Change at CENTCOM: Mattis out, Austin in

The flag has been passed at Central Command. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin took command from retiring Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis on Friday, as CENTCOM‘s focus shifts after more than a decade of war to an end-of-combat period for Afghanistan and expanded counterterrorism across the rest of the region. “Ten years ago, both Jim Mattis ...

DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

The flag has been passed at Central Command. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin took command from retiring Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis on Friday, as CENTCOM's focus shifts after more than a decade of war to an end-of-combat period for Afghanistan and expanded counterterrorism across the rest of the region.

“Ten years ago, both Jim Mattis and Lloyd Austin were in the Iraqi desert, on opposite sides of the Euphrates River, helping lead their troops in the drive to Baghdad,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to transcripts provided by the Pentagon.

Pentagon reporters were not invited to travel with Hagel to cover the ceremony.

The flag has been passed at Central Command. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin took command from retiring Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis on Friday, as CENTCOM‘s focus shifts after more than a decade of war to an end-of-combat period for Afghanistan and expanded counterterrorism across the rest of the region.

“Ten years ago, both Jim Mattis and Lloyd Austin were in the Iraqi desert, on opposite sides of the Euphrates River, helping lead their troops in the drive to Baghdad,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to transcripts provided by the Pentagon.

Pentagon reporters were not invited to travel with Hagel to cover the ceremony.

“Jim Mattis has been front and center in every major combat operation this nation has conducted for more than two decades,” Hagel said.  Mattis in his time urged his troops to fight with a “happy heart” and “to always engage their brain before they engaged their weapons.”

“General Mattis,” Hagel said, delicately, “knows that if we are going to ask young Americans to put their lives on the line for our security, then they must be able to trust and have confidence in their leaders.  That’s why he always spoke directly and truthfully, no matter the audience — an essential element of leadership.”

But Mattis rarely spoke to the press, or in public for that matter, during his CENTCOM command. Before taking the warrior-diplomat role at CENTCOM, inherently a politically-sensitive posting, the gruff-talking Marine was known for colorful quips. Our favorite: "I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all."

Mattis saluted into the sunsent with one more good one: “Here today you see a reminder to the maniacs who, by attacking us on 9/11 and thinking — thinking that they could scare us, we remind them that the descendants of Valley Forge don’t scare. Mr. Secretary, Chairman, I would happily storm hell in the company of these troops who I haven’t the words sufficient to praise, so I will not try. They know how strongly I believe in them, how strongly they have demonstrated to the world that free men and women can fight like the dickens.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “The challenges the volatile CENTCOM region presents can sometimes seem almost insolvable, yet Jim looked beyond the risks and sought to understand and to consider what was possible.”

“He has a legendary understanding of military history and of historical context. It’s rumored, by the way, that his personal library once numbered over 7,000 volumes. And he just didn’t have them to look at the pictures; he actually read them, so he claims."

For Austin, his experience closing out the Iraq war — Austin succeed Gen. Ray Odierno when Operation Iraqi Freedom became Operation New Dawn — is part of why he was chosen to lead CENTCOM during the coming closing years of the Afghanistan war.

“It was a tough job, combining political challenges with the uncertainties of combat and war, but he completed his mission with a steady, wise, and resourceful hand,” Hagel said.

“I am confident, all members of our institution are confident that General Austin is prepared to lead this command at a time of dramatic change, challenge, and turmoil in its area of responsibility.”

Austin wasted no time using his position as a chance for a little diplomatic outreach, saying, “And as King Hussein of Jordan likewise wisely stated, ‘Without peace and without the overwhelming majority of people that believe in peace, defending it and working for it and believing in it, security can never really be a reality.’”

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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