Call Sign Chaos

Rating: 5 out of 5.

While it is billed as a leadership book, Call Sign Chaos reads more like a narrative or memoir (from which one can glean many useful leadership lessons). I found Secretary Mattis’s exposé on the wars of the past four decades to be fascinating. You follow his rise from the lowest ranks in the Marine Corps to General and Secretary of Defense. Along the way, you learn much about warfare, the stakes, the people, and the decisions made. Like with General McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty, one often feels acutely aware of how many of the bad decisions in warfare come from Washington. Political pressure seems a deadly phenomenon. 

I have compiled the notes I highlighted from the book below into a reduced and readable “Sparknotes.” I’ve split it into four sections: leadership, organizations, warfighting, and politics.

Personal Takeaways:


  • Utilize Commander’s Intent. Mattis is a proponent of a centralized vision, with decentralized planning and execution, so the military practice of defining a “Commander’s Intent” is important to his leadership style. CI has to be achievable, understandable, and deliver what the unit was tasked with achieving.
  • “No better friend, no worse enemy.” This was one of his centralized visions, or “touchstones” as he called them. In any situation on the ground, his Marines could use that phrase to judge how to act in any given situation. The same philosophy applied also to the leadership of his troops. He spent a lot of effort working to amply reward his men. He also described at least two stories of ending men’s careers. Reward well and incentivize good behavior, but if you can’t help a man improve you must be willing to excise him.
  • Three C’s of Leadership: Competence, caring, and conviction. Competence is self-explanatory and applies to all facets of life—from physical fitness to intellectual ingenuity. Caring involves being interested in the welfare of your subordinates, as a coach rather than a friend. The last C is conviction. State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. At the same time, leaven your professional passion with personal humility and compassion for your troops.
  • Look up. Leadership requires staying attuned to their higher headquarters’ requirements. Don’t be myopically focused on your organization’s internal workings. Time spent sharing your reality with your superiors is seldom wasted. Furthermore, as one ascends a hierarchy honest information is harder to come by. Vietnam vets reminded him that once you made general, you “never had a bad meal and you never again heard the truth.” 
  • He gathered information using “focused telescopes.” He needed data without fatiguing his subordinate commanders with information requests. He used officers with sound judgment who he trusted to give impartial reports in concise terms, bypassing the normal reporting channels. What kept them from being seen as a spy ring by his subordinate commanders was their ability to keep confidences when those commanders shared concerns, they knew that information would be conveyed to him alone.
  • Three categories of information: housekeeping, decision-making, and alarms. The first allows one to be anticipatory—for example, housekeeping includes munitions levels and ship locations. Decision-making information maintains the rhythm of operations designed to ensure that OODA loops function at the speed of relevance. The third, alarms, addressed critical events—for instance, a U.S. embassy in distress or a new outbreak of hostilities. “Alarm” information had to be immediately brought to his attention, day or night.
  • Reflect. Once decisions are made, one ought to take the time to reflect, and he felt a lack of reflection on past decisions to be the single biggest deficiency for himself and other senior decision-makers.


  • Team unity. Once in the fight, he would not rearrange organizations. He wanted the members of each team to know one another so well that they could predict each other’s reactions. Strangers who haven’t trained together don’t work smoothly together.
  • Give your best away. When you have to give up personnel, the tendency is to hang on to your best. When tasked with supporting other units, select those you most hate to give up. Never advantage yourself at the expense of your comrades.
  • Use outsiders. Outsiders can provide impartial, useful, third-party critique and processes. Foreign units send some of their best officers when given the opportunity and outside liaison officers, employed well, bring further strength to operations. 
  • Value iconoclasts. Competitive organizations must nurture their maverick thinkers. You can’t wash them out of your outfit if you want to avoid being surprised by your competition. Without mavericks, we are more likely to find ourselves at the same time dominant and irrelevant, as the enemy steals a march on us.
  • Skip-echelon reorganization can restore agility to decision-making. By reducing the size of headquarters staffs, one reduces demands for information flow from subordinate units, which could then principally focus on the enemy rather than answering higher headquarters’ queries. If skip-echelon is not enough, removing entire organizations can clear the pipes. Mattis dismantled one of his own major commands, JFCOM, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.


  • Acknowledge death. Death is a part of war and leading the military means sending people to die. He had a handwritten card that lay on his Pentagon desk which read, “Will this commitment contribute sufficiently to the well-being of the American people to justify putting our troops in a position to die?” He shared the quote, “To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love… That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.” To maintain his emotional equilibrium, he knew he couldn’t be informed about the names or the number of casualties unless their mission was jeopardized.
  • Lethality is the ultimate metric. Mattis sees the construction of the military with a three-tiered goal: to maintain a safe and credible nuclear deterrent, to sustain a compelling conventional force capable of deterring or winning a state-on-state war, and be competent in irregular warfare. Lethality is the metric by which we should evaluate our military to best deter our adversaries and win conflicts at the lowest cost to our troops’ lives. A focus on lethality means the military is not to be a petri dish for social experiments.
  • The key to preparation for battle is imaging. The goal is to ensure that every grunt has fought a dozen times, mentally and physically, before he ever fires his first bullet in battle, tastes the gunpowder grit in his teeth, or sees blood seeping into the dirt. Similarly, for commanders, he used lego blocks and jersey exercises to rehearse the movements of the war and found logistics traffic jams this way.
  • Wars happen fast. It took just twenty-eight days to conceive, plan, persuade, and execute the invasion of Afghanistan. 
  • Air power has changed warfare in the past decades. In the ’90s, they had to calculate how many aircraft it would take to destroy a target. Now they calculate how many targets each aircraft can destroy.
  • Effects-based operations does not translate well into unpredictable realms of general warfighting. EBO requires predictable effects and centralized command and control, neither of which work well in wars that scale beyond precision targeting. Disbanding EBO at JFCOM and elsewhere was a major push by General Mattis. He again pushed for decentralized control around a shared Commander’s Intent.
  • Tactics require a heavy focus on contingencies. He expressed out loud to his troops how their assault might be screwed up. “What if I went down?” he asked them in informal sessions. “What if radio communications are lost at night during a chemical attack?” In a future war, these communications are certain to be broken. Therefore, we have to know how to continue fighting when (not if) our networks fail. Because opportunities and catastrophes on the battlefield appear and disappear rapidly, only a decentralized command system can unleash a unit’s full potential.
  • Splitting adversarial forces is valuable. In his fast-moving campaigns during the Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman habitually sought to threaten two objectives before he attacked. This forced the Confederate generals to split their forces, giving Sherman a decisive advantage when he made his lunge.
  • Study the enemy, including the specific commanders. Were they aggressive or tentative? Where had they gone to military school? What had they studied? What did their subordinates gossip about them? He wanted to know his enemies weaknesses and, most importantly, whether or not they would take the initiative. He kept pictures of those generals in his desk drawer. In any confrontation, you need to know your enemy.
  • Exiting” a war was a by-product of winning that war. Unless you want to lose, you don’t tell an enemy when you are done fighting, and you don’t set an exit unrelated to the situation on the ground.


  • The Gulf War an example of American power being used properly. President H.W. Bush built a coalition of Western and Arab states, furnished the military with forces and direction, and avoided political overreach once Kuwait was freed. Mattis thinks that once an objective is properly defined, overwhelming forces were rightly deployed to end the war swiftly. He did so by gathering public, congressional, and international support. There was a defined, limited, and achievable end state for forces to work towards, and there was no mission creep. Mattis’s political praise on Bush’s handling of this conflict was the most glowing he gave throughout the book. The later presidents he served under, including the younger Bush, would not receive such acclamation.
  • While he didn’t rebuff the war in Afghanistan, invading Iraq stunned Mattis. Most disheartening was how it was mishandled once begun. In war-games before the invasion, another general noted that what comes after deposition of Saddam will be the real war, but the military was receiving no political guidance for these long term plans. With hindsight, it’s amazing to see how large a mistake this was.
  • Poor guidance from Washington was a common theme in the book. Commanders planned without knowing the answers to the most basic questions: Did the invasion mean going all the way to Baghdad or only deep enough to force Saddam to allow UN inspectors back into the country? These and other gaps in understanding required them to plan largely in a vacuum. Mattis described similar failures during the rebuilding of Iraq, and how his queries up the chain of command went largely unanswered.
  • He further described the imprudence which categorized the reconstruction of the Iraqi government. Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army and banned most members of the Baath Party from government positions, removing the instruments of governance, public services, and security. Mattis thought that demobilizing the Iraqi Army instead of depoliticizing it set the most capable men in the country on an adversarial course against us. He paints the assumption that Iraq was ready to handle its governance as misguided. Iraqi leaders did not understand democracy and that it requires sharing power, not consolidating it. While subtle in his criticism, it seemed that Mattis blames Bush and his staff for these and other failures.
  • The Obama administration did not escape critique either. The White House was set on a total troop withdrawal for political reasons. In Mattis’s judgment, securing the gains of seven years of war would require keeping troops and diplomatic engagement in Iraq. Japan and Korea are good examples of how American long-term presence can stabilize once war-torn countries. Obama and Biden wanted to pull out at all costs. As a result, Prime Minister Maliki imprisoned and drove out Sunni representatives, disenfranchising a third of the country and leading to revolts and an increase in terrorist power as the CIA had predicted. This premature withdrawal seems to have created the opportunity for the rise of ISIS. Mattis asserted that “supporting a sectarian Iraqi prime minister and withdrawing all U.S. troops were catastrophic decisions… This wasn’t a military-versus-civilian flaw or a Democrat-versus-Republican error. It went deeper. At the top, then as now, there was an aura of omniscience. The assessments of the intelligence community, our diplomats, and our military had been excluded from the decision-making circle.”
  • Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria was also roundly attacked. Mattis found our reputation severely weakened as a result. He loosely implies that Syria’s disintegration, the refugee crisis, and further terror attacks would have been better mollified by holding Assad accountable and that “America today lives with the consequences of emboldened adversaries and shaken allies.”
  • While at CENTCOM, Mattis acknowledged two principal adversaries: stateless Sunni Islamist terrorists and the revolutionary Shiite regime of Iran. He considers Iran by far the more dangerous threat. In 2011, two Iranians, with approval from Tehran, were arrested for nearly bombing the Cafe Milano in Washington D.C. This would have been an act of war had the bomb gone off, it would have been the worst attack on us since 9/11 and would have changed history. Mattis sensed that it was Iran’s impression of America’s impotence and fear of conflict which emboldened them to risk such an attack so close to the White House. Iran is a radical power, not a moderate one. He judges that our gamble with the Iran Nuclear Deal was poorly calculated.
  • In addition to Iran, he considers Pakistan to be one of the most dangerous countries he’s dealt with. Mostly because of the radicalization of its society and the availability of nuclear weapons. Circumstances can change rapidly in the Middle East. The Iranian revolution occurred without warning, and ISIS rose quickly from nothing. If a radical uprising happened within a nuclear power, the consequences would be terrifying. 
  • Countering these major threats requires allies. Mattis believes that NATO is absolutely necessary for geopolitical and cultural solidarity among Western democracies. At the same time, he believes that Europe must contribute more and that NATO cannot hold together if the burden-sharing continues to be so unequal. Europeans cannot expect Americans to care more about their future than they do.

Published by Jasper

Aspiring polymath. I do my best to understand all sides of an issue. I read primary sources and opposing viewpoints to get to the truth. I enjoy debate and can change my mind given sufficient reason.

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