General James Mattis has the dubious distinction of having being sacked by two US presidents. And yet he is the stuff of legends, admired by his troops for his blunt, no-nonsense talking, and respected by civilians for his principled stand against torture and for urging for the US State Department to be fully funded.
His memoir (co-written with Bing West), Call Sign Chaos, details his rise over four decades through the ranks of the marines to become a four-star general and then secretary of defence under Donald Trump, learning on the way from his mistakes, from mentors, and from reading history.
The book is in essence about leadership: the training, the study, and the skills required for effective decision-making and achieving results. “If you don’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate,” he says, “and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”
Mattis is renowned for his direct statements of intent and communicating in language that marines understand. “Keep your honour clean.” “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” “No better friend, no worse enemy.” “First, do no harm.” Such sound-bites may not resonate with civilian ears, but as Mattis explains: “We needed lads who could do grim, violent work without becoming evil in the process, lads who could do harsh things yet not lose their humanity.”
For Mattis, being a good leader is not just about providing clear guidance, communicating it, and delegating to commanders to implement strategy. It is also about coaching and mentoring subordinates to help them develop to their full potential, to take the initiative, and to be aggressive.
But Call Sign Chaos is also the memoir of a military man who feels his wars were won by the troops on the ground – then given away by civilian leaders. In Iraq, he led the US marines in the invasion. However, his ability to establish functioning local government in Anbar Province, the largest governance in the country, was hampered, he believes, by decisions taken by Ambassador Paul Bremer in Baghdad. Bremer, appointed by George W Bush as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, disbanded the Iraqi army and banned members of the Baath Party from government positions, thus turning “the most capable group of men in the country on an adversarial course against us”.
Frustrated that his advice on how to handle the growing unrest in Fallujah was ignored, Mattis explodes: “First we’re ordered to attack, and now we’re ordered to halt… If you’re going to take Vienna, take fucking Vienna.”
Mattis is equally forthright in his interactions with Iraqi sheikhs. During one negotiation, he tells them: “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.”
Returning for another tour in Anbar, Mattis saw the approach he advocated with General David Petraeus in their co-authored counterinsurgency doctrine bear fruit. The Sunni tribal “Awakening” – coalitions between tribal Sheikhs, supported by the US – and the 2007 surge of 20,000 additional American troops led to a dramatic decline in violence and the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By the time Bush left office the civil war had come to an end and Iraq had stabilised.
However, the Obama administration, according to Mattis, then “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory”. As head of CentCom (Central Command), Mattis tried to convince the vice-president Joe Biden that the US should not support keeping Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister after he lost the 2010 elections, warning of his sectarian tendencies and describing him as “the politician least capable of unifying Iraq and continuing the process of reconciliation”. But Biden would not listen. He was convinced that Maliki was a friend and would agree to the US maintaining a military presence in Iraq after 2011, when the existing security agreement expired. “I’ll bet you my vice presidency,” he told Mattis. The Obama administration whittled down the number of US troops recommended by US commanders from 18,000 to 3,500. After insisting on and then failing to get Iraqi parliamentary approval to keep any US troops in Iraq, all were withdrawn and President Obama declared: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”
This was certainly not how Mattis viewed the situation: “Supporting a sectarian Iraqi prime minister and withdrawing all US troops were catastrophic decisions.” Islamic State (IS) rose up out of the ashes of al-Qaeda and took over a third of Iraq in 2014. Obama was forced to send 3,000 troops back to the country that year – without a security agreement approved by the Iraqi parliament.
In Syria, Mattis urged for a US military response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Obama’s unwillingness to uphold the “red line” he had drawn caused dismay among allies. The unintended consequences of taking no action, Mattis notes, were the refugee crisis and IS attacks in Europe, which have had a profound impact on Western politics in arousing populist and anti-immigration sentiments.
Mattis viewed the threats emerging from Iran – including the 2011 plot to bomb the upscale Café Milano restaurant in Washington, DC in order to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US – as greater than those from Sunni Islamist terrorism. However, the Obama administration was focused on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and did not want to do anything that might jeopardise attaining it. It was Mattis’s urging for a more aggressive response to malign Iranian activities that brought an early end to his tenure at CentCom in 2012.
Even in retirement, Mattis remains a proud marine, one of “the few, the proud”, forever part of an elite organisation that takes Americans from all backgrounds and forges them into teams in which “trust remains the coin of the realm” and all serve something bigger than themselves. However, Mattis emerges from the enclosed world of the military into a country, in the midst of its culture wars, that he no longer recognises. He harks back to a better time, that of the founding fathers and “e pluribus unum” – but without even a passing comment about the slavery or the exclusion of women from public life. After a career spent fighting America’s enemies overseas, he concludes that the greatest threat to it is actually internal – of tribalism ripping the country apart. It’s a sentiment that many Americans relate to.
A reader looking for insights into the Trump administration, in which Mattis was defence secretary from January 2017 to December 2018, will be disappointed. Call Sign Chaos skims over Mattis’s decision to work for Trump. “I’m old-fashioned: I don’t write about sitting presidents.” By way of explanation he states: “when the president asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands… So long as you are prepared, you say yes.” Nor does he dwell on his departure from the job, ostensibly due to differences over Syria policy and his belief, not shared by Trump, of the importance of working with allies. “History is compelling; nations with allies thrive; those without them die.”
Mattis says that no other country could have responded to 9/11 as the US did. That might be true. His fellow marine, General John Kelly, asked that the cause for which American soldiers died, including his own son Robert, be carried through to a “successful end… They were willing to go where the nation’s leaders told them to go and in many cases gave their lives for the mission. They were willing to see it through literally to their ends. Can we do less?” Perhaps in that lies the reason why Mattis agreed to serve under Trump. For the sake of those who had served and paid the ultimate sacrifice, he wanted to have one last go at trying to win America’s wars. As a marine, he could not bear that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not only failed to achieve a better peace, but have also damaged America’s international reputation as the standard bearer of democracy.
Speaking to first-year students in my global affairs class at Yale, the week after the 18th anniversary of 9/11, Rory Stewart observed that the incessant repetition of the mantra that “failure is not an option” ignored reality, and led to continuing sunk costs. Reflecting on his own experiences as an international “expert” trying to “fix” the failed states of Iraq and Afghanistan, Stewart spoke of the gap between rhetoric and reality, of how we applied technical solutions to problems that we did not understand, and of the magical thinking by which we believed that our hard work could transform these countries into democracies with respect for the rule of law.
Another guest speaker, Ahmad al-Basheer from Iraq, described how a mortar had landed on his 14-year-old brother’s head and how they had to scrape bits of his flesh from the ceiling and walls; how his father had been kidnapped and tortured, and had died of his injuries; and how seven of his closest friends had been killed in a suicide bombing. His response was to become a comedian. Each week, millions of Iraqis tune in to Ahmad’s show to watch him satirise corrupt politicians, skewer men who claim to be religious yet incite violence, and mock Islamic State and other armed groups. He makes Iraqis laugh – and gives them hope for a better tomorrow.
In Call Sign Chaos, James Mattis shares a life time of learning from wars that failed to offer a better tomorrow. We need to take these lessons and do better in the future.
Emma Sky is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute and author of “In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt” (Atlantic)
Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead
Jim Mattis and Bing West
Random House, 320pp, £19.99