Former U.S. Defense Secretary retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, with Francis ("Bing") West, authored a remarkable book on leadership applicable well beyond the frontiers of military service. Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead is a modern-day equivalent of Marcus Aurelius' Emperor's Handbook.
CHAOS, Mattis' Marine Corps call sign, arose from an irreverent compliment for "colonel has another outstanding solution" made by his staff. I have had the good fortune of knowing both authors.
The book focuses on three levels of military leadership and how the general learned for and from each. The first is direct leadership or what military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called "tactical." This applies to small units or organizations in which the leader knows virtually everyone. In the Marine Corps, this means platoons of about 40 to battalions of 600-800.
Second is executive leadership or in Clausewitz's lexicon "operational." Because of size, the leader only knows key subordinates. Regiments or brigades of 5,000; divisions of 15,000 or more; and corps or a Marine Expeditionary Force that can number 50,000 fall into this category.
Last is strategic leadership, conforming with Clausewitz's terminology. In the United States, what were known as "commanders-in-chief" and now "combatant commanders" who preside over huge geographic regions such as Asia, Europe and Latin America fill this level. Mattis twice commanded here: in Norfolk, Va., as Allied Commander Transformation and as Central Command commander in Tampa, Fla., with responsibilities from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
While Mattis has been criticized for checking fire and commentary on President Donald Trump, reading his letter of resignation in the book makes clear that the commander-in-chief would not have fared well as a Marine under Mattis' command. That said, Mattis' story from commanding a battalion in the fabled 7th Marine regiment spearheading Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait to his time as Central Command commander is as compelling as any great work of war fiction.
As commander of the 7th Marines and Task Force 58 that put the first major American combat units ashore in Kandahar, Afghanistan in late 2001, Mattis' accounts of how higher authority in Central Command lost the opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden are stunning.
First, Marines were denied exploiting the airhead at Operating Base Rhino in Kandahar. Second, based on how the U.S. Army trapped Geronimo in 1886 in the Sierra Madre Mountains, Mattis had a plan to do the same to Bin Laden in Tora Bora. While Mattis does not write this, the incompetence probably due to inter-service jealousy of the Central Command commander led to his choosing instead the Army's 10th Mountain Division for the assault on Bin Laden.
Despite its name, the 10th Mountain Division trains at Fort Drum in upstate New York at about 600 feet above sea level, tens of thousands of feet lower than the mountains of Tora Bora. Hence, neither the division nor its equipment were acclimatized for high-altitude combat. The Marines are perhaps the best trained high-altitude fighting force in the world dating back to the Cold War and missions to reinforce NATO in the mountainous areas of Norway. Yet they were not sent into action
Mattis also raises in the form of questions, profound critiques of American strategy. He was incredulous that the United States was preparing for the wrong war by invading Iraq as a consequence of Sept. 11. During the march to Baghdad that followed in March 2003, commanding the First Marine Division, Mattis was dumbfounded as to why his advance was halted at one stage. Later, he questioned why the American Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad dissolved the Iraqi army and vacillated in the taking of Fallujah that would claim undue amounts of American blood and treasure.
About his two years as secretary of defense, Mattis is relatively silent. Readers would like to know how Mattis derived his three main lines of effort for the Pentagon on increasing lethality of the force; reform to get the maximum from our resources; and the need to engage allies. And the same applied to Mattis' thinking behind the National Defense Strategy.
CHAOS is must reading for anyone in, interested or affiliated with the military and not only in the United States. And it is a must read for those seeking perspectives on leadership. Mattis' story reflected how largely "mano a mano" war was waged in the late 20th century. Fellow Marine Gen. John Allen writes of "hyper war" in the 21st century. If there is a next book, Mattis might take that topic up. But he says that will not happen.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist and a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.