The Firing Line
James Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (New York: Random House, 2019)
In 2016, I interviewed Gen. James Mattis about his experiences as commander of 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq. He had not yet been appointed secretary of defense by President Donald Trump, and I was writing a book on military command. Mattis was charming, irreverent, and witty, though a steeliness — even menace — was periodically visible below the surface. It was a memorable conversation.
Mattis’ account of why he personally removed the commander of Regimental Combat Team-1 stood out. This colonel, an honorable man and competent officer, was dismissed in April 2003 after Mattis deemed that he was not driving his troops with sufficient force. Later, I spoke to a staff officer who was at the divisional command post when Mattis fired this officer. Suffice it to say, it was a sad scene.
He deeply regretted having to relieve this subordinate, but regarded the sacking as essential. It has become a controversial, even legendary, event. For instance, in his book The Generals, Tom Ricks argues that this dismissal only highlighted the U.S. military’s consistent failure to remove incompetent commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mattis was exceptional — he uniquely was prepared to fire people.
Since its publication, there has been a great deal of discussion about Mattis’ best-selling autobiography, Call Sign Chaos. Fred Kaplan and Jasen Castillo have complained that Mattis has remained silent about Trump after his resignation as secretary of defense. For them, Mattis’ failure to criticize Trump publicly in his autobiography is only a continuation of his shortcomings as secretary of defense. These criticisms question Mattis’ strategy of endless U.S. global commitment and note that he failed to implement any defense cuts. These criticisms may have some foundation. Yet, it is not true that Mattis does not criticize Trump in his autobiography. Reviewers have simply overlooked the central leitmotif of the entire book: sacking. It is a book about firing and accountability. Consequently, against the sometimes hysterical denunciations of Trump, Mattis’ criticism is powerful precisely because it is cold and understated.
The most notorious of Mattis’ dismissals is, of course, the removal of his Regimental Combat Team commander during the Iraq invasion. Yet, this officer was far from alone. On the contrary, the practice of sacking subordinates began early in Mattis’ career. As a very junior lieutenant in the demoralized and ill-disciplined U.S. Marine Corps after Vietnam, Mattis was challenged by a “malcontent” who had boasted that he wanted to kill his “fucking hard-ass lieutenant.” On an exercise, Mattis ordered this marine to follow him on a patrol in the jungle, providing the malfeasant with extensive opportunities to fulfill his wish. The marine failed to pull the trigger. Having proved that he was a coward, Mattis used his sergeant to expel him from the Corps. The scene has been repeated throughout Mattis’ career. Personnel — and especially officers — who were incompetent, who lacked integrity, or who did not execute his intent were removed.
Thus, after the Haditha massacre — when, on Nov. 19, 2005, a U.S. Marine platoon killed 24 civilians in Iraq — Mattis decided that it was not enough that the junior perpetrators, guilty though they were, were the only ones punished. He conducted an investigation into the event, on the basis of which he sacked the battalion commander, who, Mattis believed, “should have known the details the same day it happened.” He argued that “if lance corporals are not trained properly, their superiors must be held to account for their lack of leadership competence and professional supervision” (p. 167). So Mattis recommended “letters of censure for the divisional commander — a major general — and two senior generals.” In each case, the officers were forced to leave the service.
Even more strikingly, when Mattis was commanding NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, he removed an admiral from an allied nation. This was practically unprecedented. The alliance politics of NATO almost precluded sackings, especially in a non-operational and flabby billet like Allied Command Transformation. Mattis discovered that this admiral was bullying his staff: “He yelled, dressing officers down in front of others, and publicly mocked reports that he considered shallow instead of clarifying what he wanted” (p. 172). Having warned him that such behavior could not be allowed to continue, Mattis eventually removed him from his post, even though the decision was unpopular.
He was a ruthless firer. Yet, it would be wrong to think Mattis was in any way vindictive. On the contrary, as his removal of the commander of Regimental Combat Team-1 showed, he was often deeply sympathetic to those he removed. Nevertheless, this personal empathy could never override his moral duty, as a commander, to remove incompetent officers. Commanders cannot dodge this responsibility. Good commanders have a duty to fire those subordinates who fail.
Mattis sacked incapable subordinates not only because it was his moral duty as a commander to remove them, but also because of his distinct method of command. As Call Sign Chaos clarifies, Mattis has always implemented the philosophy of “Mission Command.” Mattis mentored and instructed his subordinates closely so that they fully understood their missions. Once he was sure they knew his intent, he trusted them to command independently while he focused on higher-level decisions; the entire system relied on his faith in his subordinates. Consequently, if subordinates could not be trusted, they had to be removed.
Call Sign Chaos is, ironically, punctuated not only in Mattis’ removing others from command but his own increasingly regular ejection from posts, too. He was pointedly not given command of Multinational Force-Iraq in 2007. The job went to Gen. David Petraeus. It was a sacking of sorts. Mattis was an equally capable general. He was appointed to U.S. Joint Forces Command and Allied Command Transformation instead. Entertainingly, Mattis concluded that his role there was pointless and, at a lunch with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he was asked what his recommendations were for the command. Mattis scrawled on a napkin: “Disband JFCOM – Mattis” (p. 186). Mattis sacked himself.
He was then short-toured from his command of U.S. Central Command by the Obama administration because he disagreed with the White House on policy (p. 233). In an act of spite, he received an unauthorized call telling him that his relief from the Pentagon would be announced in an hour (p. 233). Finally, Mattis resigned from his role as secretary of defense in the Trump administration after disagreements about the proposed disengagement from Syria. Despite his military credentials, there is no doubt he would have been removed eventually had he not resigned.
It is easy to see Mattis’ own sackings as separate from his removal of subordinates. In fact, they are closely related. Just as he saw it was his duty to remove those who could not follow his leadership, he felt himself obliged to stand up for his own beliefs. He saw it as a dereliction of duty not to speak truth to power. It was an inalienable element of command. To follow an expedient course of action as a commander was for Mattis as bad as being incapable of following orders. He was never guilty of it, and the result was that as he ascended the chain of command, his own removal became more and more likely.
The sacking motif reaches its final resolution on the last page of Call Sign Chaos. The book culminates with a coruscating, if indirect, criticism of Trump. Mattis concludes with a statement about the importance of allies: “Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither. Alone, America cannot provide protection for our people and our economy” (p. 244). The last line of the book reads: “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” (p. 245). A blank half-page follows. Overleaf, Mattis has reproduced his resignation letter to Trump.
Fred Kaplan has dismissed this letter as too oblique to be effective as a criticism of Trump. I disagree. The message of a book is normally contained in the prose. However, sometimes silence is potent. In this case, with the theme of sacking established as the dominant chord throughout the text, that last, wordless half-page is the most powerful and meaningful passage in the entire book. It is the devastating coda. Trump is damned by its blankness. Following the litany of sackings that have preceded it, this page is a demand for the president’s removal.
Call Sign Chaos raises the issue of military accountability much more generally. Following the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, a huge literature has mushroomed in the United States and United Kingdom, decrying contemporary military command and leadership. Call Sign Chaos is an important contribution to these criticisms. It emphasises not only the general responsibility of command, but also the accountability of individual commanders. Commanders who are professionally incompetent, or who fail to maintain the discipline and order of their troops, have to be dismissed. Of course, enhanced accountability will not resolve every military problem. But it may not be a bad place to start.
At a conference on command at a British university some years ago, a British general and American major were discussing the question of sacking senior officers in relation to the difficulties the United Kingdom experienced in Basra and Helmand in the period 2006–09. Not a single British officer above the rank of major was removed in either of these campaigns, even though there were eminently deserving cases. The British general chuntered that the removal of senior officers was bad for morale. The major politely demurred: “In my experience, it is very good for morale.” Commanders — and commanders-in-chief — might take note.
Anthony King is the Chair of War Studies, Warwick University UK. His latest book is Command: The Twenty-First-Century General (Cambridge University Press, 2019).