Retired Gen. Jim Mattis served in the Marine Corps for four decades and as secretary of Defense in the Donald Trump Cabinet for nearly two years.
He loved serving in the Marines, especially as a field commander in Afghanistan and Iraq. He twice was a top executive assistant in the Pentagon.
Yet he says Washington was not his cup of tea. “I wasn’t cut out for Washington duty,” he writes. “I didn’t get my energy from behind a desk.” Moreover, from where he sat at the Pentagon, “the process was necessarily messy and required ugly compromises.”
Mattis is entitled to his view of Potomac politics, yet his preferred battlefields also had their share of messy consequences, many of which he acknowledges, such as unnecessary civilian casualties, sexual harassment, and cruel Abu Ghraib-style prisons.
Mattis has a lot to be proud of. He and his troops helped topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. He and his troops, under President George H.W. Bush’s direction, joined in forcing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. Later, under George W. Bush, Mattis and his troops were part of toppling Saddam Hussein and making Iraq a semi-safe and stable nation.
Mattis just published an autobiography, with Bing West, entitled “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.” It tells how a restless young man and self-described mediocre student grew up near the banks of the Columbia River in central Washington state and became a disciplined and devoted student of military strategy and leadership.
Mattis was raised by parents who served in World War II. He grew up in a military town, Richland, Wash., that was one of the key outposts of the development of the atomic bomb (Manhattan Project). He graduated from Columbia High School, where the sports nickname was The Bombers and there was an A-bomb mushroom cloud for the logo.
He was a history major and ROTC cadet at Central Washington State College and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines even before he graduated. His first of many “graduate schools” was seven months at Basic School at Quantico, Va. After that, he was stationed in Okinawa and served all around the world, including a year at the National War College when he was 43 years old.
Mattis learned to love the Marines and their values. He learned about leadership and military strategy. He became a voracious reader. The never-married Mattis earned the nickname “Warrior Monk” for his dedication to scholarship. He also was called “Mad Dog Mattis,” a reference he dislikes, referring to his earthy, blunt, and sometimes obscenity-laced frankness.
The Marines teach how to adapt, improve and overcome, Mattis explains. They insist everyone does their homework, learn from mistakes and build teams of trust. The primary job of a leader is train and nurture — not followers — but leaders who can take the initiative to adapt to changing challenges.
Mattis writes: “I don’t care how operationally brilliant you are; if you can’t create harmony — vicious harmony — on the battlefield, based on trust across different military services, foreign allied militaries, and diplomatic lines, you need to go home.”
He believes in sophisticated command and feedback communication processes. He prides himself on becoming an expert listener and on decentralizing decision making authority whenever possible.
Mattis says: “I love being with the troops, gaining energy from their infectious, often sardonic enthusiasm. We were all volunteers, and patriotism was found more in our DNA than in our words.”
Mattis adopted as his own mantra a saying attributed to the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” Mattis wants the Marines to be the agents of liberation, friendship, and peacemaking, yet he wants his terrorist foes to fear his troops as their worst possible foe. “Our liberal democracy must be protected by a bodyguard of lethal warriors, organized, trained, and equipped to dominate in battle.”
Mattis emphasizes two major beliefs from his public service:
First, that every military and top political leader should read and understand history, which “lights the often dark path ahead, and even if it is a dim light it is better than none.”
He credits his extensive reading for preparing him for all kinds of contingencies and surprises, and for heightening his understanding about adapting and improving.
Mattis’s second major belief is the importance of having as many allies as possible. ‘Nations with strong allies thrive, then without them die.” Mattis, among his many other jobs, was the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) commander. In sharp contrast to many isolationists in public life today, he is a NATO champion. He has a rich appreciation for what NATO and other allies have done to support the United States in the Desert Storm campaign, after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in the Middle East generally.
Maddis is fond of a Marine adage: “When you’re going to a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns. Having fought many times in coalitions, I believe that we need every ally we can bring to the field.”
He applauds all the help he got from the British, Jordanians, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. “I have never been on a crowded battlefield, and there is always room for those who want to be there alongside.”
When he resigned from the Trump Cabinet, Mattis reiterated this conviction to President Trump: “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships … While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Mattis’ point is that unilateralism and going-it-alone make no sense and will not serve the nation well. No wonder Mattis felt obliged to resign as Trump’s secretary of Defense.
Mattis earned a reputation as an aggressive risk-taking fighter. Yet, in this brilliant memoir, he allows that the U.S. has fought some wars that we should have avoided. He did not, for example, think the U.S. needed to wage war on Iraq in 2003. He may have thought the same thing about our efforts in Libya, but he does not make this clear. He faults both the George W. Bush and the Barack Obama leadership teams for “half-heartedly engaging in wars that needed to be won.”