The book has garnered a good deal of attention, largely because Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in December, saying that he disagreed with President Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria and with the President’s denigration of key American allies.
Lost in much of the one-dimensional coverage of Mattis’ book is what is actually in it. It’s true that Mattis implies sharp criticism of Trump, but he also registers strong disagreement with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who he argues made strategic errors that have been costly to the American military and to American interests.
Interviewers on Mattis’ book tour have pressed him about Trump, but he has largely maintained what he refers to as the French virtue of the “devoir de réserve” — the duty of silence — that he says former public servants should keep about their work. In his book, Mattis observes “I’m old fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents.”
There is much to recommend Mattis’ memoir, as it combines an account of his storied military career intertwined with some broader, well-articulated thoughts about the nature of leadership.
Mattis is not, for instance, a fan of PowerPoint, which is pervasive in the US military and is “the scourge of critical thinking” as it “encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener.” Quite so.
Coauthored with Bing West, a fellow Marine and the author of several important books about conflicts going back to Vietnam, “Call Sign Chaos” is also well written, and it shines considerable light on Mattis’ thinking about American wars since the first Gulf War.
(For those puzzled by the title “Call Sign Chaos,” “Chaos” was Mattis’ call sign, a unique identifier on the battlefield, and a tongue-in-cheek acronym that nodded to his propensity for always coming up with new ideas when he was a colonel: “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution.”)
Mattis fought in the first Gulf War against the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that had seized Iraq’s neighbor Kuwait in August 1990. Mattis admires President George H.W. Bush for assembling a large coalition of Western and Arab allies to join the fight against Saddam, for establishing the limited, achievable war aim of pushing the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and also for avoiding “sophomoric decisions like imposing a ceiling on the number of troops or setting a date when we would have to stop fighting.” These are not-so-veiled critiques of the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which also come in for some even more direct criticism from Mattis.
Afghanistan after 9/11
It was during this episode that Mattis’ emphasis on the importance of the training and rehearsing of his Marines bore fruit. Mattis writes, “My intent was to rehearse until we could improvise on the battlefield like a jazzman in New Orleans. This required a mastery of the integuments of war, just as a jazz musician masters his musical instrument.”
And improvise they did. The Marines who deployed for the assault into Afghanistan were stationed on warships in the North Arabian Sea that were cruising 400 miles to the south of their objective, a deserted airfield not far from the Taliban’s de facto capital of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Mattis is too modest to point out that this was the longest aerial assault from ships in American military history, but his book does a fine job of explaining how he achieved this feat.
Mattis has a well-earned reputation for bluntness. This episode begins with Mattis meeting with the US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, who asked him why he was in her office. Mattis replied: “Madam Ambassador, I’m taking a few thousand of my best friends to Afghanistan to kill some people.” Chamberlain replied, “I think I can help you.”
Mattis needed Chamberlain to help him secure Pakistani permission to fly his gunships and helicopters over Pakistan’s territory after which his Marines would land on the airfield in neighboring southern Afghanistan. This movement of a thousand Marines required the nighttime refueling of the gunships and helicopters in the air. Tricky stuff. But Mattis pulled it off and the Marines of “Task Force 58” seized the airfield, which greatly limited the freedom of maneuver of the Taliban and al Qaeda in southern Afghanistan.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command (CENTCOM) commander in charge of the Afghan War, then “baffled” Mattis by publicly saying that this Marine force was not meant to attack Kandahar. CENTCOM also capped the number of troops on the ground to a thousand even though Mattis had an additional 3,500 Marines waiting on the ships in the North Arabian Sea.
Franks’ lack of initiative helps account for one of the most baffling episodes of the “war on terror,” which was the failure to send any of Mattis’ Marines to the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001, where Osama bin Laden was holed up with hundreds of al Qaeda fighters and from where he would eventually escape.
Mattis says he fully expected to deploy his Marines to destroy al Qaeda’s high command, and he had a well-developed plan for how he would try to seal off the mountainous region of Tora Bora so bin Laden couldn’t escape. But the order to deploy never came.
While bin Laden was in Tora Bora, a detachment of US Special Forces was deployed near Kandahar. They were bombed in a “friendly fire” incident on December 5, 2001, when an American plane dropped a bomb that inadvertently killed three US servicemen and wounded others.
More than a year later, Mattis was “stunned” by George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Mattis thought Saddam was already “boxed in” by daily American flight patrols over Iraq and the sanctions then in place against his regime. But Mattis saluted and led a division of Marines in the invasion of Iraq and the march to Baghdad.
On March 31, 2014, four American contractors working for Blackwater were killed, their bodies burned and strung up on a bridge in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Mattis, who had studied the costs of urban warfare in Vietnam and World War II, thought a frontal assault on Fallujah wasn’t a smart idea and that the killers of the contractors could be bought to justice in other more stealthy ways. But the order to attack the city was given by Bush administration officials.
Then, equally stupidly in Mattis’ estimation, a few days into the Fallujah operation and “close to victory,” Bush officials ordered a halt because they were concerned about the optics of the American assault on the city. Mattis observed to his military superior, “If you’re going to take Vienna, take f—–g Vienna,” in doing so repeating, with force, “Napoleon’s outburst to his field marshal who hesitated to take that city.”
Mattis, who became CENTCOM commander under Barack Obama, is especially critical of Obama’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. Mattis believed it was necessary to leave a “residual force” of 18,000 troops in Iraq, but then-Vice President Joe Biden who was in charge of Iraq policy for the administration “wanted our forces out of Iraq. Whatever path led there fastest, he favored,” according to Mattis. Mattis argued that the vacuum left by a total US withdrawal would be “filled by Sunni terrorists.”
Of course, Mattis turned out to be right. Two and half years later, ISIS seized vast amounts of Iraqi territory including Mosul, the second largest city in the country.
Mattis is also critical of Obama’s announcement, when he ordered a surge of troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, that their withdrawal would begin a year and half later. Mattis asked a Pakistani officer detailed to his staff what message Obama had just sent. The Pakistani officer replied, “You’re pulling out.”
By implication, Mattis is not comfortable also with the recent discussion by the Trump administration of a total withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mattis points out that the US has kept tens of thousands of troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, during which time the once war-torn country transformed into a “vibrant democracy.” Based on the “instructive” example of South Korea, Mattis said he proposed repeatedly in White House meetings that at least 10,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan “without any specified timeline for withdrawal.”
This permission was denied, and unbeknownst to Mattis, Obama officials were secretly negotiating what became the Iran nuclear agreement. Mattis’ term as CENTCOM commander was ended early by the Obama administration.
Mattis concludes his book with one of the key themes in the resignation letter that he submitted to President Trump in December, writing “I’ve had the privilege to fight for our country in many places. Not once did I fight in a solely American formation. … History is compelling. Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither.” Mattis observes that when his advice about “keeping faith with allies no longer resonated, it was time to resign.”
Overall, Mattis has a lot to say about how you create a “command climate” and “commander’s intent” that is well communicated to your troops, especially during the fog of war. Mattis favors “a centralized vision,” but “decentralized planning and execution” so that units on the ground don’t need to keep asking permission to execute their commander’s intent, a lesson that can be applied also to civilian endeavors.
Military leaders have to follow civilian orders in the American system, but they are also duty-bound to give their best military advice even if it conflicts with their political bosses’ inclinations, whether it was to keep troops in Iraq during the Obama administration or to maintain good relations with NATO during the Trump administration. When that advice is ignored they can resign, as Mattis did.
It gets trickier when, as in the case of the order to Mattis to attack Fallujah in 2004, the commander has to carry out an operation he disagrees with. In that instance, the troops under his command didn’t have the luxury of resigning, so he felt he had no choice but to remain their commander.