Jim Mattis: Call Sign Chaos


“Acting strategically requires that political leaders make clear what they will stand for and what they will not stand for.  We must mean what we say, to both allies and foes.”

Do you read this book because it was written by a four-star general who commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, or because he recently served as Secretary of Defense?  For me, it was a little of both.

Jim Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense under Trump, came from an incredible military career.  I had anticipation for reading this book, but Mattis had already warned that he wasn’t going to criticize a sitting President, so I had mixed feelings about the ground Mattis would cover.

Mattis’ book is subtitled: Learning to Lead, and he provided a very good road-map of his leadership principles and emphasized them throughout the book.  Whether you agree or not, the military is a very good source of developing leaders, not just for the battlefield, but for life.  I have had to the pleasure to work with four retired Army officers and I’ve learned a lot from them the past twenty years.

Mattis is a career Marine so you get a great sense of the service’s culture.  Thankfully, you are not overwhelmed with military terminology, but you understand perfectly that these are warriors, trained to overtake an enemy and kill with extreme prejudice.


I’ve always believed that leadership is about communicating vision, establishing trust, putting people in the position of being successful and taking care of those people.  Very simple.  My leadership philosophy is very close to what I read here.  Not surprising, because part of my understanding of motivation and servant leadership comes from the former military officers (and others) I have spend my career around.

The book uses his career as a way of communicating and providing examples of Mattis’ leadership principles.  The book effectively ends with his being replaced as head of CENTCOM, which commands the troops and aircraft across the Middle East.  He does include his resignation letter as Secretary of Defense, so there is a gap between his last military command and his two years at DoD.  We will have to wait for the next book.

“I championed the values America stands for, even when it made our partners uncomfortable.  If I wanted them to listen to me, I had to respect their dignity in public. But I’m known for blunt speaking and I was very blunt – in private.”

Mattis won’t criticize Trump in the book, but he does with the younger Bush and Obama, but seems to hold the senior Bush in a different regard.  Mattis’ consistent message was that Washington, the politicians and the bureaucrats, did not care to really understand what their generals were trying to tell them.  Mattis grew frustrated with policy that could not be executed, and the lack of interest by those above him, in understanding the “on the ground” challenges of military operations. Not surprising.  Mattis is not vicious in his critiques but his points are clear.  The mistakes and miscues of Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama Presidencies are well-noted.


The mystery for me, is why a man of history, morals and honor, would work for Trump?  Despite the Trump bluster about knowing more about military strategy than his generals, Mattis and his staff served Trump well, actually orchestrating action against ISIS.  The rest of the chaos belongs to Trump.

“You can’t fool the troops.  Our young men had to harden their hearts to kill proficiently, without allowing indifference to non-combatant suffering to form a callus on their souls.  I had to understand the light and the dark competing in their hearts, because we needed the lads who could do grim, violent work without becoming evil in the process, lads who could do harsh things yet not lose their humanity.”

From his experience in foreign lands, Mattis had the Marines write a war doctrine, a guide to how to conduct yourself as a soldier in a foreign land.  This was a guidebook on how to conduct yourself as a solider and representative of the United States.  I am surprised that nothing like this existed.  A great idea.

“Always try to partner on patrol with the local forces you are training.  Conduct a census and issue identification cards.  Get to know the local leaders, sheiks, and imams in your area of operations.  Conduct yourself as a guest.  In today’s insurgent wars, the vital ground in not a mountaintop or a key road – it’s the people.”

In the book, Mattis often talked about the decisions that led soldiers to their death and the impact it had not him.  Death and horrific accidents in a combat zone are unavoidable, but difficult on leadership, each and every time it happened.  He mentioned letters to Gold Star families and visiting with them whenever possible.  The cost of war was real.

Mattis wrote about a consistent message he delivered to his troops: Keep training and encouraging local forces.  Stay professional and polite.  Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it’s a victory for the insurgents.  Everywhere, you encounter frightened and angry civilians, who are torn between not wanting you there, and needing you there.  These are people who have known war, loss of life and a fractured existence, perhaps for their entire lives.  Americans will eventually pull out and go home, and what they leave behind may not be better than then they arrived.

“There’s a profound difference between a mistake and a lack of discipline.  Mistakes are made when you’re trying to carry out a commander’s intent and you screw up in the pressure of the moment.  I’m a walking example of the Marine Corps giving second chances to those who make mistakes – I’ve made many – recognizing that my mistakes served as a bridge to learning how to do things right.”

Mattis had to oversee numerous investigation into serious charges leveled against the conduct of American soldiers accused of the deaths of civilians.  Some of those charges were unfounded, but others were verified, and those soldiers had to face the consequences.  Mattis said he did not hesitate to punish the guilty, or relieve a leader from duty if he did not follow command decisions.

“Engage your mind before your trigger finger.  First, do no harm to the innocent.  identify your target before you shoot.”

Mattis is a voracious reader, something he learned as a young Marine.  He read military history but also biographies and current history.  It all went into his internal computer, and he reflected on those experiences, lessons and knowledge.

“Living in history builds your own shock absorbers, because you’ll learn that there are lots of old solutions to new problems.  If you haven’t read hundreds of books, learning from other who went before you, you are functionally illiterate – you can’t coach and you can’t lead.” 

I found this book a very interesting read, a mixture of experience, lessons learned and leadership principles.  Mattis is not an easy person to know from this book, you learn some, but not very much about the man outside of his uniform.

2 thoughts on “Jim Mattis: Call Sign Chaos

  1. I’ve always liked and respected General Mattis. From your reviews, his book sounds like a good read. I’m going to purchase it today.


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