46 pages 1 hour read

Jim Mattis, Bing West

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead is the 2019 memoir of former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corp general, with Bing West as a coauthor. His stated purpose in writing the memoir is to teach others some of the leadership skills he obtained as a military officer. While there is some discussion of philosophy of leadership, the lion’s share of the book consists of narrative military history. Mattis follows an established military tradition of not discussing sitting presidents, so his tenure as secretary of defense under Donald Trump is not in the book as Trump was president during its writing. The book was a New York Times best seller when it was released.

Plot Summary

Mattis and West divide Call Sign Chaos into three parts: “Direct Leadership,” “Executive Leadership,” and “Strategic Leadership.” Each of these parts corresponds to a rung on the ladder of Mattis’s career.

“Direct Leadership” is the shortest and quickest moving of the sections, covering the period from 1971 to 2002. In these chapters Mattis joins the Marines, becomes a company leader, transitions to a recruitment manager, then leads a battalion in Operation Desert Storm (1991). Finally, he is assigned to be deputy commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, a substantial unit of some 40,000 soldiers. After 9/11 he leads this force into Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda.

“Executive Leadership” begins with the second invasion of Iraq, under President George W. Bush. Mattis is promoted to major general (two-star rank) and takes charge of the 1st Marine Division. The focus remains on the battles and troop movements, but in this section Mattis begins to question, albeit respectfully, some of the strategic decisions being made by the civilian leadership. One chapter in particular, titled “Incoherence,” displays the tension Mattis feels as an officer bound by duty to carry out orders he feels are counterproductive to the overall mission. Still, Mattis always affirms civilian control of the Armed Forces, and even when he is being critical of others, his tone is respectful and his critiques are generally brief and in passing, with the focus remaining on the troops on the ground and the play-by-play of the war itself.

As the occupation of Iraq drags on, Mattis finds himself at times back in the United States training Marine units and at other times back in the field conducting operations. In 2007 Mattis is made commander of NATO’s armed forces and also head of the United States Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). Mattis’s estimation of these two organizations gradually becomes clear, with JFCOM getting a failing rating from Mattis. The climactic ending to the final chapter of this section is Mattis’s decision to disband JFCOM as an organization, believing that the agency is redundant and also discourages risk taking.

“Strategic Leadership” opens with President Obama tapping Mattis to be head of Central Command (CENTCOM), giving Mattis oversight of military operations in 20 countries, largely in the Middle East. As the title of the part indicates, Mattis’s focus is now only secondarily tactical; he is concerned with diplomatic and military strategies here, and his opinion on these matters is now desired by everyone from the president on down. Mattis’s own opinions about global military/diplomatic strategies are in full view here, as his role required him to conceive of strategies and present them to federal leaders for their consideration.

The final paragraph of the final chapter refers to Mattis’s tenure as secretary of defense under Donald Trump, which lasted 712 days. The chapter then concludes with the letter of resignation Mattis sent to President Donald Trump on December 20, 2018.

A two-page Epilogue urges Americans to retain their unity and to eschew extreme forms of tribalism. The book ends with an appendix made up largely of declassified military documents that are referenced at various points in the text, followed by an index of notes expounding on some of Mattis’s comments and ideas.