Few have emerged from the job unscathed

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

General Mattis has a book coming out, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, and the Wall Street Journal has published an (adapted) excerpt:

On my flight out of Denver, the flight attendant’s standard safety briefing caught my attention: If cabin pressure is lost, masks will fall…Put your own mask on first, then help others around you. In that moment, those familiar words seemed like a metaphor: To preserve our leadership role, we needed to get our own country’s act together first, especially if we were to help others.


When the president asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. To quote a great American company’s slogan, you “just do it.” So long as you are prepared, you say yes.

When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it. Whether asked to serve by a Democratic or a Republican, you serve. “Politics ends at the water’s edge.”


When I said I could do the job, I meant I felt prepared. I knew the job intimately. In the late 1990s, I had served as the executive secretary to two secretaries of defense, William Perry and William Cohen. In close quarters, I had gained a personal grasp of the immensity and gravity of a “secdef’s” responsibilities. The job is tough: Our first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, committed suicide, and few have emerged from the job unscathed, either legally or politically.


The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise and overcome. But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. Amateur performance is anathema.

The Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100% effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake—and I made many—the Marines promoted me. They recognized that these mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right. Year in and year out, the Marines had trained me in skills they knew I needed, while educating me to deal with the unexpected.

Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I encountered in my journey through multiple commands and dozens of countries. The Marines’ military excellence does not suffocate intellectual freedom or substitute regimented dogma for imaginative solutions. They know their doctrine, often derived from lessons learned in combat and written in blood, but refuse to let that turn into dogma.

Woe to the unimaginative one who, in after-action reviews, takes refuge in doctrine. The critiques in the field, in the classroom or at happy hour are blunt for good reasons. Personal sensitivities are irrelevant. No effort is made to ease you through your midlife crisis when peers, seniors or subordinates offer more cunning or historically proven options, even when out of step with doctrine.

In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most were initiative and aggressiveness. Institutions get the behaviors they reward.

During my monthlong preparation for my Senate confirmation hearings, I read many excellent intelligence briefings. I was struck by the degree to which our competitive military edge was eroding, including our technological advantage. We would have to focus on regaining the edge.


It now became even clearer to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: That reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. Books like the “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” “Sherman” by B.H. Liddell Hart and Field Marshal William Slim’s “Defeat Into Victory” illustrated that we could always develop options no matter how worrisome the situation. Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: Properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options.


Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy. At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.


  1. Graham says:

    “In that moment, those familiar words seemed like a metaphor: To preserve our leadership role, we needed to get our own country’s act together first, especially if we were to help others.”

    Do 99% of Americans think and talk in this missionary way all the time? Is it deemed impossible to cooperate with others without doing it with this mindset?

    “When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it.” Solid in many ways, especially in the context of the sentence which follows. I can’t decide if the passage is also meant to imply that ideology has nothing to do with the first clause, which is either spectacularly naive or appallingly manipulative. Also, does anyone left not speak of America in terms of an “experiment in democracy”? Is it just a country with a history for anyone, or even just a set of discrete values/ideological propositions?

    On that last, ever so subtle passage- has discussion truly reached the point at which the definition of America having allies and cooperating with other nations more broadly actually requires that mode in which the US ‘leads’ by subsuming its interests to the framework demanded by the allies, subsidizes their efforts, and demands little in return, and everything has to be institutionalized? There is no other way of operating short of having no friends and telling everyone else to f off? Also, “Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together.” ‘As many nations as [the US] can make common cause with’ is going to need more parsing and some context.

    And lastly, “we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together”. Which of the authors wrote this patronizing, kindergartenish exhortation?

    Sorry. Living in Canada I’m taking a daily mental bath in this sort of guff. One would have hoped a USMC general called Mad Dog would, whatever his specific views on these issues, not just repeat the institutional cant in its own cant phrases.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    The oxygen mask principle has worked well for me since I decided to apply it all areas of my life. I think Jordan Peterson expresses a similar sentiment: clean your own room first.

    When I was younger and looking for guidance, I feel victim to wounded Samaritans, who wanted to try to guide others in order to feel better than themselves. They bungled it, of course.

    You can’t lead until you know the way. You can’t defend others if you can’t even defend yourself. You are the center point of your sphere of control, or else you haven’t got a sphere of control.

    I’ll take the dogma of what works over what doesn’t work any day of the week. The rigidity of self-certainty is the commonest thing on the planet, but people knowing what they are talking about is rare and precious. How to tell the difference? Watch what they do, and what happens as a result. Then you’ll know whether to listen to what they say.

  3. Adar says:

    The plan is the base from which all change is made. Flexible and resourceful the leader must be.

    Expect to make mistakes and always remember the other guy is going to make mistakes too.

  4. Grasspunk says:

    “Put your own mask on first, then help others around you”

    This has been interpreted by Mrs Grasspunk as “Drink your own coffee before you bother making anybody else’s.”

  5. Bob Sykes says:

    Consider this list, which only goes back to LBJ, or so:

    Afghanistan, Chile, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Grenada, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, Viet Nam, Yemen.

    Not one of those countries attacked us or any of our allies, yet we attacked, invaded or organized coups in them.

    On the public to do list are: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela.

    Much fun there. What’s a few American cities, if we can have that much fun.

    Mattis and his ilk are NOT patriots. They ARE war criminals, in the exact same sense that Goebbels, Guderian, Rommel, MussolinI, Tojo, Yamamoto, Stalin, Hirohito and Hitler were war criminals. They all organized and lead wars of aggression against peaceful states.

    In a just American, nearly every senior officer and politician in America would be hanged for war crimes.

  6. Kirk says:

    My days of respecting Mattis ended about the time I found out about his little side fiddle with Amazon for the Pentagon’s cloud services.

    I’ve got news for y’all: The entire promotion system that produces our leadership? It is corrupt. The products of that can’t be anything but corrupted, themselves. Mattis is no better than any of the other assclowns who’ve managed to beclown themselves; like Petreaus, he’s a flawed and corrupt rat bastard himself, just like the majority of the politicians who he served. I have no doubt that Petreaus would have crucified anyone under him for the security violations and marital infidelities he committed; meanwhile, doing all that is just fine for him. Different spanks for different ranks; Mattis had no problem doing what he did with Amazon representatives for the JEDI contract, and I would bet money that if you went and looked, you’d find several cases where he recommended punishment for Marines who did the exact same thing, while he was Corps Commandant.

    Fuck the lot of them. In the ass, with a pineapple.

  7. Longarch says:

    I have great respect for all Marines who are capable of criticizing their own military, starting with great luminaries like Smedley Butler and going along to lesser lights such as Carlton Meyer.

    In particular, Meyer recently pointed to criticisms at:




  8. Kgaard says:

    I read the Mattis piece expecting some great discussion of “tribalism.” But there was nothing. Zero. Nada. He can’t address the most important issue facing the country. So why did the WSJ bother publishing that piece? It was all blather.

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