Category Archives: Book Review

Reviews of recent and upcoming foreign policy and maritime books of merit.

Missing in Action: The Mattis Behind the Mask

Jim Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, Random House, 300 pages, $28.00/hardcover.

By Walker Mills

Jim Mattis’s new book, written with Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, is in many ways exactly what one would expect from the former Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine general. It is as if Mattis is writing with his uniform on, chock-full of the Mattis-isms that as a young Marine officer I grew up hearing and reading about. But Mattis doesn’t offer a deeper or more introspective side of himself. For those that have already been introduced to ‘Saint Mattis of Quantico’ and his persona, the book is not much more than a compendium of his “touchstones” and anecdotes combined with a single narrative arc. There are anecdotes that have been made famous by others – like Mattis walking the lines at night in Afghanistan as recounted by Nate Fick in his book One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, and there is his own recounting of the swift, combat relief of one of his own regimental commanders during the march to Baghdad in 2003 – elaborated on by Thomas E. Ricks in The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. But Call Sign Chaos fails to reveal anything deeper. It is not a tell all, and it takes pains to avoid painting people who served with Mattis in a negative light. It contrasts sharply with the recent book Holding the Line by Guy Snodgrass which touts an inside view. However, for readers who are unfamiliar with Mattis and his time in the Marines, Call Sign Chaos is an excellent introduction to Mattis and his philosophy, and an introduction to Marine Corps leadership writ large. The authors fulfill their intent “…to convey the lessons I learned for those who might benefit whether in the military or in civilian life.”

The one surprise in Call Sign Chaos is Mattis’s preoccupation with Iran. His narrative is bookended by Iran experiences. First, as a young officer he was part of a planned, but unexecuted, diversion in support of an operation to rescue the 52 American embassy hostages. And then later, as the Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) he was relieved because the Obama Administration regarded him as “…too eager for a military confrontation with Iran” according to Leon Panetta’s memoir Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace. Mattis’s bellicose stance on Iran is also seeded throughout the book. Mattis almost never passed an opportunity to rhetorically bash Iranian leaders as “zealots who needed a lesson in humility,” “cunning and hostile – a malign force,” and “radicals” who chant “death to America.” In contrast, North Korea barely featured, the Chinese not as much as one would expect, and the Russians or Soviets didn’t receive any nasty labels like the Iranians. It is perhaps ironic then that since his departure as Secretary, the United States has repeatedly moved closer to war with Iran and teaching those “zealots” a “lesson in humility.” As Secretary of Defense a large part of his legacy will be the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which purported to reorient or pivot the United States military away from the Greater Middle East toward “Great Power Competition.” But his own career and writing point to a near obsession with the Middle East and Iran in particular. Commissioned in the 1970s, Mattis does not write about the Soviet Union with a sour taste, even though by any measure the threats presented by the Soviet Union would have dominated his early career. Instead, he focuses on Iran, leaving the reader to wonder how Mattis would have shaped or handled recent Iranian provocations differently than his successors and making his work particularly relevant because Iran still features prominently in the headlines. It highlights one of the primary tensions in contemporary American foreign policy – the stated desire of multiple administrations to leave the Middle East tugging against the region’s strong geopolitical gravity.

Call Sign Chaos is generally organized into three parts that correspond to Mattis’s ascent through the ranks and corresponding leadership method – direct, executive, and strategic. It focuses on his time on active duty, predating his time as Secretary. Throughout the book, our narrator is General Mattis – he is never quite able to take off his uniform and step into the role of political appointee. Absent are the perspectives of Secretary or Professor Mattis. The book is peppered with history and with quotes from great leaders and the famous captains of history, but usually only as brief anecdotes. Mattis employs men from Xenophon to Churchill and Kipling to serve as background or signposts in his narrative. (Sadly, there are no women featured.) This is enlightening for the reader who is unfamiliar with the history of the Peloponnesian Wars or the Zimmerman Telegram – but the lessons are also disappointingly shallow, or as the Washington Post noted in their review – occasionally off the mark. They might remind the reader more of an overactive student in class hoping to impress a professor, rather than the musings of the professor himself. They also at time ring with a touch of hubris – Mattis is certainly aware of his cult-like following in the Marine Corps and feeds it with his juxtaposition of himself with men like Alexander the Great in Afghanistan.

The book will leave many readers disappointed. Mattis paints his own portrait somewhat stiffly, it doesn’t pierce his carefully curated persona or show the man ‘behind the mask.’ The mask is, if anything, enhanced by the addition of new material, like anecdotes about his youth in Washington state. He only teases the reader with the barest of information about his time as Secretary of Defense in the Trump Administration asserting “I’m old fashioned: I don’t write about sitting presidents.” There is no large reveal about his time working for President Trump. The most dramatic words to this effect are in his resignation letter, which has long been released. Call Sign Chaos is entirely about his time in uniform.

Ultimately, Call Sign Chaos is a primer on leadership from one of the most influential military leaders of the 21st Century. Readers will find Mattis’s story and his advice for young leaders written in a continuation of his persona. While never revolutionary or even radical, his advice is sound and well-grounded in study and experience. For a reader who wants to look behind the curtain or be taken in on a secret, Mattis and West will disappoint. However, they deliver clear and valuable leadership advice, in context – which as they write, was their intent.

Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer serving on exchange in Cartagena, Colombia. He has previously published book reviews in the Marine Corps Gazette, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Small Wars Journal, the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, and Strategy Bridge.

Featured Image: AL ASAD, Iraq – Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command, speaks to the Marines of the maintenance section from Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 121 on the Al Asad flightline, May 6, 2007. 

Mattis is Mortal

Snodgrass, Guy. Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary MattisSentinel, 2019, 352 pp. hardcover/$27.00.

By LT Daniel Stefanus, USN

Secretary Jim Mattis is one of America’s greatest living military leaders, and this candid account by CDR (ret.) Guy Snodgrass of Mattis’ tenure does nothing to challenge that. His combat record and rise from the enlisted reserve ranks, to four-star general, to Secretary of Defense is unlike that of any other American of the post-Cold War era. And beyond his service, his National Defense Strategy and relentless work to restore funding and readiness to the United States military will remain historic achievements for our armed forces during the Trump Administration. His example has rightly inspired millions of servicemembers.

CDR Snodgrass’ book supports all of this, revering Secretary Mattis for his strengths while allowing a peek behind the curtain on some of the key moments in the Secretary’s time leading the Department of Defense. This book will be picked up by the wider press for its insights into the Trump Administration’s internal dynamics, Secretary Mattis’ attempts to keep the military calm and focused on restoring readiness and lethality, and the difficult tight-rope Secretary Mattis had to walk in comforting our partners and buttressing our international system of alliances. However, for the discerning military officer or national security professional, this book is a graduate course in understanding the dynamics and processes at the highest level of the U.S. military.

This book cannot be reviewed without addressing the controversy surrounding it and its two protagonists: Secretary Mattis and the author. Mattis issued the following statement through an aide regarding the book:

“General Mattis hasn’t read the book and doesn’t intend to… [CDR Snodgrass’] choice to write a book reveals an absence of character… surreptitiously taking notes without authorization for a self-promoting personal project is a clear violation of that trust… [CDR Snodgrass] may receive a few brief moments of attention for this book. But those moments will be greatly outweighed by the fact that to get them, he surrendered his honor.”

This statement is puzzling given that if Secretary Mattis hasn’t read it, then any criticism after that statement is instinctive rather than facts-based. The Secretary believes the book is personally aggrandizing and that it is a violation of honor and morality, but none of that is borne out in the text. I was surprised, frankly, at how pro-Mattis CDR Snodgrass is throughout the book given how his exit from Mattis’ staff went. I walked away from Holding the Line with my opinion of Secretary Mattis still quite high and with a reaffirmed faith in the Secretary’s commitment to the mission, the United States, and the security of Americans.

This book is no takedown. It is a candid account of what it was like inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense for most of Secretary Mattis’ tenure, and the victories and the defeats that transpired.

From Mattis’ recent autobiography Call Sign Chaos, “Leaders at all ranks, but especially at high ranks, must keep in their inner circle people who will unhesitatingly point out when a leader’s personal behavior or decisions are not appropriate.” CDR Snodgrass may have aired moments of failure or embarrassment for the Secretary, but that is for the good of the nation. This book allows citizens to better understand the experiences of the current administration, the president’s thinking on national security matters, and the reasons for major shifts in national security policy since the administration took office.  

CDR Snodgrass is also not your average observer. He was hand-picked to join Mattis’ staff, accepting the offer and giving up his golden path to aviation major command and time to recover with his family after a decade of operations and deployments in order to serve the Secretary. CDR Snodgrass had previously been speechwriter for Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert, was asked to help write the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, has a Master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from MIT, was the valedictorian of his Naval War College class, and has flown thousands of hours as a Super Hornet pilot – to include command of a squadron of Hornets in Japan where him and his squadron won a Battle “E” award as one of the top units in the Navy. He also won awards as the 2008 Strike Fighter Wing Pacific Pilot of the Year, 2009 Strike Fighter Wing Pacific Tactical Aviator of the Year, 2010 Naval Air Forces Pacific Michael G. Hoff Attack Aviator of the Year, and for the peer-awarded 2010 Naval Air Forces Pacific Navy and Marine Corps Leadership Award.

The book deftly toes the line between personal account, Secretary Mattis as a leader, and the national security events of our time. Interesting insights from the book include the dominance of military personnel over civilians on the Secretary’s team, and that those military personnel were primarily naval officers, with few Army or Air Force officers holding sway. Scenes of Mattis kicking out the embassy team in Norway during a brief, denigrating the press, torpedoing the author’s attempt to transfer to elsewhere in the DoD after 18 months, and pushing his staff to work with little sleep or time for their families paint a portrait of a less-than-optimal working environment, one that can be confirmed by other former members of the team.

However, the book does not cast the Secretary in a negative light. It emphases his brilliance, tireless effort, commitment to U.S. security and values, endeavors to keep the Defense Department apolitical, belief in rebuilding the military’s readiness and lethality, and his deep feelings for men and women in uniform – as well as their families. His appearance at a staff member’s wedding even during an exceptionally difficult period of his time as Secretary, his gifts and kind words to the children of staff members during official events, and his respect for those on his team all paint a positive portrait of the Secretary.

While contentious due to its high-profile subject matter, the book is compellingly written, praises and criticizes leaders in ways that are reasonable and based on facts and not partisanship, and offers a serious account of what happened within the Pentagon under Secretary Mattis’ leadership.

Having read both Call Sign Chaos and Holding the Line, I believe each work is an excellent addition to any defense professional’s library. However, I found the candid insights and gravity of Holding the Line to be more unique and resonant than Secretary Mattis’ personal history of the last few decades of American military operations.

As Mattis stated in his autobiography, “You must unleash initiative rather than suffocate it.”

BZ CDR Snodgass.

LT Daniel Stefanus is a surface warfare officer and currently works for the Chief of Naval Personnel on strategic engagement and personnel system reform. He commissioned through the Duke University NROTC program and will begin studying at Harvard Business School next fall. He is a former president of CIMSEC. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with His Excellency Prawit Wongsuwon, Minister of Defence for the Kingdom of Thailand at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., April 23, 2018. (DoD photo by Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

War in 140 Characters: The Fighting Words of Homo Digitalis

David Patrikarakos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First CenturyBasic Books, 2017,$17.99/e-book

By LTJG Robert Solonick

What are the origins of social media? It is hard to say; all media is inherently social in that it shares and conveys information to others beyond what we as individuals can do face-to-face. By this definition, anything presented to a public audience, whether through print, images, TV, radio, electronically, or other means, meets this criterion. In that case, does it begin with Martin Luther’s literal post of the “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Germany in 1517? Or does social media begin in a more contemporary setting in the nascent years of the 21st century, where the medium is the internet in which we “post” information to share our lives with others?

In David Patrikarakos’ book, War in 140 Characters, the definition of social media falls within the content of the latter. My first interaction with social media came in the form of the website Myspace in 8th or 9th grade. I created a Myspace account for a singular reason – everyone else was doing it – and I got my first social media friend, Tom.

What Myspace may have sparked, Facebook perfected. Users can message friends, family, and strangers. They can post images and videos, and other people could tell you how great you were by “liking” your posts. Groups of community interests could form and interact in this virtual forum. In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg had done something unprecedented in that Facebook recreated the affirmation and rejection that face-to-face social interactions would otherwise provide, but in the cyber realm. Nothing provided greater ego inflation than dozens of likes on your post, and nothing hurt more than being “unfriended” by someone.

Since my time in high school, social media has grown, morphed, and evolved into dozens of different styles, platforms, and languages. Twitter, Instagram, QQ, WeChat, WhatsApp, Youtube; the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, as with all things in life, those with a determined motive can pull all sorts of means and materials to their cause. As a military officer, I am hyper-aware and keenly curious as to how this plays out in conflict.

What do you do when you cannot buy missiles? You fly planes into buildings. What do you do when you cannot get C4 explosives? You build bombs out of pressure cookers or fertilizer. What do you do when you cannot acquire firearms? You rent trucks and drive them down pedestrian walkways. The principle is simple: those who wish to engage in conflict or commit acts of violence will always find a way. Social media is no exception to this immutable law of human nature, and David Patrikarakos’ book shows how actors across the world are leveraging and weaponizing social media to their cause.

War in 140 Characters introduces a series of case studies exemplifying the various means by which social media influences the ideas and opinions of a public audience, rallies them to support or confront a cause, while also obfuscating the truth, undermining the credibility of existing institutions, and tipping the balance in a physical battlespace. Patrikarakos’ investigation takes readers into the heart of the fear and sadness of Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl residing in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 Israel-Palestine war. Farah’s tweets, retweeted thousands of times globally, brought to the attention of the global community the effects of the war on her and her family and radically altered public perceptions of who was the aggressor and the victim in the conflict. Farah, a young girl with no weapon nor political position, but rather a single social media persona coined as Homo digitalis, redirected the discourse surrounding the entire conflict and effectively cast Israel as the aggressor in the eyes of the global community. Israeli forces, seeing their loss of global legitimacy, were put on the defensive and had to master the art of the counter-narrative.

Patrikarakos introduces readers to Anna Sandalova, the “Facebook warrior” of Ukraine resisting Russian aggression. “It’s all about networks,” Anna states in an interview with the author. “Facebook is the main tool I use because there is an entire community on there who can find solutions.” Unlike Farah, Anna as Homo digitalis uses the social network to directly influence battlefield conditions. When government institutions become inept, hyper-connected private citizens assume the functions of the state, including waging war. Anna stands in the frigid air of the eastern European winter passing out uniforms sourced from supporters in the West after a plea for aid she posted on Facebook. “They really like the German uniforms. They’re really high quality,” Anna comments as soldiers line up for sizing. Anna posts images of soldiers with new supplies to her Facebook page, bringing faces to otherwise faceless fighters. Moreover, Anna’s posts ensure the benefactors see the results of their donations, ensuring the donations will continue.

War in 140 Characters shines a spotlight on several other Homo digitali whose influence in conflict is something any information warrior must understand. Another is Vitaly Bespalov, an internet troll in Russia’s state-sponsored troll farms whose sole responsibility is to delegitimize the narratives of media outlets and institutions that do not support the official Russian line. Vitaly doctors images, fabricates hoaxes, falsifies facts, and misrepresents truths to create “a post-truth world.” Eliot Higgins, a British uber-gamer turned online investigator, pieced together images posted to social media websites to trace the path of the Russian Buk surface-to-air missile system from the 53rd Brigade of the Moscow Military District based in Kursk, across the Ukrainian border, to the field just outside of the village of Chervonyi Zhovten, where it shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014. From the comfort of his home in the U.K., Eliot unequivocally proved Russian culpability.

War in 140 Characters was thoroughly enjoyable. Written for a general audience, David Patrikarakos’ writing style is clear, articulate, and replete with vivid detail.  His choice in case studies provides breadth and depth to social media’s use in conflict and will capture the reader’s attention through every page. For an information warrior, the work will provide clear ideas for the murky battlefield of social media.

For a non-warrior, it will shock you. When you finish reading, you will want to delete your Facebook, turn off your cable news, unfollow everyone on Twitter, and insist your friends and family do the same. You will realize how pervasive social media is in your life. But on the other hand, perhaps you will be inspired, and endeavor to bring your cause to social media to turn the tides in favor of your struggle. Either way, no one will ever escape social media’s influences, and for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, public figures or private citizens, social media is going to be one of the most powerful weapons in any arsenal, and also any adversary’s.

In modern conflict, victory will not go to whose military causes more casualties on the battlefield, but whose story garners more support. Who comes out on top will be heavily influenced on how effectively one aims the social media barrel. And that is on you.

LTJG Robert Solonick is a naval intelligence officer stationed at the Office of Naval Intelligence, Washington, D.C., where he serves as a collections strategist and operations officer. LTJG Solonick has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University with a concentration in U.S. national security policy and an advanced graduate certificate in post-conflict reconstruction. He and his wife, Mariah Lopez, a ballet instructor, reside in Virginia with their German Sheppard, Cairo. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: “Social Media Marketing Strategy” via Wikimedia Commons. 

The Secret Ingredients of “Collaborative Leadership”

Weisbrode, Kenneth. Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 110 pp. $79.955.

Weisbrode – The Art of Collaborative Leadership

By Erik Sand

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed command of Allied forces in Europe in early 1943, he faced a daunting task. Not only did he need to prepare to assault the vaunted Germany army, but he faced a complicated set of command relationships. His three subordinates, Harold Alexander, Arthur Tedder, and Andrew Cunningham, were all British officers. Two of the three were from different services. Moreover, they all outranked him! Later in his life, Eisenhower would define leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority.” Eisenhower’s allied command would test, if not forge, this philosophy. In Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, author Kenneth Weisbrode describes Eisenhower’s leadership style both as an Army officer, and later as president.

Two traits stand out in supporting Ike’s “Collaborative Leadership” – his capacity for empathy and his self-discipline. As a middle child in a large family, Eisenhower grew up needing to recognize, adapt to, and shape the feelings of others. In command, he applied these skills. He sometimes reworded messages to subordinates to ensure they had generous interpretations. He spent time in informal conversations with his subordinates outside of meetings to better understand their perspective. As Weisbrode notes, empathy is “not easy in asymmetrical relationships: for the senior there is every incentive to dismiss the views of the less powerful and to get on with things; for the junior there is often thus every incentive to feel undervalued to begrudge this.” The difficulty of displaying empathy highlights the second theme: the importance of personal discipline to Eisenhower’s leadership.

Ike’s particular forte was leading, and keeping together, alliances. Yet, he often complained about exactly that process. In 1942 he wrote in his journal, “My God, how I hate to work by any method that forces me to depend on someone else.” Later he wrote, “What a headache this combined stuff is. We spend our time figuring out how to keep from getting in each other’s way rather than in how to fight the war.” Historians have called Ike’s leadership as president “the hidden hand.” He carefully chose his moments of intervention in discussions so as not to influence them too early, even though he had frequently already thought through the issue at hand. Even his apparently offhand remarks often were not. To so carefully control his own behavior, as well as to excel in work he found frustrating, required immense self-discipline. Perhaps this combination helps explain why, when it flared, his temper was so famous.

While Eisenhower’s understanding of leadership is simple to state, implementing it is less straightforward. The naval service could gain by discussing both of empathy and self-discipline more explicitly in discussions of leadership. We speak of “knowing our people,” but rarely of having empathy for them. The two are similar, but not the same. Empathy requires sensing and understanding the emotions of the other party. Perhaps our general discomfort with emotions explains why we avoid a term that highlights them.

Discipline forms the foundation of any naval organization, but we do not often explicitly acknowledge the challenge of self-discipline. Even Weisbrode does not explicitly speak to the issue despite its frequent appearance in his descriptions. Few people will point out their leader’s failings directly until it is too late. Often, the discipline required is not to restrain oneself from misconduct, but from excessive intervention in the affairs of subordinates. The challenge becomes greater as leaders rise in the ranks, the temptations of authority grow stronger, and they become more confident in their own opinions. A leader’s discipline must be self-discipline.

In summary, while occasionally difficult to follow as it shifts between Eisenhower’s experiences and actions and the philosophy of friendship and leadership, Weisbrode’s short 93-page text provides a leadership study that focuses on less-commonly discussed leadership traits as displayed by one of America’s greatest leaders.

Erik Sand is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve and a PhD candidate in the MIT Security Studies Program. The views expressed here do not represent those of U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: 01/10/1944-Algiers: Prime Minister Winston Churchill,shown here w/ some of the ‘boys’, is smiling for the camera for the first time since his recent illness and donned his famous siren suit and a colorful dressing gown for the occasion. From left to right: General J.F.M. Whitely Air Marshal Sir Arthur W.Tedder, Deputy Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater; Admiral Cunningham; Gen.Dwight D.Eisenhower; Gen. Harold Alexander; Prime Minister Churchill; Lt.Gen.Sir Humprey Gale, Gen. Sir Henry Wilson and Gen. Smith.