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In Book, Former Defense Chief Mattis Sideswipes President Trump's Leadership Skills

James Mattis, then U.S. secretary of defense, leaves a news conference following a meeting about U.S.-China diplomacy and security at the State Department in Washington, D.C., in June 2017. Mattis' new book, <em>Call Sign Chaos, </em>implies criticism of President Trump without taking direct shots at him.
Andrew Harrer
Bloomberg via Getty Images
James Mattis, then U.S. secretary of defense, leaves a news conference following a meeting about U.S.-China diplomacy and security at the State Department in Washington, D.C., in June 2017. Mattis' new book, Call Sign Chaos, implies criticism of President Trump without taking direct shots at him.

It's been eight months since President Donald Trump's first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, handed in his resignation.

Now the retired four-star general has written his first book, co-authored by former Marine Bing West. Spoiler alert: Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead is not, as the title might suggest, a tell-all exposé of Mattis' tense tenure at the helm of the Pentagon with Trump as commander in chief.

"I'm old fashioned," Mattis writes. "I don't write about sitting presidents."

Mattis mentions Trump by name only four times, all in the prologue's first two pages — each instance taking place prior to the president's taking office. That said, he does imply criticism, without directly taking shots.

"All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment and one that can be reversed," Mattis writes. "We all know that we are better than our current politics."

Mattis' maddening refusal to offer direct thoughts about Trump does not apply to past commanders in chief. His war stories — from liberating Kuwait to invading Afghanistan to battling insurgents in Iraq — are also a refighting of old battles with officers and others whose wartime guidance he portrays as deferring more to presidential whims than to theater-of-war realities.

Enjoying his perch as a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, Mattis never expected Trump to offer him the Pentagon's top job. "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," he writes. But when Trump, who had never met Mattis before interviewing him for the job, called him "the real deal" and asked that he join his Cabinet, the self-described political independent agreed on the spot. "In my view, when the President asks you to do something, you don't play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands."

Trump may have believed he was hiring a latter-day Gen. George C. Patton, a made-for-TV war hero the president-elect would repeatedly refer to as "Mad Dog." (That moniker, which Mattis abhors, goes unmentioned in his book.) Instead, what Trump got was the seasoned, well-read and thoughtful warrior-scholar who penned this memoir, the only Cabinet member who failed to laud his boss in front of TV cameras at the president's first full staff meeting.

"I did as well as I could for as long as I could," Mattis writes. He left about halfway into what he expected to be a four-year tenure. "When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution."

Mattis informs us this book has been in the works since he previously parted ways with his former commander in chief, Barack Obama. In that episode, he was fired in late 2012 as head of the U.S. Central Command.

Call Sign Chaos is ostensibly part of the well-trodden genre of leaders keen to share their insights on what it takes to lead. "My purpose in writing this book, is to convey the lessons I learned for those who might benefit, whether in the military or in civilian life," Mattis writes.

And the book, indeed, is chockablock with insights and aphorisms about what it takes to be a good leader. It begins with a death-scraping tumble down a steep, icy ridge in Mattis' home state of Washington when he was 20. Alone and badly battered, he refused a stranger's offer for a lift home, opting instead to camp by himself for a couple of days and nurse his wounds. That fall, and his proud insistence on recovering alone, would be, as he writes, "a metaphor for my subsequent career in the Marines: You make mistakes, or life knocks you down; either way, you get up and get on with it. You deal with life. You don't whine about it."

Or perhaps you write about it. Chapter by chapter, Mattis takes us through a steady rise through the ranks of the U.S. Marine Corps, an ascent he self-deprecatingly finds inexplicable. "Every time I made a mistake — and I made many," he writes, "the Marines promoted me." Mattis tells us very little about his personal life. There is nary a word, for example, about this lifelong bachelor's broken engagement to a woman who could not countenance a life of constant relocations with a man dedicated to an often lethal job. He does disclose that as a "mediocre student with a partying attitude" at Central Washington State College in 1968, he served time in a local jail on weekends as punishment for underage drinking. There he met another inmate:

"You don't always control your circumstances," Mattis concludes about his jailhouse epiphany, "but you can always control your response." His book is a compendium of circumstances often beyond his control. What makes it a compelling read is how this warrior-monk dealt with and learned from the jams he found himself in. His call sign, CHAOS, irreverently bestowed by a more junior Marine officer, is an acronym: Does the "Colonel Have Another Outstanding Solution?"

The 1991 Gulf War was Mattis' first battlefield experience. It would become his touchstone for how a winning war should be waged. As "the least astute battalion commander in the Marine Corps," Mattis trained his charges — "my young wolves" — for battle in the desert of Southern California and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada farther north. "Each week," he writes, "the blade got sharper. ... My intent was to rehearse until we could improvise on the battlefield like a jazzman in New Orleans." Relocated to the Saudi desert, Mattis would walk the lines after dark, chatting with his charges and learning their state of mind. "Troops will tell you things when they're on guard duty at night."

Despite leading his troops into an ambush at one point after three days with almost no rest, Mattis took part in a clear victory: The U.S. chased the Iraqi army out of Kuwait during 100 hours of ground combat. "In my military judgment," he writes, "President George H.W. Bush knew how to end a war on our own terms. ... He approved of deploying overwhelming forces to compel the enemy's withdrawal or swiftly end the war." And, in a clear dig at Bush's successors, Mattis added that Bush "avoided sophomoric decisions like imposing a ceiling on the number of troops or setting a date when we would have to stop fighting or leave."

A decade later, Mattis was itching to avenge the Sept. 11 attacks, but landlocked Afghanistan was not a place where the Marines — a maritime expeditionary force — could be expected to make a forced entry by sea. Still, he convinced his superiors that he could fly 4,000 Marines through 400 miles of Pakistani airspace separating Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea to a remote airstrip near Kandahar. "It never entered my mind that we might fail," Mattis writes. "Marines don't know how to spell the word. ... Our lads were ready for the brawl."

But Mattis' forced entry into Afghanistan soon had him clashing with Gen. Tommy Franks, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. He writes bitterly of being told by Franks to hold his troops back from going after Osama bin Laden in the al-Qaida leader's mountain hideout of Tora Bora. Rather than blaming President George W. Bush for not sending in the Marines, Mattis faulted himself for failing to "build understanding up the chain of command" of how his forces might have prevented bin Laden's escape.

Mattis' thoughts on Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq a year later were another matter. "Invading Iraq stunned me," Mattis writes. "Why were we fighting them again?" Toppling the Iraqi army, which Mattis compares to "a tall, dead tree," was the easy part. Left unclear, he writes, was what would happen after that. "I had no specific policy guidance."

The chafing by Mattis against his superiors is sharpest in his account of trying to seize Fallujah after four Americans were hanged and burned there by Sunni insurgents. With his forces poised outside the city for street-to-street combat, Mattis received the order to desist. Bush had decided to have American commanders work with local leaders to create an all-Iraqi security force for Fallujah. "I believe the President's goal was idealistic and tragically mistaken," Mattis writes, "based on misguided assessments that appeared impervious to my reporting."

Much of the general's pushback is over restrictive rules of engagement that made little sense to him. "There are some jerks in the world that need to be shot," he says he told his "lads" patrolling Anbar province. "Be polite, be professional — but have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

The book reprises other unbridled comments by Mattis. "You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," he recalls telling an audience of sailors, Marines and civilian contractors in San Diego in 2003. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it's quite fun to fight them. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling."

The remark was widely reported and criticized. "Frankly, I was surprised and found their comments bizarre," Mattis writes of his critics. "I never moderated my words or apologized. Knowing our enemies also read my words, I wanted them to know that America had troops who were not tormented about fighting people who murder in the name of religion or deny human rights to others."

Mattis was investigated in 2004 by a U.S. military team for possible murder charges after he ordered an airstrike on what he says was an al-Qaida team that had crossed from Syria into Iraq. His team's account of killing 26 insurgents had been contradicted by the Guardian, which published a report alleging "that women and children had been the ones killed, because the gathering was actually a wedding party." The official investigation concluded the airstrike Mattis ordered had in fact hit a war camp, and he was not charged. "But by then it was too late," he laments. "The initial false reports had become ground truth; correcting it was not considered news. We had once again lost the battle of the narrative."

No administration catches more flak in this book than that headed by Obama. In a chapter titled "Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory," Mattis describes a losing battle as head of the U.S. Central Command (appointed by Obama in 2010) to keep a contingent of 18,000 troops in Iraq. "Beginning with President Bush and continuing through the Obama administration, the White House was set on a total troop withdrawal, for political reasons," he writes. "The National Security staff put no stock in our forecast that if we pulled out, the enemy would resurrect."

A visit to Iraq by Vice President Joe Biden in the summer of 2010 gets mixed reviews from Mattis. He quotes a teasing question Biden put to him there. "Know why you're at CENTCOM?" Biden asks him. "Because no one else was dumb enough to take the job."

Mattis writes he found Biden "an admirable and amiable man" and liked him. But the vice president was not to be swayed. "He didn't want to hear more; he wanted our forces out of Iraq. Whatever path led there fastest, he favored," Mattis writes. "He exuded the confidence of a man whose mind was made up, perhaps even indifferent to considering the consequences were he judging the situation incorrectly."

When Obama announced in 2011 that U.S. troops were being withdrawn from Iraq, his assertion that "we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" rankled his military commander for the region. "The words 'sovereign, stable and self-reliant' had never been used by the Pentagon or the State Department," Mattis writes, "and I had never seen them in any intelligence report." Rhetoric, he concludes acidly, "doesn't end conflicts."

Obama's efforts to end the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan fare no better in Mattis' account. He notes that while Obama had "however reluctantly" sent an additional 30,000 U.S. forces there in 2010, the president had also promised those troops would begin to come home after 18 months. "My thought was that 'exiting' a war was a by-product of winning that war," Mattis writes. "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."

Things went downhill from there. At a 2011 meeting with then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Defense Policy Board, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger asks Mattis what the larger strategy is behind the Pentagon's force deployments. "I don't know what our integrated strategy is," Mattis recalls responding, "or specifically what it is for my region." That earned him a chewing out from a "high-ranking DOD official." Mattis says he ignored the scolding. "It had become too clear that I was supposed to sit quietly in the back of the bus as it careened off a strategic cliff."

Mattis also clashed with the Obama administration over its insistence on wanting "human rights to be the singular criterion for our foreign policy," a stance that put Washington at odds with nations Mattis considered key allies, among them Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. "The Arab monarchies and strongman leaders were not reforming at the pace our human rights idealists insisted upon," Mattis writes. "But those nations that had stood by us after 9/11 had records far better than those of hostile, oppressive regimes like Iran and Syria."

It was Mattis' enduring enmity toward Iran that abruptly ended his tenure as CENTCOM commander. He criticizes the Obama administration's failure to respond more forcefully to a 2011 failed plot to bomb a Georgetown restaurant where Saudi Arabia's ambassador would be dining. While Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, publicly pointed at Iran's Quds force as being behind the plot, "we treated an act of war as a law enforcement violation," Mattis fumes, "jailing the low-level courier."

Late in 2012, Mattis writes, "I received an unauthorized phone call telling me in an hour, the Pentagon would be announcing my relief." He did not go gladly. "I was leaving a region aflame and in disarray," he writes. "The lack of an integrated regional strategy has left us adrift, and our friends confused."

We will possibly have to wait for another administration before learning Mattis' thoughts about his 23 months as Trump's defense secretary. But he lets some of those views slip toward the end of his book. "Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither," he writes. "A polemicist's role is not sufficient for a leader; strategic acumen must incorporate a fundamental respect for other nations that have stood with us as trouble loomed."

A parting shot? Perhaps. Mattis clearly has another book to write that many will be eager to read.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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