Call Sign Chaos

By Aaron Ayers

This book has been long anticipated and it delivers.  General Mattis writes just as he leads- candid and thoughtful.  This book strikes a delicate balance between an autobiography and a leadership book.  In doing so, Mattis and co-author Bing West utilize Mattis’ career as a roadmap to illustrate leadership at three different levels (Direct, Executive, and Strategic).  In each section, he provides a fascinating insight into both his career and his thoughts on how he chose to execute his mission.  He articulates the skills he developed in order to maximize his effectiveness at each level.  The one theme that he kept coming back to was unleashing others’ initiative.  While he earned his nickname CHAOS (Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution), he did so by pushing his team.

Mattis does an amazing job utilizing history as a way to apply old lessons towards current problems.  Throughout the book, he cites General Rommel, General Grant, and even Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr as examples of ways to use history to help put current events in perspective.  “Reading sheds light on the dark path ahead.  By traveling into the past, I enhance my grasp of the present.” (p. 42)

Throughout the entire book, one can’t help but feel his commitment to both the mission and the troops.    “I feel sorry for every son of a bitch that doesn’t get to serve alongside you fine young men (p. 145).”  While many senior leaders make similar statements, with him you can sense his sincerity.  While he has a laser-like focus on the mission, he finds a unique balance between commitment to both the mission and the troops. 

Mattis also doesn’t hold back in articulating the political constraints he routinely ran into when seeking to execute his mission.  He clearly articulates his challenges with the war planning prior to the invasion of Iraq and also the political constraints he had while in Iraq.  He doesn’t do this merely to complain about political leadership but to drive home the point of Clausewitz- “War is a continuation of politics by other means.”  He holds political leadership accountable for defining the mission objective and then allowing the military commander the ability to achieve the political objective.

General Mattis always held his Marines accountable but in doing so, he didn’t act rashly.  Instead, he held the right level of leadership accountable.  He made these decisions consciously to allow for mistakes, but breaches of discipline were intolerable.  One such example was a story of Marines in Haditha who had killed several civilians.  He knew it was a delicate situation.  He was under significant public pressure to hold the Marines accountable for civilian deaths yet at the same time, his Marines were in a brutal environment against an enemy who didn’t wear a uniform nor would they hesitate to use women and children as human shields.  After a full investigation, Mattis ultimately held a court-martial for the on-scene battalion commander.  The logic for this decision was based upon the fact that the battalion commander put the enlisted Marines in a precarious situation as the sergeant leading the squad had no battle experience.  Additionally, the battalion commander did not immediately report the incident thereby, at a minimum, giving the impression of trying to cover up the incident.  Further, he even recommended letters of censure for their division commander (Major General) and two Colonels.  In this situation, he wanted to ensure the proper people were held accountable for the failure, not simply those who were closest to the situation.  Decisions like this are rare.  Often senior leadership will take the expedient route, which would have been to court-martial the sergeant, than the one Mattis took in this situation.

While this book came out months ago, I routinely find myself referring back to it to find a quote or situational example from General Mattis.

Thought provoking quotes-

“The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise, and overcome.  But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. . . They recognized that those mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right.” (p. XI)

“The Marine philosophy is to recruit for attitude and train for skills.  Marines believe that attitude is a weapon system.” (p. 15)

“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. . . If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” (p. 42)

“War is all about reach and tempo.  Logistics could easily prove to be my biggest constrain.  Supply isn’t the logistician’s problem; it’s the commander’s problem.” (p. 88)

“But whether you’re a general or a CEO, win or lose, you have to fight a false narrative or it will assuredly be accepted as fact.  In the information age, you can’t retreat to your office and let your public affairs officer take the tough questions.” (p. 140)

“A leader’s role is problem solving.  If you don’t like problems, stay out of leadership.” (p.158)

“The most important six inches on the battlefield are between your ears.” (p. 166)

Interesting note- I had the privilege of hearing General Mattis speak while at the Naval War College in 2015.  At the time, he was two years removed from his tenure as Commander, Central Command but the respect for him was still very evident.  As I sat in the auditorium waiting for him to arrive and speak, the atmosphere in the room was electric.  There was an excitement in anticipation of him, unlike anything I have ever seen for a speaker.  In all honesty, the energy in the room felt more like a rock concert than a “speaking engagement.”  He captivated the audience for 45 minutes.  This book helps one understand why.  He is a thoughtful person who galvanizes those around him.

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