Volume No. 16 Issue No. 11 November 2019  

  “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead”
  By Robin Widmar

     On Nov. 10, the United States Marine Corps celebrates its 244th birthday. It seemed appropriate, then, to review a book written by a Marine.
   Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis began writing his book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” long before he was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as Secretary of Defense. Although Mattis only served 712 days in that role, anyone who expects a juicy political insider’s tell-all tale will be disappointed, because Mattis isn’t talking. He states in his prologue, “I don’t write about sitting Presidents.”
   But that’s not the point of his story, anyway. “Call Sign Chaos” is a combination of memoir, leadership tutorial and military history from the perspective of someone with four decades as a Marine. “My purpose in writing this book is to convey the lessons I learned for those who might benefit, whether in the military or in civilian life,” Mattis explains. Much of the book focuses on his experiences in the Middle East (including Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom I and II) and the different leadership challenges he faced with every assignment.
   Mattis begins by briefly describing his upbringing. His parents believed the world was “not to be feared, but explored,” and he spent time in his youth doing just that. He got into a bit of trouble along the way, but he learned some key philosophies (“You don’t always control your circumstances, but you can always control your response” and “You make mistakes, or life knocks you down; either way, you get up and get on with it”) that would help shape his military career.
   Although he says he did not enjoy college academia, Mattis nonetheless became a lifelong student of history, military operations and leadership. He shares how every phase of his career –- from leading units in combat to overseeing recruitment, working at the Pentagon and commanding the United States Central Command –- provided opportunities to learn from, and be mentored by, people with real-world military and political experience.
   He also voraciously read to learn from great leaders of the past. His narrative is peppered with references to, and quotes from, a wide array of historical figures, ranging from Marcus Aurelius and Sun Tzu to Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger. Mattis also required his Marines to read in order to further their own knowledge. “Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or historian who –- a decade or a thousand decades ago — set aside time to write,” he says. “We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years; it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated experiences.”
   One thing that comes through in this book is his deep devotion to the Marines he led. Feeling that it was important to never lose touch with those under his command, Mattis regularly visited troops on the front lines. In Iraq, he describes driving hundreds of miles a week to meet with his Marines. “Nothing was more important to me than maintaining the fighting spirit of our troops and their confidence in their leaders on the battlefield,” he says. “By dropping in and getting face-to-face with the grunts, I could get a feel for what the squads were thinking, what frustrated them. Was there anything I could do spiritually or physically to help?” In return, the troops rewarded Mattis with a fierce loyalty. It is clear that Mattis enjoyed each promotion or new position of responsibility just a little less because it took him another step further away from knowing those he led.
   For all of his skills and accomplishments, Mattis also made mistakes along his journey. He acknowledges those errors but does not dwell on them, choosing instead to view them as part of the learning process. “… Be honest and move on, smarter for what your mistake taught you.”
   Mattis does not shy away from frustration over mistakes he felt were made by others in the Middle East conflicts, although his disapproval is professionally stated. One sore spot involved interference in military operations by U.S. diplomatic and political officials in places such as Fallujah, Iraq. “American policymakers were still restricting necessary tactical actions,” he says. He carried out his orders, though, because “Loyalty to your troops, to your superiors, and to your oath to obey orders from civilian authority matters most, even when there are a hundred reasons to disagree.”
   “Call Sign Chaos,” co-written by fellow Marine Bing West, is not for everyone, but it is an interesting and engaging read, packed with insights and nuggets of hard-earned wisdom. The writing style is, like Mattis, direct and efficient. The book includes some of the correspondence he sent to his Marines, maps and a reading list he assembled for a colleague.
   Mattis calls himself “politically independent, guided by history’s lessons and strategic imperatives,” and notes that he has served under presidents from both parties. Following the full text of his resignation letter for the Secretary of Defense position, however, Mattis provides a brief opinion into the divisiveness currently plaguing our country. “I believe we can get over our current malaise of tribalism,” he says. “For the sake of future generations, let us keep the faith.” He closes with the motto adopted by America’s forefathers: “E pluribus unum," which translates to “out of many, one.”
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