Call Sign Chaos review: James Mattis pulls a flanking manuever on Trump

<span>Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

James Mattis was Donald Trump’s defense secretary for less than two years, resigning in December 2018. The general’s departure came with headlines but little surprise. His resignation letter omitted any praise for the commander-in-chief. “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours,” he wrote, “I believe it is right for me to step down.”

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Mattis had been on thin ice for a long time. At an infamous cabinet meeting in June 2017, Mattis praised the men and women of the military instead of gushing over the president. Just months later, a White House official told me Mattis had shown insufficient loyalty to Trump. But because North Korea was on the front burner – before “Little Rocket Man” had started sending Trump love letters – the president felt he needed generals around him. In the end, everyone in Trump’s orbit is expendable. Except Ivanka Trump.

Call Sign Chaos, Mattis’s memoir, is a readable look at more than four decades as a marine. Co-written with Bing West, a former marine and Reagan Pentagon alumnus, the book spans Mattis’s career, from enlistment through retirement.

It contains veiled disapproval of Trump and is sharper in expressing disagreements with his Oval Office predecessors.

Call Sign Chaos takes aim at bigotry and lauds the military service of migrants. It gives full-throated support for Nato

Officially, the book’s title derives from the call-sign bestowed when Mattis became a regimental commander, Chaos an acronym for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution”.

Mattis comes across as plain-spoken and reflective, a fan of books and history. Abraham Lincoln and Gettysburg receive their due. As a younger man, however, Mattis was not above brawling. In other words, he’s interesting.

He repeatedly expresses his regard for America’s institutions and its constitution even as he offers criticism, one thing which sets him apart from the 45th president.

“I’ve developed a love affair with our constitution,” Mattis writes.

He tells of getting into a fight in Montana with three other men. Then 19, he was rewarded with a brief jail sentence and a sheriff’s escort to a westbound freight train. His brush with the law became a formative experience.

Mattis recalls that as a marine recruiter he was confronted with a prospect who had been arrested for a “single use of cocaine”. Channeling his inner Nick Saban on the value of “second chances”, Mattis pushed for a waiver. “There’s a huge difference,” he writes, “between making a mistake and letting that mistake define you.”

As Mattis moved up the ranks, interaction with Congress, the White House and civilian Pentagon leadership became a norm, although not necessarily a welcome one. Mattis professes to prefer the field and his troops. DC was not his “cup of tea”. Yet he appears to have overcome that hurdle, to a point anyway, when he was appointed executive secretary to Bill Clinton’s defense chiefs, William Perry and William Cohen.

“I gained an abiding respect for those with whom I served and from whom I also learned a new skill set,” he writes. “I had a front-row seat to policymaking as it was supposed to work.”

As for congressional oversight and the power of the purse, Mattis “received a pragmatic introduction to article one of the constitution”, a reminder to the reader that it is Congress that is tasked with raising America’s armed forces.

Mattis saw action in Afghanistan and Iraq. He blames Tommy Franks, head of US Central Command and an army general, for Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora, his refusal to deploy the marines a key cause of that debacle. As Mattis frames things: “We in the military missed the opportunity, not the president, who properly deferred to his senior military commander on how to carry out the mission.”

But Iraq was a different story, and there Mattis places blame squarely on George W Bush for getting the US into the mess, and on Barack Obama and Joe Biden for the mode of the eventual pullback. As for going to war, Mattis observes: “Invading Iraq stunned me. Why were we fighting them again?”

For Mattis, Iran was an implacable foe. He also believes Tehran came to view the Obama administration as 'impotent'

In a chapter titled Incoherence, Mattis acidly mocks and quotes Bush 43’s Freedom Agenda. These days, Iraq is ranked “not free” by Freedom House. Irony abounds.

He commends Obama for his intelligence and reserve and Biden for his warmth. Yet he tags them over the pullout from Iraq, Obama’s imaginary red line in Syria and their stance toward Iran. He does not mask his disapproval.

For Mattis, Iran was an implacable foe. He also believes Tehran came to view the Obama administration as “impotent”. To the general, proof positive lay in the failure to respond to an Iranian plot to bomb Cafe Milano, a restaurant just miles from the White House, and assassinate the Saudi ambassador.

Mattis also takes aim at WikiLeaks, describing it as “new kind of adversary” that “inflicted deep harm” to American interests. Unlike Trump, he never harbored any love for Julian Assange’s creation.

To Mattis, American uncertainty and messianism can both have steep downsides. As he saw it, an absence of strategy would engender the sense that the US was “proving unreliable.”

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“I was disappointed and frustrated,” he writes. “Policymakers all too often failed to deliver clear direction.”

Yet Mattis does not grapple with domestic political realities. Lives and treasure aside, Iraq cost the Republicans both houses of Congress in 2006 and paved the way for Obama. Furthermore, casualty counts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were factors in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Not everything is about Russia.

When it comes to Trump, Mattis flanks, avoiding a head-on clash. Call Sign Chaos takes aim at bigotry and lauds the military service of migrants. As in his resignation letter, Mattis gives full-throated support for Nato: “Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither.”

In his epilogue, Mattis notes America’s political divide and full-throated tribalism. But he is optimistic. Call Sign Chaos ends thus: “E Pluribus Unum.”