February 20, 2020

Retrospective on a military career

General Jim Mattis writes about the importance of relations with allies

In March 2019 it was revealed that a new book by Jim Mattis, the 26th US Secretary of Defense, would be published in September. Random House, the publisher, explained, however, that Mattis and his co-author Bing West had already completed most of the book before Mattis was nominated to the Pentagon by Donald Trump. This was a disappointment to everyone who expected Mattis—praised during his time in office as “the last adult in the room”—to write a tell-all book about president Trump, as they had to be satisfied with the epilogue, in which the author stresses “[w]e all know that we’re better than our current politics”. Mattis has upheld his principle, stating that “I’m old-fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents”, even if that was expected of him by America’s increasingly broken society.

Jim Mattis. Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. Random House, 2019. 320 pp.

It can only be hoped that Mattis—who president Trump described as “impressive” and “a true General’s General” at their first meeting in Bedminster, New Jersey in November 2016 but called “the world’s most overrated general” two years later—will finally reveal his version of what actually happened someday.

In Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, James Norman Mattis, 69, looks back at his 41-year career and leadership lessons learned in the Marine Corps, where he advanced from second lieutenant to four-star general. Today, retired general Mattis is one of the most prominent thinkers and opinion-formers among the navy and marines, whose positions are heeded and quoted. He has served in three wars: he commanded a battalion in the First Gulf War (1990–1), a brigade in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, 2001) and a division in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003). He has written a field manual on counterinsurgency operations with another retired general, David Petraeus; commanded both NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation and the US Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Virginia; and ended his career in 2013 as Commander of the US Central Command, where he directed the military operations of a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.

Although general Mattis is retired and hopefully spends most of his time hiking in Washington state (actually not), he has remained in the hearts of American service members as one of the nation’s most revered marines. A couple of months ago, when he visited the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, representing “100,000 tons of international diplomacy” [a reference to a quote by Henry Kissinger—Ed.], there was only one picture on the wall of the Operations Control Center, the heart of the ship: an internet meme that gained popularity in late 2016 depicting Mattis as “Saint Mattis of Quantico, Patron Saint of Chaos”. Chaos—an acronym for the “Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution”—is a call sign given to him in the mid-1990s by then-Lieutenant Colonel John Toolan because Mattis always wanted to cause confusion among adversaries.

Mattis is known as a well-read person (his library includes more than 7,000 books and, for him, everyone who has not read hundreds of books is illiterate) and a saint (he never married), who lives for work and work alone. For example, on his first day as defence secretary, he waived the ceremonial parade and welcoming ceremony and, according to legend, he was the first to turn on the lights in his Pentagon E-ring office at around five in the morning and the last to leave around midnight, including weekends. But we learn from the first few pages of his book that he was quite a character as a boy: hitchhiking alone across the US West Coast and the Cascade Range as a 13-year-old, he loved to party and was once even locked up for drinking as a minor, confident that nothing could ever happen to him. However, at the age of 20 he suffered a severe fall while climbing alone in the mountains and later treated himself at home, refusing any assistance. This experience reinforced his decision to share his future life with the marines, who take life as it comes and are more interested in living life than prolonging it.

In line with Clausewitz, Mattis divides his leadership lessons into three levels: direct, executive and strategic. In his view, a good tactical leader knows his troops just as well as their own brothers (Mattis has two, one younger and one older ) and is competent in performing his tasks (no messing with fundamentals; be a master), considerate (nobody cares how much you know until they understand how much you care) and convincing (be sure of what you are doing and stay determined). On the executive level, he deems it crucial to be able to communicate your intentions—the purpose and outcome of a military operation—in such a way that even the most junior soldiers on the battlefield understand it. If not, the purpose can’t be accomplished. At the strategic level, you face the darkest side of war and, at the same time, have to consider the wishes of politicians, whose electoral promises may often take precedence over global security-policy risks. According to Mattis, politicians’ rhetoric does not resolve conflicts, even if they believe it does.

The book reveals a number of interesting historical details. For example, Mattis describes how the former Polish Minister of National Defence, Bogdan Klich, took him on a helicopter trip over Poland and the Baltic Sea so that he could comprehend the geographical complexity of the region. (Mattis remembers this well and retold the story a short while ago in Washington.) We also learn that the US Joint Force Command was dissolved after Mattis, its head, jotted down the words “Disband JFCOM” on a paper napkin and handed it over to Admiral Mullen, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that in 2009 the French took over the position of NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation on Mattis’s recommendation: Mattis felt an outsider, because he, a non-European, had to explain to the Europeans that Europe needed to transform its military forces, and he recognised that America could not care more for the freedom of European children than the Europeans themselves. Mattis is convinced that NATO cannot remain united if burden-sharing is unequal.

Even during his years as a junior officer, while visiting various US military bases around the world, he understood the great importance of alliances. The higher he progressed in his career, the more he acknowledged this, and he fought no war without foreign allies. It may not be a coincidence that, unlike previous US defence strategies, which focused on how the US could protect its national security on its own, the document signed by Mattis in 2018 relies on allies more than ever.

There are three types of opinion about Mattis. First, there are those who believe that a marine who has been repeating for 40 years that life may knock you down for a while, but whatever happens you stand up again and carry on, showed his weakness when he delivered his resignation letter to the White House at around 3 a.m. on 20 December 2018. Others think that staying true to one’s essential principles is better than relinquishing one’s values. Finally, there are those who believe that marines who have been retired less than seven years should not accept the position of Secretary of Defense (owing to civilian control). After reading Call Sign Chaos, every reader can confidently form his or her own opinion.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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