BOOK REVIEW: Call Sign Chaos; Learning to Lead

Jim Mattis and Bing West

Random House, New York; 2019; 300 pages

By Herbert W. Stupp

With purported “tell all” books emerging from most every White House, it is natural to wonder if the book penned by President Trump’s first Defense Secretary would offer a take on his former boss and presidential decision-making. But in Call Sign Chaos, Jim Mattis has not written such a tome, even though that might have sold more copies for him. Secretary Mattis’ two-page resignation letter is revealed in the book, but not much more about his 23 months in the Cabinet. Mattis declares in his prologue: “I’m old fashioned: I don’t write about sitting presidents.”

Opening Secretary Jim Mattis’ book, I was prepared for military jargon that would prompt me to call a relative to tap his mental thesaurus (family disclosure: the eldest of my ten brothers-in-law worked with then-General Mattis in the Marine Corps, and admires him).

But this is a readable, thoughtful and useful book about leadership, observed and exercised, with lessons for any MBA about success and occasional error in managing Marines, inter-agency jockeying and international diplomacy. Mattis offers scores of useful anecdotes and pithy quotes from those he worked with, nearly all teaching a lesson. The former secretary also demonstrates his deep grounding in the writings of the great generals, heads of state, philosophers and even economists to bolster his points. Jim Mattis is a genuine “soldier-intellectual.”

His Marine Corps requires officers to complete specific reading lists as they prepare for promotions to each new level of leadership. Those who eschew these assignments would risk “functional illiteracy,” says Mattis, and the book supplies his personal two-page reading list, for our further study. He freely quotes from Napoleon, Churchill, Lincoln, von Clausewitz, Einstein, Hayek, MacArthur and many other great minds.

Call Sign Chaos is co-written by Bing West, himself an estimable author and military analyst, who was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and a Marine combat veteran.

Throughout the book, Mattis’ humility is palpable and pervasive. He expresses differences with Presidents Obama and G.W. Bush, and General Tommy Franks. But he does so respectfully, and spares subordinates whom he disciplined from being named. Mattis reveals how his penchant for trafficking in ideas and alternative tactics led his staff to create his Marine Corps call sign of “C.H.A.O.S.” It stands for “Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution.”

He faults Bush 43 for steering us back into Iraq, and for goals that were “too idealistic,” but blames Obama and Biden for a chaotic withdrawal, not enforcing their “red line” in Syria, and parsimony with the defense budget. “Rhetoric doesn’t end conflicts,” he trenchantly observes, with chapter 15 titled: “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory,” a commentary on Obama policy.

Mattis identifies Iran as a relentless enemy, opining that the mullahs assessed the Obama administration to be “impotent,” with exhibit “A” being Iran’s brazen attempt to murder a Saudi diplomat a few minutes from the White House. Mattis would chart a confident course between “American uncertainty and messianism.”

The former Secretary has always been most at home among his fellow Marines, and revels in being their sentinel and advocate. If a senior officer can’t talk with his young volunteers, then he’s “lost touch.” Mattis objected to the new “rules of engagement” implemented during the Obama years as being “drafted by lawyers” and exposing his beloved “grunts” to potentially lethal danger in and around combat.

He supports rules of engagement that protect civilians, but argues that a “democracy… has a moral obligation to ensure that its soldiers are… encouraged to effectively carry out their appointed task of… destroying the enemy.”

Many schools of management advance a philosophy of “centralized planning with decentralized execution,” but Secretary Mattis demurs. He favors “centralized vision” development only, leaving strategies to decentralized implementation. He is “partial to studying Roman leaders and historians… whose grace under pressure and reflections on life can guide leaders today.”

Mattis stresses the importance of leadership in shaping an organization’s culture, and “culture eats strategy for lunch,” he adds. Contrary to some stereotypes about our military, the Marine Corps is home to many original and creative thinkers, with Mattis being an exemplar. Upon meeting our ally, King Abdullah of Jordan, then-General Mattis wryly asked: “What’s it like being king? I’ve never been one.” The king laughed and explained his priority of generating public support for his policies, especially fighting terrorism and aggression.

If I ever get to meet Jim Mattis, I might ask: “What was it like being Secretary? I’ve never been one.” For that story, we’ll have to wait for his next book. But in the meantime, Secretary Mattis’ Call Sign Chaos offers lessons in leadership, a heartfelt appreciation for those willing to serve in the Marines and our other armed services, and incisive reflections on policies that succeeded or failed.

Herbert W. Stupp is editor of He was a Commissioner in NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Cabinet, after serving in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Published with the permission of The Washington Times. 

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