Call Sign Chaos : Learning to Lead review by Maj R. W. Pallas

If the general staff officer has received a good military education in peacetime, then in wartime he will be useful in all endeavors in less time.  But without a good education in peacetime, a general staff officer will never perform anything very well in wartime. – The Enlightened Solider: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 By C.E. White

The recent release of former Secretary of Defense, and retired Marine General Mattis’ book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” hit the waves of Twitter being met with a wide array of opinions.  Met with conflicting and very polarizing reactions, it seems this work is on one side or the other in terms of affinity for the words of a leader who spent over four decades in service to his country.  My own opinion on the work is it can easily find its way onto the bookshelves of any military leader, but don’t expect a peak behind the curtain during his time as SECDEF, you will only be disappointed.  This work encompasses General Mattis’ time in uniform, from his days as a lieutenant to his retirement as a four star general. I read on Twitter a comparison of former Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter’s new memoir and General Mattis’.  One public servant served in the Pentagon for almost the entirety of his lifetime, the other served almost the entirety of his lifetime in the U.S. Marine Corps—each book reflects exactly that.

I accept being partial to such a work sharing the title Marine with the two authors, but two words come to mind after completing the book—candid and authentic.  This work will remain a candid and authentic reflection of someone who has spent a majority of his adult life not only preparing for war but in service during war to an idea-the idea of democracy.  General Mattis’ story starts with the mentoring of a young officer by Vietnam era veterans who saw failed strategy take the lives of young service members and vowing to never let it happen again.  His retirement seemed to reflect on that exact premise—a strategy that was not working and a recommendation to try and fix it as he was now a four star general fighting what many refer to as a never-ending war, very similar and very different many decades since the Vietnam War had passed.  When put in a position to remedy a strategy he determined was not working, he tried to do what he was taught decades before as a young Lieutenant.

His take on finding leaders and building teams through candid and honest feedback proves even more valuable today.  Teams built around honest and constructive discussion with a shared collective knowledge of strengths and weaknesses to ensure success.  Some of the most notable names in Marine Corps leadership are riddled throughout: Mattis, Dunford, Kelly, and many more (Lt. Woodbridge even makes an appearance).

General Mattis quotes and explains many of the foundational works he found influential throughout his lifetime providing sage guidance and clarity as well as rapidly improving his decision-making. The appendices are fantastic by the way! The best quote from the book, in my opinion, is the following:

“Any commander who claims he is “too busy to read” is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.” –General Mattis

The effort toward education put forth by General Mattis to make a decision was said to have taken him some >30 years, but he responded almost immediately.  The point being, as a warrior culture we can inculcate ourselves and fellow Marines with a mindset to successfully navigate future battlefields and be of value in both peace and war in reference to Scharnhorst above. I will start by thumbing through his favorite books list in one of the appendices.

Conflicting or not, it documents a career of a leader within the Corps and Joint Force ultimately chosen to lead our Department of Defense—one can deduct you don’t end up in such a position without putting in a great deal of preparation throughout your lifetime.