigadier General Jacob H. ‘Hell-Roaring Jake’ Smith, the commanding officer of an ad hoc joint service unit called the 6th Separate Brigade. American military officers of quality had snappy nicknames in the age before orders were roared over fax machines and e-mails.

Waller, like most of his Army counterparts, based his operations on the fact that the majority of the natives were hostile to U. S. actions and could not be trusted, despite pretenses by the villagers to be pro-American. It was well known that many of those supposedly pro-American villagers were actually members of the unpredictable insurrection.

President William McKinley, a humane man and ‘progressive’ politician, demanded new thinking. Reports of extreme cruelties by American troops were surfacing in the press and he insisted it stop. Toward that end, there arrived the U.S. Army’s Company C, 9th Infantry, commanded by Captain Thomas W. Connell, a strong advocate of McKinley’s theory of “benevolent assimilation.” Connell attempted to assert his unwelcome benevolence upon Balangiga, Samar, one of the Philippines hundreds of islands.

Samar in 1901 was populated by an extremely violent, primitive society.   One 9th Infantry officer later testified that he considered the natives “. . .  savages; they were low in intelligence, treacherous, cruel; seemed to have no feeling for their families or anyone else.”Obviously the dehumanization of opponents is not a 21st Century phenomena.

On 28 September, 1901, 46 days after arriving in Samar, the insurgents mounted a surprise attack on Company C. Led by town officials, the locals slaughtered the American soldiers. Only 26 of the 74 troopers in C Company survived the massacre. Most were tortured to death and their bodies mutilated. The massacre pretty much ended the practice of benevolence on Samar.

On October 24, Waller’s Marines were sent to punish the rebels. Unlike Connell, he held a less munificent view of the situation on Samar. Waller issued explicit orders to his officers concerning relations with the natives and the rules of engagement:

“Place no confidence in the natives, and punish treachery immediately with death. No trust, no confidence, can be placed in them. . . .  The men must be informed of the courage, skill, size and strength of the enemy.  We must do our part of the work, and with the sure knowledge that we are not to expect quarter.”

Waller’s orders were within the limitations of General Order No.100 of 1863 dealing with the rules of engagement with irregular warfare. The order stated that if enemy units “gave no quarter and became treacherous upon capture,” it was lawful to shoot anyone belonging to that captured unit.

‘Hell Roaring Jake’ told Maj. Waller to kill everybody he encountered over the age of ten including the woman. Waller didn’t want to do it, and told his Marines not to. His Marines had fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and most recently in China knocking down wild-eyed Boxers with deadly accurate rifle and new-fangled machine gun fire. For the most part they complied.

After a short, glorious campaign that wiped out the insurgent’s mountain headquarters Waller inexplicably marched his men 35 miles through the jungle to the other coast. It took them 29 days. It was rough going. His men were reduced to eating roots.

Along the way ten Marines in one column actually starved to death before they were rescued.  After the Marines were led to safety they accused eleven of the Filipino porters who accompanied them of hoarding food.  A delirious lieutenant told Waller three of the porters tried to kill him with a machete. None of it was true.

Waller, himself bewildered by jungle fever, ordered them summarily executed. He telegraphed ‘Hell-Roaring Jake’ that, ‘It became necessary to expend the prisoners.’

Waller explained he had 45 effectives to guard 93 prisoners and defend against 3,000 restive natives. He simply couldn’t afford the trouble the allegedly mutinous porters were causing.

Word of the atrocity got back to Washington in the dark days after President McKinley’s assassination. It was all the war’s legion of opponents needed to bash the unpopular campaign. Despite incoming President Theodore Roosevelt’s best effort to shield Waller, whom he admired from their campaign together in Cuba in 1898, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge initiated hearings to find out why Waller had executed 11 Filipinos ‘in cold blood.’

The story was all over the indignant New York and Washington press. Big newspapers had entered an impassioned era of advocacy journalism in the wake of America’s ‘new’ imperialism. Before long tales of water torture, beatings, and senseless murder emerged. Most of the atrocities were true, in this war perpetrated however by soldiers, not Marines. But then as now, the press often got them confused.

Mark Twain, the era’s most trusted populist, got into the act, suggesting the American flag should be redesigned with ‘white stripes painted black and the stars replaced with the skull and crossbones.’

Not to be outdone, publisher William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal covered its entire front page with a banner headline, ‘KILL, KILL’: MAJOR WALLER ORDERED TO MASSACRE THE FILLIPINOS.

At his court-martial Waller accepted full responsibility for ordering the executions. He naively believed ‘Hell-Roaring Jake’ would do the honorable thing and admit he had ordered his favorite Marine to kill everybody over ten years of age who even seemed belligerent. After all, Waller reasoned, ‘Hell Roaring Jake’ was an Army general and generals of any stripe were honorable men.

Waller was wrong. ‘Hell-Roaring Jake’ blamed his subordinate for everything. He testified he had ordered the Marine officer to treat everyone humanely.  Enraged at his erstwhile superior’s lack of honor, Waller remounted the witness stand and recounted Brig. Gen. Smith’s specific order.

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, and the more you kill and the more you burn the better you will please me,” he testified Smith had ordered. “I want all people killed who are capable of bearing arms.”

Waller: “I would like to know the age limit.”

Smith: “Ten years.”

Then Waller produced enough corroborating witnesses to convince the panel he was innocent. Waller was exonerated and restored to duty, eventually rising to the rank of major general.

But Waller was never appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps as Roosevelt and other powers of the day wanted it, despite having aces like two-time Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. Smedley “Old Gimlet Eye” Butler in his corner.

The entire affair was a terrible black mark on the Marine Corps that historian Max Boot says “put a pall over the entire U.S. war effort in the Philippines.”

Wait around long enough and history always repeats itself.


Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
4 June 2008

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).