Tag Archives: American autobiography

“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.

“Drawing Fire – A Pawnee, Artist and Thunderbird in World War II” by Brummett Echohawk with Mark R Ellenbarger

University Press of Kansas, 2018, 215 pages plus Glossary (Native American Terms and Phrases, also designations of weapons), Dramatis Personnae (Echohawk and his comrades used both Native and mainstream names, as well as tribal affiliations) and Index. More than one hundred portraits, sketches and photographs.

In early June, my local public library featured a display of books about World War II, in honor of the D-Day anniversary. I grabbed two books. Drawing Fire caught my attention because of the generous inclusion of artwork, most produced on the battlefield by the author.

Don’t you love the name Echohawk? Brummett Echohawk was born in 1922, into a Pawnee family long connected with the American military. At age 18, he joined the Oklahoma National Guard. His unit, which included more than 1000 Native Americans, was deployed in the retaking of Italy in 1943. This memoir is a battlefield classic.

Echohawk identified as both a soldier and a warrior, bringing TWO lives, languages, skill sets and worldviews into the war. “Warrior” carries profound cultural/spiritual weight in addition to what English speakers generally mean by “soldier”. In addition to being bilingual, the Pawnee (and members of other tribes) used sign language (hand signs) which improved their communications. They also used animal calls to communicate between units, usually just to say “We’re here, good night” but occasionally to warn of danger.

It’s not clear to me just how Echohawk wrote these memoirs. Diaries and journals are discouraged (forbidden?) on the battlefield, because they could reveal classified information to the enemy. Echohawk was a diligent artist, drawing at every opportunity. Some of his sketches are on stationery provided by the Red Cross – many are tattered and stained. Most are annotated with names and locations. He sketched prisoners of war as well as soldiers from various allied nations. Many of his subjects were his closest friends, not all of whom survived.

The recapture of Italy was grueling and sometimes seemed impossible. At one point, Echohawk’s infantry division was told to prepare for the possibility of being overrun and captured. He ripped out the front page of his Bible, because it identified his Army unit, but then he hid it in a sketchpad. The native American fighters discussed their dilemma – Pawnee warriors (who call themselves “Men of Men”) do not surrender, but American soldiers follow orders, surrendering if their superiors tell them to.

The war ground on and on. Everything was in short supply, even water. The soldiers rigged improvised weapons and haunted the first aid stations (from which the injured were being evacuated) to replace their destroyed uniforms and to scavenge parts for their guns. The scale of waste and suffering and loss is hard to comprehend.

Echohawk survived the Italian campaign, returned home and died in 2006, after a distinguished career as artist and illustrator. Read this book!

 

 

 

Maya Angelou – 1928 to 2014 – Rest in Peace

Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!

That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!

She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.

I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.

(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)

I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?

I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.