Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead By Jim Mattis And Bing West
A clear-eyed account of learning how to lead in a chaotic world, by General Jim Mattis--the former Secretary of Defense and one of the most formidable strategic thinkers of our time--and Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine.
Call Sign Chaos is the account of Jim Mattis's storied career, from wide-ranging leadership roles in three wars to ultimately commanding a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East. Along the way, Mattis recounts his foundational experiences as a leader, extracting the lessons he has learned about the nature of warfighting and peacemaking, the importance of allies, and the strategic dilemmas--and short-sighted thinking--now facing our nation. He makes it clear why America must return to a strategic footing so as not to continue winning battles but fighting inconclusive wars.
Mattis divides his book into three parts: direct leadership, executive leadership, and strategic leadership. In the first part, Mattis recalls his early experiences leading Marines into battle, when he knew his troops as well as his own brothers. In the second part, he explores what it means to command thousands of troops and how to adapt your leadership style to ensure your intent is understood by your most junior troops so that they can own their mission. In the third part, Mattis describes the challenges and techniques of leadership at the strategic level, where military leaders reconcile war's grim realities with political leaders' human aspirations, where complexity reigns and the consequences of imprudence are severe, even catastrophic.
Call Sign Chaos is a memoir of lifelong learning, following along as Mattis rises from Marine recruit to four-star general. It is a journey learning to lead and a story about how he, through constant study and action, developed a unique leadership philosophy--one relevant to us all.
Jim Mattis’s “Call Sign Chaos” will disappoint readers hoping for a tell-all account of his tenure as Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, but they will still learn a lot about the man who held that position.
Written with Bing West, an author and former Marine, the book provides a tour through Mattis’s four decades of service in the Marine Corps. The narrative details his experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his subsequent roles as NATO’s supreme allied commander for transformation and as the head of the American military’s theater-level command in the Middle East. Readers will come to know his worldview and approach to leadership. Most of all, they will learn how much he loved being a Marine. At the end of the book, Mattis writes that if nothing else, he hopes the book “conveys my respect for those men and women who selflessly commit to serving our country.” On that metric, he unquestionably succeeds.
There is much to admire in Mattis’s views of leadership and the values they embody — competence, decency, a willingness to hear the hard truth and to tell it, caring for those below you and a commitment to reading and absorbing the lessons of history. If Mattis had a thesis, it might be his recommendation that a leader should act like a “player-coach.” Leadership, he says, is a collaborative endeavor that is best achieved by delegating responsibility to subordinates and enabling them to take the initiative. A logical implication — and a second prominent theme in the book — is the need for a leader to communicate clearly and to articulate goals. For Mattis, this is as true for presidents in their relations with military leaders as it is for commanders talking to their grunts.
Mattis’s experiences have also ingrained in him a faith in the significance of allies and alliances for the United States. The book is replete with references to the importance of American leadership, diplomacy and international cooperation. By contrast, Mattis’s years serving in wars in the Middle East seem to have impressed upon him the need for vigilance and the necessity of backing up one’s threats with force. Iran’s role as an antagonist in the region has been especially significant for him.
“Combining simplicity and thoughtfulness, Jim Mattis has produced a classic account of a lifetime of service. Call Sign Chaos is a lesson in leadership and an evocation of humanity in the cause of peace.”—Henry Kissinger
“In this magnificent memoir, Jim Mattis details many important events in his career, but he also does much more: He explains how he is informed by his experiences in a way that teaches you how to learn from your own. Read, enjoy, and learn.”—George Shultz
About the Author
Bing West has written ten books about combat. He served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has been on hundreds of patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan, including many operations with General Mattis. He is a member of the Military History Working Group at the Hoover Institution. He lives with his wife, Betsy, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island.
Most of this book is taken up by vivid descriptions of Mattis’s forty-year career in the Marine Corps, and the lessons he derived from that experience. Mattis has never been married (although apparently he proposed once, but that’s not in this book), and seems, in essence, married to the Corps. Such a monkish ethos was once common among military types—the Templars and the Hospitallers are the most famous examples, and I believe there are similar examples among some Eastern cultures. Today, with the exaltation of personal freedom and license, this rigid, self-demanding code seems a bit odd. Or not so much odd, as out of place. But we could all use a lot more that code, I think.
We’re not going to get it from our current ruling class, certainly. And perhaps sometimes it leads Mattis, enmeshed in a society in which he doesn’t really fit, into errors. The most famous of those was, perhaps, his membership on the board of directors of the mega-fraud company Theranos, where Elizabeth Holmes conned elderly men into, effectively, vouching for her fraud. (Read John Carreyrou’s outstanding "Bad Blood" for more.) But in a long life of action, every man should be permitted a few mulligans, and nobody can doubt that Mattis has given much more to our society than he has been given.
As far as modern politics, there is some implicit criticism of both Trump and Obama, but most of the focus is on Mattis’s belief that a robust internationalism is in the interests of the United States. (In fact, his break with Trump occurred over Trump’s desire to withdraw from Syria.) Maybe. I’m not convinced, but if anyone is worth reading on the topic, it’s Mattis, rather than talking heads like David Frum or Max Boot. And to his credit, Mattis isn’t interested in imposing democracy. It’s our interests he cares about. He just thinks that “nations with allies thrive; nations without allies wither.”
Oh, there is also advice on how individuals should act. But this is not a self-help book. It is Mattis’s attempt to convey wisdom to the nation. Regardless of your political alignment, therefore, this is a measured book well worth reading.
Call Sign Chaos, Jim Mattis