Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Image of Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead
Release Date: 
September 3, 2019
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“a splendid book that flies by with a sharp and concise writing style, just what you would expect from a Marine general.”

Retired Marine General James Mattis, known to his fans as “Mad Dog” Mattis, has written a book that really defies an easy characterization. Part memoir, part history, part leadership primer, and just a little strategic analysis, this is a splendid book that flies by with a sharp and concise writing style, just what you would expect from a Marine general.

Anyone looking for some tell-all gossip book about his tenure with the Trump Administration will be sorely disappointed as Mattis devotes only a few pages to his service as Secretary of Defense. Moreover, he does not spend an excessive amount of time talking about himself either, devoting almost all of the book to his experience and lessons learned in combat commands beginning as a battalion commander in Operation Desert Storm, leading a brigade and division in Afghanistan and Iraq before ending his Marine career as the four-star commander of America’s Central Command, in charge of America’s war efforts in the Middle East.

Along the way, the reader discovers a great deal about the early days of the war in Afghanistan, especially the lost opportunity to eliminate Osama bin Laden and most of the Al Qaeda leadership in December 2001 when they were almost trapped in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan. Mattis had a fully prepared Marine brigade ready to cut off all the mountain passes leading into Pakistan, where bin Laden eventually fled, but was turned down at the last minute by U.S. leaders who favored using unreliable Afghan tribesmen to defeat the remains of Al Qaeda.

Mattis then assumed command of the 1st Marine Division in time to lead the division in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Here he describes one of the toughest jobs a military leader has to do-relieve a subordinate who is insufficient to the job of combat command. Generally kept quiet by the Marine Corps to avoid undue embarrassment to the officer, Mattis describes his decision-making process and how difficult it was to relieve a long serving Marine officer and end his career. But he notes this was the burden of command and while it had to be done for the good of the unit, Mattis also shows his humanity and class in how he handled the relief.

He led his division back to Iraq in early 2004, just in time for the burgeoning Sunni insurgency in Anbar Province. Attempting to conduct a classic population-centric counter-insurgency effort, he reluctantly began the reactionary invasion of Fallujah, heart of the Sunni province in April 2004 after being ordered to invade the city to hunt down the insurgents who murdered four American contractors in a bloody televised spectacle.

Unsuccessful in stopping what he considered an emotional versus a strategic response, Mattis nonetheless led his Marines into the city and was conducting a successful urban assault when his Marines were stopped by the pressure of Iraqi politicians and effective Sunni propaganda that depicted the U.S. forces as indiscriminately destroying the city.

Rotating out of division command in the fall of 2004, Mattis took a job well suited to his talents, working at the Marine Combat Development Command to incorporate the many hard-won lessons of Marines in combat since 2001. A rare combination of warrior and thinker, one of his most significant contributions to the military was during this assignment when he assisted Army colleague General David Petraeus in the creation of the U.S. military’s comprehensive guide to counter-insurgency in 2006.

Throughout the book, Mattis details the many lessons he learned about leadership as he moved up the ranks and assumed increasingly challenging commands that required not only combat experience, but a great deal of diplomacy and policy understanding as he was required to work with not only the other armed services, but a wide range of NATO and other allies. He does not shy away from controversy and had to make a number of tough calls with far reaching consequences.

Mattis, known as the warrior monk, also spends a great deal of time discussing how important reading history to prepare for the burdens of command and service was to his career, noting his reliance on the classis works of the Greeks and Romans as he prepared for service in the Middle East. There is a fascinating email from Mattis regarding this topic in the book’s appendices, along with a list of his favorite books.

This was a particularly crisp and speedy read, yet it packs a lot of lessons for anyone interested in leadership as well as history. For anyone who wants to understand what America’s last 19 years of military campaigns have been like, it is a must read.