Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Marines, the Bard and Plain Speaking

I have to give a warning to anyone reading this that I am going to allude to a word that some will find offensive. I don’t use or in this way allude to that word or others of its kind in postings and articles, but in this case, it is necessary. Please do not continue reading if allusion to the four letter "f" word will offend your sensibilities.

Op-For, a millblog site, quotes a statement reportedly made by Marine Corps Major General James Mattis, as recorded in Thomas E. Ricks’ "Fiasco". Gen. Mattis was speaking to some Iraqi tribal leaders when he is reported to have said:

"I come in peace. I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f**k with me, I'll kill you all."

To John at Op-For, that qualified as "Language so sweet it makes me want to light up a smoke and cuddle." One understands that sentiment, coming from the somewhat rough hewn community of the millbloggers. The quote is Pattonesque, as John points out.

The Marines, in particular, seem almost to consider off-color and vulgar language part and parcel of their war fighting equipment and even ordnance, to be used when appropriate and nothing else will quite do. That statement is also something more.

Second son has been Army SF these last several years, and would recognize the quote as something like standard military issue. Third son, however, has been studying acting those same several years, since he was fifteen. That was how old he was when I rented Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Shakespeare’s "Henry V". When the St. Crispin’s Day speech was almost at hand, I summoned the reluctant teen and made him watch and listen. Branagh’s King Harry finished with the words:

"And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

And the teenager was positively blown away. In moments he had me showing him the written words from our copy of ‘The Collected Works of…". I think he had the speech memorized by the next morning. Many times since as an acting student, when he has been asked to do something extemporaneous, he has launched into that speech. Only months ago, he got to play the Stanley Kowalski role in "Streetcar Named Desire", complete with the anguished cry of "Stella!", but much of his heart remains with the magic of the Bard’s wordsmithing.

When I came across Mattis’ quote, I showed it to him, and asked what he thought. We agreed. It was contemporary Shakespearian.

Early on in "Henry V" and well before the St.Crispin’s Day speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry’s forces are besieging the walls of the town of Harfleur. The defender’s have managed to hold off the English attacks, when King Harry rides to the walls and chillingly addresses the leaders of the town with an appeal to either surrender or face the consequences:

"The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds…. What say you?
Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?"

As Harfleur surrenders and throws open it gates to Harry’s forces, Harry turns to Exeter and says:

"Use mercy to them all."

While we understand that the bland language of diplomatic communiqués often simply hides the more blunt actual communications/negotiations that were engaged in, I also cannot imagine dialogue as direct as that of Gen. Mattis is anything but extremely rare. Likewise, I can visualize some negotiator who has studied such negotiation for or at the State Department speaking to the same tribal leaders saying something like:

"We want you to understand and accept that it is not our position that we are or need to be adversaries. Rather, we feel that by working together we can develop a range of opportunities for cooperation to our mutual benefit. We do not wish to exert any kind of undue pressure on you to comply with our wishes nor with anything that would not be in your long term interest. However, we must also be frank in stating that there may be, however unfortunate, actions taken by you or those over whom you have influence that may harm our interests. If that happens, we would have to evaluate the consequences of those actions to determine whether a response from us is required and at what level…"

In such a scenario, I can imagine a tribal leader feigning attention while his thoughts drift. Should he okay that plan his nephew Achmed came up with, about bombing the "suit" and his entourage when they head back to the Green Zone? Achmed is convinced it will work and will turn the Americans into something in the order of a fine reddish mist.

Mattis, on the other hand, hit three critical points in his brief statement. One, that he wanted a peaceful relationship. Even an Iraqi tribal leader would know that Marine Corps Generals are not the blubbering types, and that Mattis’ ‘tears in my eyes’ plea was a form of self abasing earnestness. Two, Mattis left "f**k with" undefined. That leaves the burden of determining or rather worrying what comes up to the level of "f**k with" where it belongs. That is also a self-preservation driven opening for the tribal leaders to pursue further dialog. Three, Mattis is unequivocal about the consequences of "f**k with". He will unleash his Marines.

General Colin Powell retired from a distinguished career in the military and became Secretary of State, our highest diplomatic post. One surely hopes that when it comes time for General Mattis to retire from active duty, our government will find a place for him and his Marine Corps cum Shakespearian negotiating skills. Perhaps as our lead negotiator with Iran or North Korea.

1 comment:

Trained said...

Thank you for your editorial on MajGen James Mattis comments. I feel you Help explain the "poetic" words used by Mattis to those among us that don't believe there is a time or place for such frank, crass language in comunicating with others. In paticular the Females in our lives. Take issue with The Generals "ways". I don't know that anyone would convince those opposed to this type of comunication. Never the less it is a fact that when in harms way or dealing with the thugs among us, a well placed curse word adiquitley places punctuated importance on ones intent toward the situation at hand.