“Call Sign Chaos – Learning to Lead” by Jim Mattis and Bing West

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Published 2019, 300 pages including maps, color pictures, notes, index and seven appendices.

I don’t need to review this book. It was released in September of 2019 and Amazon posts 1658 reviews. If you are looking for biographical information about Mattis, Wikipedia is a good place to start. There’s no personal information in Call Sign Chaos. The book ends when Mattis left the  United States Central Command in 2013, and does not cover his experiences as Secretary of Defense under Donald Trump, January 2017 to December 2018.

This book is divided into three sections

  • Direct leadership
  • Executive leadership
  • Strategic leadership.

I think I would have split it in two – leading from the top (direct leadership) and leading from below. (In the military, a strict hierarchal framework is assumed.) Certainly, in either an executive or strategic leadership position, leading “up” becomes essential, and I found those parts of Mattis’s memoir most interesting. He dealt with elected and appointed office holders, ambassadors, contractors, consultants and a wide range of “influencers”.

Mattis is an avid reader and sensitive to language. He includes several of his own letters as appendices to Call Sign Chaos. In Holding the Line, Guy Snodgrass talked about learning to write in General Mattis’ “voice”, so he would sound consistent and could speak comfortably. Interestingly, one review on Amazon (by “Kyrkie”) said Call Sign Chaos was more reflective of co-author Bing West’s voice than of Mattis. West published ten books, including one novel. Several look interesting to me.

Mattis liked aphorisms. “Semper fi” (always faithful) is, of course, the Marine motto. “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” was his favorite description of the Marine Corps. Mattis added “First, do no harm” (from the medical Hippocratic oath) to his statement of intent or “letter to all hands” (February 2004) before he led Marines back to occupied Baghdad as the city spiraled into chaos and towards civil war.

What does Mattis mean when he enjoins his troops to “Do no harm”? It’s war. The General is asserting the importance of protecting non-combatants, a tough goal during “irregular” warfare in a densely populated urban setting. He says “The enemy will try to manipulate you into hating all Iraqis. Do not allow…that victory.” He refers to honor, precision and crushing battle capabilities. His letters of intent are included on pages 93 and 119 of the book (not cited in index).

Mattis is big on “process”, which interests me since I deal with process in the tiny microcosm of a Quaker congregation. (Quakers call it “discernment”.) He cites Albert Einstein as having said, when asked what he would do if told the world would end in one hour, that he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes saving the world. Hmmm…

At the end of the book, Mattis falls back on “E Pluribus Unum” in a short, pained discussion of the Trump administration. In summer of 2019, Mattis said “we all know that we are better than our current politics.” That was before the pandemic. Recently he denounced Trump as “a threat to the Constitution”. “E Pluribus Unum” (from many, one) now feels ever more distant.

This book is worth a careful read, with special attention to the book list in Appendix B. There’s another, shorter booklist in Chapter 12 (“Essential NATO”). Transitioning to the international arena, Mattis read 22 books, consulted various experts and met with “practitioners of strategic leadership” including Henry Kissinger.

War is still hell.

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