Book Review – Call Sign CHAOS

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This greatly anticipated leadership tome from one of America’s most notable generals of recent times is a treasure trove of leadership lessons for every rank. Call Sign CHAOS, meaning ‘Colonel has another outstanding suggestion’, is a memoir of Mattis’ career broken into three components of leadership, being direct, executive and strategic leadership.

As an avid reader, this book is excellently written and would be entertaining for any book lover in or out of the military. To read the first hand account of a career spanning three major conflicts across the middle east, the constraints and opportunities of indirect command as well as the politics, relationship building and internal conflicts seen at the senior ranks of any military and the multinational domain are in itself worthy of the time for reading.

There are a multitude of lessons that can be learned from Mattis. As a junior Officer, there are several lessons I have taken away from Call Sign CHAOS and several I know I will be returning to should I continue to progress as a leader, such as how to integrate liaison personnel into operations cells and how to maintain situational awareness of a physically dislocated subordinate callsign.

The first lesson is a reinforced one that every junior Officer and NCO needs to know – your job is to have a deep and narrow understanding of your role and trade, ‘Lieutenants come to grasp the elements of the battle, while senior officers learn how to outwit their opponents.’ These are the years where you will develop the foundation of your command and military understanding. It is easy to be sucked into the reading lists and recommendations of commanders well above your own rank however there are many years and many ranks ahead that you will be able to spend developing that understanding. Enjoy and appreciate the time you have directly leading soldiers, it will be gone before you know it. 

In line with this is the understanding that your actions and attitudes as a junior commander will stay with you for the rest of your career as this is the time where soldiers will primarily have one on one interaction with you. ‘…that reputation would follow you. Were you physically fit? Were you tactically sound? Could you call in artillery fire? Could you adapt to change quickly? Did your Platoon respond to you? Could you lead by example? You had to be as tough as your troops, who didn’t care how many books you’d read’.

The second lesson is the importance of people and building trusting relationships throughout the chain of command and across organisations. Mattis provided vignettes throughout the book of how he put his mission and his people first at every level of command. Through the direct level of leadership ‘I walked the lines at night; troops will tell you things when they’re on guard duty in the dark’, executive leadership, ‘Give me something I can fix’, and strategic ‘I told my one star admirals and generals: “You’re still low enough to be in touch with your troops, but senior enough to protect our mavericks. That’s your job.” If you’re uncomfortable dealing with intellectual ambushes from your own ranks, it’ll be a heck of a lot worse when the enemy does it to you.’

The third lesson was that command, leadership and management are each different and need to be balanced. This triangle is often asymmetrical and you will go through postings and positions that feel a lot more like management than leadership or command but even these postings contribute to the overall effectiveness of the whole organisation and the lessons that you learn in those positions can directly correlate later in your command.

The final lesson I will write about but certainly not the last I learnt is the requirement to take a step back from your immediate organisation and look critically into ways to streamline or eliminate unrequired and tedious processes. ‘For what we had in mind, we drastically cut down staff size by employing ‘skip-echalon’… such duplication wasted time and manpower and added no value’. I have seen and heard this being successfully employed within different levels of command, the balance comes in knowing the organisation well before making drastic changes.

For anyone that perhaps still isn’t convinced to read Callsign CHAOS and because I have struggled to try and restrict my thoughts of the book, I have listed below some of my favourite quotes to finish on.

‘I used officers who had sound tactical judgement, unfailing tact, initiative and empathy in order to deliver to me impartial reports in concise terms, bypassing normal reporting channels.’

‘Fortunately, every third day for six months, Jeff and Gunnery Sergeant Kendall Haff had trained their corpsmen, cooks, drivers, engineers, clerks and mechanics to fight as infantry. Their training paid off as they tore into the enemy.’

 ‘When you impose command via… tight communications control, you create “mother may I?” timidity.” “digital technologies can falsely encourage remote staffs to believe they possess a Gods-eye view of combat. Digital technologies do not dissipate confusion; the fog of war can actually thicken when misinformation is instantly amplified’

 ‘When you are in command, there is always the next decision waiting to be made… You do your best and live with the consequences. A commander has to compartmentalise his emotions and remain focused on the mission. You must decide, act, and move on.’

‘Supply isn’t the logisticians problem; it’s the commander’s problem. Only a commander has the authority to reduce extraneous demands on logistics system.’

‘Leaders are not potted plants, and at all levels they must be constantly out at the critical points doing whatever is required to keep their teams energized, especially when everyone is exhausted.’

‘Language is a weapon. In formal circumstances, I’m calculating but I speak pointedly. There’s nothing to be gained by speaking obliquely about important matters.’

‘”General, how much time did you consider before authorizing the strike?” He knew from the record that the time from when I was awakened until I authorized a strike had been less than thirty seconds. “About thirty years” I replied’

‘a call from the field is not an interruption of the daily routine; it’s the reason for the daily routine’

‘Where our interests overlap, your problems are my problems. And I’m here looking for the overlap so I can help.’

‘Living in history builds your own shock absorber, because you’ll learn that there are lots of old solutions to new problems. If you haven’t read hundreds of books, learning from others who went before you, you are functionally illiterate – you can’t coach and can’t lead. History lights the often dark path ahead; even if it’s a dim light, it’s better than none.’

‘I stressed to my staff that we only had to win one battle: for the hearts and minds of our subordinates.’

‘Allowing bad processes to stump good people is intolerable. When the utility of certain staff or command echalons is lacking, they slow down decisions and can paralyze execution, allowing the adversary to dance around the methodical, process-driven approach.’

‘While processes are boring to examine, leaders must know their own well enough that they can master them and not be mastered, even derailed, by them.’

Jess Ward is a currently serving Australian Army Officer with over a decade of experience. Jess has commanded within Combat Brigades, on operations and as an instructor. Jess has been published in ‘Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones explains modern military conflict’ as well as several professional military education websites. Jess curates The Bookshelf. Follow Jess at @JessPixWard