A Marine Corps general once chastised for comments made during a San Diego speech has been picked to take over U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon announced on Thursday.
The shake-up comes as the American public questions whether the fight in Afghanistan can be won and the Defense Department is reeling from losing its top war commander -- Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
As head of Central Command, Mattis would oversee U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as across the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that he picked Mattis for his "strategic insight and independent thinking."
Mattis is a blunt-talking, seasoned war veteran best known for leading troops into the bloody battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.
He is a bit of a surprising pick. On the one hand, Mattis has significant ground combat experience and is considered an intellectual who grasps the nuances of fighting a complicated counterinsurgency. But he is also known to speak bluntly and off-the-cuff -- much like Petraeus' predecessor McChrystal, who was fired for speaking ill of his civilian bosses.
In 2005, Mattis was chastised by his superiors for saying in a public speech in San Diego that it was "fun to shoot some people." Mattis was a three-star general at the time, stationed in Quantico, Va., when he told an audience that some Afghans deserved to die.
"Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight," he said. "You know, it's a hell of a hoot. . . . It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you. I like brawling."
"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis continued. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."
About 200 people gathered for the panel discussion, held at the San Diego Convention Center. While many military members laughed at the comments, a military expert interviewed by NBC 7/39 called the comments "flippant."
"I was a little surprised," said Retired Vice Adm. Edward H. Martin at the time. "I don't think any of us who have ever fought in wars liked to kill anybody."
At the time, Mattis was in charge of Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Division.
His boss at the time, Gen. Mike Hagee, said that the comments reflected the "unfortunate and harsh realities of war" but that Mattis had been asked to watch his words in public.
Gates said Thursday that appropriate action was taken at the time. He also said he raised the issue with Mattis when interviewing him for the job and was confident that such statements would not be made in the future.
"I think the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned," he said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has been impressed watching Mattis interact with NATO allies, most recently as Mattis served as head of U.S. Joint Forces Command.
In 2004, Mattis' Marine division led the assault on Fallujah and he played a key role in helping Iraqi security forces negotiate with insurgents inside the city.
His remarks at the time of the battle suggest his thinking is very much in line with the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by Petraeus and McChrystal, which restricts military operations in order to win the support of the local population.
"All along we had intended a softer approach, using civil-military operations ... unless someone chooses to fight, and then we would fight," Mattis said in 2004. "Welcome to war with all its complexities and shifting centers of gravity."\
Carlsbad resident and retired Marine Brigadier General David Brahms called the choice for Mattis a smart one. "This is a great guy, a great Marine,"he said.
Brahms said you shouldn't criticize Mattis for being honest about the harsh realities of war. "Would you rather have someone who is politically correct and who is reluctant to do the jobs he's sworn to do? Not me,"Brahms said. "I want a warrior out there."