There is an unofficial term in the U.S. military (at least in the Marine Corps) for the officer (generally an officer), who says, “I have a great idea I want to try.” This term is not altogether endearing. It is typically attached to an exuberant Second Lieutenant Platoon Commander. Close second and third could be Company and Battalion Commanders. The name percolates down to the lower ranks. All Marines are on notice waiting for the inevitable hours-long PME or twenty-mile ruck run. In short, what the unit will hear is that the officer in question is a “good idea fairy.”
Now, the so-called “good idea fairy” officer usually means well. Often, they need the advice and wise counsel of a good Platoon Sergeant or senior SNCO to help mold and shape their proposed good idea. Ironically, if the officer is to lose the title “good idea fairy”, there are two things that have to happen. First, their idea needs to be good in reality. Second, their idea needs to work in practice. Furthermore, even if these two things happen, the “good idea fairy” label can still stick as a negative stigma. After all, new ideas often require changes and breaks from the status quo. These initiatives are often the hammer that smash the phrase, “This is how we’ve always done things.” Thus, for an officer to lose the label “good idea fairy” and turn it into call sign “CHAOS” is a monumental accomplishment. This officer’s good ideas must have been really, really, consistently good for many years.
Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution (CHAOS)
In General Mattis’ new book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, I learned that “CHAOS” stands for “Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution.” This call sign is slightly more bad-ass than “good idea fairy.” General John Toolan (USMC-Ret.) was the originator of the call sign. Since he was subordinate to General Mattis, its probably better that this was the name he came up with instead of using the aforementioned moniker.
In his book, General Mattis talks about many times in which he did, in fact, have solutions. Lots of them too. What would you expect from someone who has also been called the “Warrior Monk.” Of course, this is a nod to his studiousness. General Mattis is known as a voracious reader with an extensive library. He makes it clear that he considers reading a moral imperative and a hallmark of good leadership. Additionally, his solutions would not be possible without dedicated scholarship of history and past wars.
Quick note to clear the air on politics…
As much as political pundits want to kick poor Jim Mattis around like a political football, the fact is that General Mattis’ solutions have clashed with all political parties. From Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, a key theme of the book is the battle between Mattis, the practical warfighter, with the political machine. He does respect and value civilian leadership over the military. But, that doesn’t mean he respects their decisions. As he mentions in the book, he was fired by a Democratic administration and resigned under a Republican one. A true independent indeed.
Send in the Marines… please!
Over a forty-year career, the book covers a lot of modern history. General Mattis served in the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan (OEF) and the Iraq War (OIF). His highest level of Command was as Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander from August 11, 2010 to March 22, 2013.
In Afghanistan, General Mattis led Task Force 58, and became the first Marine to do so. He was responsible for planning and conducting operations in southern Afghanistan. After American troops and Afghans secured Kandahar, General Mattis turned his attention to the mountains of Tora Bora. He claims that he used the 19th Century U.S. Armies “Geronimo Campaign” in the American Southwest as the framework for his plan to capture and kill Osama bin Laden (OBL). He writes that his Marines were ready to close with and destroy OBL and al-Qaeda. “Just send us in!” General Mattis practically shouted.
However, General Tommy Franks overruled him and instead employed Afghan fighters to hunt OBL. Mattis recognized the critical error. But, he also looks back reflectively thinking if he could have done more to sell his plan better. He wonders if he could have done a better job communicating with the decision makers above him on why they should send in the Marines to finish the job.
Nevertheless, he concludes his chapter on Afghanistan by citing a New York Times correspondent, writing “The refusal of CENTCOM to dispatch the Marines was the gravest error of the war.”
Iraq War – 1st MARDIV Commander
General Mattis was also commander of First Marine Division (1st MARDIV). He commanded 1st MARDIV from the invasion of Iraq and the March to Baghdad through Operation Vigilant Resolve in Fallujah. He does not mince words in this chapter. His frustration with the politics surrounding what happened in Fallujah in March and April 2004 is palpable.
Mattis saw the halted Fallujah assault in the Spring of 2004 as yet another missed opportunity. It was a major tactical and strategic blunder. His finger wags again at the politicians and higher ups.
Marines were ready to pounce. “Send in the Marines,” he shouted again. But, political pressure halted the assault. Instead of taking the fight to the enemy, General Mattis believes miscalculated political decisions gave the insurgents (namely Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) a major win.
He concluded that the U.S.and the Marines would have to fight again. They did. In Novemer 2004, the second battle of Fallujah took place. Known as Operation Phantom Fury, it became a major urban battle akin to Hue City in 1968. The Marines fought house to house to destroy the insurgents that had taken the city in the Spring. This battle was much more decisive in the Marines favor. The politicians finally got out of the troops way, and the job got done.
I MEF Commander
After serving several years stateside, General Mattis took command of I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). Thus, he commanded 40,000 Marines to include 15,000 serving in Iraq in 2006.
Commanding U.S. Marines in Iraq two years later, the situation on the ground had changed. Military victories in places like Fallujah laid the groundwork for the improvement. Furthermore, the Anbar awakening was also taking place. Sunni Sheiks in Anbar province turned toward American forces and away from al-Qaeda.
General Mattis explains that U.S. forces built trust with Sunni sheiks and tribes. This goodwill helped turn the security situation around and allowed U.S. troops to “conclusively seize the offensive.” Unlike 2004, Mattis’ return in 2006-2007 was more optimistic. Finally, victory was close at hand.
Legacy Beyond the Battlefield
Reading Call Sign Chaos , I am reminded by how impressive some of General Mattis’ training and doctrine solutions were too. For example, after returning from Iraq in 2004, General Mattis took command of Marine Corps Combat Development Command. During this time, he helped spearhead the Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT) in Camp Pendleton, CA. This is a fully simulated immersive experience where small units train in an environment that replicates the confusion and uncertainty of combat overseas. General Mattis drove this “outstanding solution” in the mid-2000s. It was a solution that has saved many lives because of the high quality, realistic training. It fosters decision making in a chaotic environment. Mattis believes this is crucial for small unit leaders to be able to do.
Also, General Mattis partnered with General David Petraeus to write a joint doctrine manual on counterinsurgency (COIN). By writing a doctrinal guide to COIN, General Mattis again helped prepare American units for battle by capturing lessons learned and highlighting best practices for success.
When it comes to doctrine, General Mattis also talks about his time at U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in Norfolk, VA. He took it upon himself to oppose a popular doctrine called Effects Based Operations (EBO). He opposed this after observing the failure of Israel to employ this type of fighting against Hezbollah in 2006. In this case, General Mattis’ solution was to get back to the fundamentals of warfighting in its most basic form. He re-introduced MCDP-1, Warfighting, which talks about the immutability of the nature of war.
Finally, at the conclusion of his career at JFCOM, General Mattis also recommended that the command be abolished. He did so without any other consideration other than whether it was worth the American taxpayers’ investment. After time in command and talking to his own troops at JFCOM, he concluded that it was not making a meaningful contribution. Thus, as he explains in the book, he fired himself.
Not long after “firing himself”, he was sitting in President Obama’s office (i.e. the Oval Office) for a job interview. The job was CENTCOM Commander. He got it.
His time as CENTCOM Commander was marked by many of the frustrations with political bureaucracy that are consistent throughout the book. He gripes about the lack of awareness of Obama administration officials to fully comprehend and historically contextualize the situation taking place during the Arab Spring.
Similar to the section where he disagreed with the Bush Administration on Fallujah, he also thinks that President Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq too soon was a serious strategic mistake. There was clearly wishful thinking that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was going to be a viable Prime Minister that could govern effectively. He wasn’t. General Mattis makes the case that his polarizing, sectarian style of governance led to the Sunni tribes turning against the Iraqi government. This ultimately set conditions for ISIS to seize large territorial gains starting in 2014. (General Mattis is a fan of David Kilcullen, and Mr. Kilcullen’s book Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism is one of the best accounts I have read that describes what happened after American forces left Iraq)
Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead also includes many of what can be called General Mattis’ “greatest hits” i.e. the quotes for which he has gained notoriety and cult status. Like this one:
I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.
or this one:
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.
General Mattis provides the right level of context and perspective that lets most of his critics (are there critics?) know where he was coming from when he said what he said. The most important takeaway is that the quotes are not bluster. They are rather candor, and a leader speaking with authority that comes from wisdom.
Building trust requires clear and effective communication. As a western boy raised in the country, Mattis has the edge of a man who says what is on his mind. If he is known for being blunt and plainspoken, it is clear that he wanted his subordinates to reciprocate this in their feedback. His quotes are brilliant because they are no B.S. And General Mattis’ tolerance for B.S. is extremely low. As a result, Marines knew they could trust him to listen. This is part of what makes General Mattis so revered. Those whom he led had enormous trust in him.
Leadership principles reiterated throughout the book include building trust. “A unit moves at the speed of trust” is a frequent refrain. He also mentions the adage, “Praise in public and criticize in private.”
For his part, General Mattis’ greatest leadership lesson can be simply his personal example of caring and commitment to his Marines. He was the type of leader who “walked the lines.” He wanted to be with his Marines. He wanted them to see him, and for his Marines to know that he was personally on the ground with them sharing in whatever they were going through whether stateside or in combat.
General Mattis’ Influence
General Mattis legacy will endure for years. As previously mentioned, many of his initiatives continue to make the military better. Also, as Secretary of Defense, he published the 2018 National Defense Strategy guidance, which is still being used to drive military strategy and future doctrine. (More to follow on the NDS in this blog/ podcast soon)
On a personal note, he has been a major inspiration behind this blog and the podcast. This was my own “outstanding solution” to help improve PME throughout the Marine Corps and DOD in the form of high-quality interviews and great writing. If you’ve made it this far in the book review, then I trust you’re on board with my own mission.
Remember the goal is to go from “good idea fairy” to CHAOS. It often takes decades of reading and experience to achieve. Nevertheless, with persistence and passion, General Mattis shows that it is possible.
Additional Reading and Information
As mentioned, General Mattis is an avid reader. There is an e-mail that went viral in which he explains the value of reading. Essentially, his argument is that it is foolish not to take the lessons and experiences of others and learn from them. One could take a year to get through the entirety of General Mattis’ book list. I am including a few of the top names that I like best from the list and a few that I am hoping to pick up soon.
Three of my favorites:
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge
Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield
One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick
Next to read:
The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
Once an Eagle by Anton Myer
Meditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius