#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A clear-eyed account of learning how to lead in a chaotic world, by General Jim Mattis—the former Secretary of Defense and one of the most formidable strategic thinkers of our time—and Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine.
“A four-star general’s five-star memoir.”—The Wall Street Journal
Call Sign Chaos is the account of Jim Mattis’s storied career, from wide-ranging leadership roles in three wars to ultimately commanding a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East. Along the way, Mattis recounts his foundational experiences as a leader, extracting the lessons he has learned about the nature of warfighting and peacemaking, the importance of allies, and the strategic dilemmas—and short-sighted thinking—now facing our nation. He makes it clear why America must return to a strategic footing so as not to continue winning battles but fighting inconclusive wars.
Mattis divides his book into three parts: Direct Leadership, Executive Leadership, and Strategic Leadership. In the first part, Mattis recalls his early experiences leading Marines into battle, when he knew his troops as well as his own brothers. In the second part, he explores what it means to command thousands of troops and how to adapt your leadership style to ensure your intent is understood by your most junior troops so that they can own their mission. In the third part, Mattis describes the challenges and techniques of leadership at the strategic level, where military leaders reconcile war’s grim realities with political leaders’ human aspirations, where complexity reigns and the consequences of imprudence are severe, even catastrophic.
Call Sign Chaos is a memoir of a life of warfighting and lifelong learning, following along as Mattis rises from Marine recruit to four-star general. It is a journey about learning to lead and a story about how he, through constant study and action, developed a unique leadership philosophy, one relevant to us all.
“A portrait of [Jim] Mattis’s life-defining love for the Marine Corps . . . His prose sings. . . . He clearly expresses a commander’s intent in any situation and gives latitude to adapt to circumstances. . . . Each mission gives him another body of knowledge, another strength, greater capacity to live his devotion to his country.” —David Brooks, The New York Times
“An instructive and entertaining leadership manual for executives, managers, and military officers . . . Mattis is a gifted storyteller.” —Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic
“Combining simplicity and thoughtfulness, Jim Mattis has produced a classic account of a lifetime of service. Call Sign Chaos is a lesson in leadership and an evocation of humanity in the cause of peace.” —Henry Kissinger
“In this magnificent memoir, Jim Mattis details many important events in his career, but he also does much more: He explains how he is informed by his experiences in a way that teaches you how to learn from your own. Read, enjoy, and learn.” —George Shultz
“A recurring theme in Call Sign Chaos is the need to understand the world beyond one’s immediate discipline. . . . The result is an engaging, insightful study of leadership.” —The Wall Street Journal
“His book is a compendium of circumstances often beyond his control. What makes it a compelling read is how this warriormonk dealt with and learned from the jams he found himself in.” —NPR
“The book’s main concerns . . . are the practical and ethical challenges of military leadership. Mattis draws on his deep professionalism and knowledge of military history in describing the stress of battle and the tough decision to send soldiers into the field to kill and be killed.” —Foreign Affairs
“In Call Sign Chaos, James Mattis shares a lifetime of learning from wars that failed to offer a better tomorrow. We need to take his lessons and do better in the future.” —New Statesman
“A leadership book that should be deeply studied and absorbed . . . Since he focuses on the three levels of leadership: direct, executive, and strategic . . . the book has a place in service academies and ROTC programs, as well as basic, advanced, intermediate level and senior service college professional military education institutions.” —Small Wars Journal
“The book will cement Mattis’s own place in the pantheon of military reading lists. . . . A nuanced discussion of leadership and democracy.” —Proceedings: U.S. Naval Institute
“By presenting his own hard-earned insights on effective leadership qualities, Mattis encourages fellow Americans themselves to think more explicitly about leadership benchmarks applicable to civilians and the military alike.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
Jim Mattis is a Pacific Northwest native who served more than four decades as a Marine infantry officer. Following two years as the Secretary of Defense, he returned to the Northwest and is now the Davies Family Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Bing West has written eleven books, including, with Jim Mattis, the #1 New York Times bestseller Call Sign Chaos. He served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has been on hundreds of patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan, including many operations with General Mattis. He is a member of the Military History Working Group at the Hoover Institution. He lives with his wife, Betsy, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island.
In late November 2016, I was enjoying Thanksgiving break in my hometown on the Columbia River in Washington State when I received an unexpected call from Vice President–elect Pence. Would I meet with President-elect Trump to discuss the job of Secretary of Defense of the United States? I had taken no part in the election campaign and had never met or spoken to Mr. Trump, so to say that I was surprised is an understatement. Further, I knew that, absent a congressional waiver, federal law prohibited a former military officer from serving as Secretary of Defense within seven years of departing military service. Given that no waiver had been authorized since General George Marshall was made secretary in 1950, and I’d been out for only three and a half years, I doubted I was a viable candidate. Nonetheless, I flew to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the interview.
I had time on the cross-country flight to ponder how to encapsulate my view of America’s role in the world. On my flight out of Denver, the flight attendant’s standard safety briefing caught my attention: If cabin pressure is lost, masks will drop. . . . Put your own mask on first, then help others around you. . . . We’ve all heard it many times, but in that moment, these familiar words seemed like a metaphor: to preserve our leadership role, we needed to get our own country’s act together first, especially if we were to help others.
The next day I was driven to the Trump National Golf Club and, entering a side door, waited about twenty minutes before I was ushered into a modest conference room. I was introduced to the President-elect, the Vice President–elect, the chief of staff, and a handful of others. We talked about the state of our military, where our views aligned and where they differed. In our forty-minute conversation, Mr. Trump led the wide-ranging discussion, and the tone was amiable. Afterward, the President-elect escorted me out to the front steps of the colonnaded clubhouse, where the press was gathered. I assumed that I would be on my way back to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where I’d spent the past few years doing research and guest lecturing around the country, and was greatly enjoying my time. I figured that my strong support of NATO and my dismissal of the use of torture on prisoners would have the President-elect looking for another candidate. Standing beside him on the steps as photographers snapped away and shouted questions, I was surprised for the second time that week when he characterized me to the reporters as “the real deal.” Days later, I was formally nominated. That was when I realized that, subject to a congressional waiver and Senate consent, I would not be returning to Stanford’s beautiful, vibrant campus.
During the interview, Mr. Trump had asked me if I could do the job of Secretary of Defense. I said I could. I’d never aspired to the job, and took the opportunity to suggest several other candidates I thought highly capable of leading our defense. Still, having been raised by the Greatest Generation, by two parents who had served in World War II, and subsequently shaped by more than four decades in the Marine Corps, I considered government service to be both honor and duty. In my view, when the President asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. To quote a great American athletic company’s slogan, you “just do it.” So long as you are prepared, you say yes.
When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it. Whether asked to serve by a Democrat or a Republican, you serve. “Politics ends at the water’s edge.” This ethos has shaped and defined me, and I wasn’t going to betray it no matter how much I was enjoying my life west of the Rockies and spending time with a family I had neglected during my forty-plus years in the Marines.
When I said I could do the job, I meant I felt prepared. By happenstance, I knew the job intimately. In the late 1990s, I had served as the executive secretary to two Secretaries of Defense, William Perry and William Cohen. I had also served as the senior military assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon. In close quarters, I had gained a personal grasp of the immensity and gravity of a “SecDef’s” responsibilities. The job is tough: our first Secretary of Defense committed suicide, and few have emerged from the job unscathed, either legally or politically.
We were at war, amid the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our nation’s history. I’d signed enough letters to next of kin about the death of a loved one to understand the consequential aspects of leading a department on a war footing when the rest of the country was not. Its millions of devoted troops and civilians spread around the world carried out their mission with a budget larger than the gross domestic products of all but two dozen nations. On a personal level, I had no great desire to return to Washington, D.C. I drew no energy from the turmoil and politics that animate our capital. Yet I didn’t feel inundated by the job’s immensities. I also felt confident that I could gain bipartisan support for Defense despite the political fratricide practiced in Washington.
In late December, I flew into Washington, D.C., to begin the Senate confirmation process.
This book is about how my career in the Marines brought me to this moment and prepared me to say yes to a job of this magnitude. The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise, and overcome. But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. Amateur performance is anathema, and the Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100 percent effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake—and I made many—the Marines promoted me. They recognized that those mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right. Year in and year out, the Marines had trained me in skills they knew I needed, while educating me to deal with the unexpected.
Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms, and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I would encounter in my journey through multiple commands, dozens of countries, and many college campuses. The Marines’ military excellence does not suffocate intellectual freedom or substitute regimented thinking for imaginative solutions. They know their doctrine, often derived from lessons learned in combat and written in blood, but refuse to let that turn into dogma. Woe to the unimaginative one who, in after-action reviews, takes refuge in doctrine. The critiques in the field, in the classroom, or at happy hour are blunt for good reason. Personal sensitivities are irrelevant. No effort is made to ease you through your midlife crisis when peers, seniors, or subordinates offer more cunning or historically proven options, even when out of step with doctrine.
In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness. I looked for those hallmarks in those I served alongside. Institutions get the behaviors they reward. Marines have no institutional confusion about their mission: they are a ready naval force designed to fight well in any clime or place, then return to their own society as better citizens. That ethos has created a force feared by foes and embraced by allies the world over, because the Marines reward initiative aggressively implemented.
During my monthlong preparation for the Senate confirmation hearings, I read many excellent intelligence briefings. I was struck by the degree to which our competitive military edge was eroding, including our technological advantage. We would have to focus on regaining the edge. I had been fighting terrorism in the Middle East during my last decade of military service. During that time and in the three years since I had left active duty, haphazard funding had significantly worsened the situation, doing more damage to our current and future military readiness than any enemy in the field.
I could see that the background drummed into me as a Marine would need to be adapted to fit my role as a civilian secretary. The formulation of policy—from defining the main threats to our country to adapting the military’s education, budget, and selection of leaders to address the swiftly changing character of war—would place new demands on me. It now became even more clear to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: that reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options.