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  • Victor C. Bolles

Commander's Intent

I just finished reading Call Sign Chaos, the new book by former Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps General Jim Mattis and co-authored by Bing West. Despite the inference of the word chaos in the title, the book deals primarily with Mattis’ career in the Marines and is not about his tenure at the Pentagon as part of the Trump administration. The book provides tremendous insight into what a life in the military is like, especially to civilians such as me.

One of the important concepts that helped make him a successful battlefield commander and which he discusses at length in the book, but which also has applications off the battlefield, is the commander’s intent. When General Mattis began his career, he had direct interaction with the Marines (or grunts as he calls them) under his command. He could communicate directly with his grunts and build a sense of camaraderie and trust with them. But as he rose in the ranks his interactions with his grunts had to be routed through intermediaries. In this modern age, communication up and down the chain of command is easy but can be counterproductive. If subordinate officers feel they must wait until they receive a specific command from HQ before taking action, they will lose the initiative and be less effective on the battlefield. A commander needs to instill a sense of trust among the men under his command so that they know that their taking any initiative under changing circumstances is aligned with the intent of the commander.

General Mattis states, “we learn how to convey our intent so that it is passed intact through layers of intermediate leadership to our youngest Marines. For instance, you may say, ‘we will attack that bridge in order to cut off the enemy’s escape.’ The critical information is your intent, summed up in the phrase ’in order to.’” If attacking the bridge does not stop the enemy from escaping, then you are not following the commander’s intent. Properly trained Marines will take the initiative and change their tactics in order to follow the commander’s intent and stop the enemy’s escape.

General Mattis goes on to say, “Such aligned independence is based on the shared understanding of the ‘why’ for the mission. This is the key to unleashing audacity.” Of course it takes discipline and training to make an effective fighting force. But it is the trust engendered by their understanding of the commander’s intent that allows them to innovate and adapt under changing circumstances without fear of a reprimand if they make a mistake. At least if their commander is Jim Mattis. Aligned independence is very similar to the thought diversity described by professor Scott E. Page in his book, The Difference. Diversity works when people are working toward a common goal. It does not work when there are different or conflicting goals. It is also similar to the thought meritocracy described by Ray Dalio in his book, Principles.

Serendipitously, soon after reading General Mattis’ book, I read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled, Whatever Happened to “We the People”? Most people think of the U.S. Constitution as being made up of the articles of the Constitution and amendments to the Constitution such as all the attention given to the current acrimonious arguments about the Second Amendment. As for the preamble, it is basically, “We the People, yadda, yadda, yadda, Article One.” But the preamble is more than that.

The Preamble states,

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to our selves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Preamble is the commander’s intent for the United States. The rest of the Constitution describes the mechanisms needed to implement the Preamble’s intent. Just as General Mattis’ commander’s intent provides clarity of vision and trust on the battlefield, so too does the Preamble provide the clarity of vision regarding the purpose of government that generates the trust among the citizens derived from having a common purpose.

It is true that we, individually and as a nation, have fallen short of the goals of the intent of the Preamble. But General Mattis had an answer for the mistakes that occur on the battlefield. “Your job is to reward initiative in your junior officers and NCOs and facilitate their success. When they make mistakes while doing their best to carry out your intent, stand by them. Examine your coaching and how well you articulate your intent.” Faithfulness (remember the Marine’s motto) in trying to achieve the commander’s intent will assure eventual success. And if we citizens or our representatives fall short, we must look toward how faithful we were to the intent of the Preamble and consider what we can do to more truly adhere to that intent.


Many people now consider the U.S. Constitution to be antiquated and not relevant to today’s realities. To my mind, the great documents written throughout the ages should be venerated and studied, not discarded in the trash heap of history. And the Constitution has been amended numerous times as we have tried to more closely adhere to the Preamble’s intent. But people want more. They want to include new rights such as a right to healthcare or the right to a free college education. However, many of these new rights violate the intent of the Preamble. One of the most important goals of the Preamble’s intent is “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” As Thomas Sowell noted in his book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, our liberties arise from the limitations on the power of government and an increase in the power of government reduces our liberties.

These new rights (also known as social justice or human rights as compared to the civil rights contained in the Bill of Rights) require an increase in government power to procure those human rights, and thereby, diminish our liberties. The constitutions of other governments often contain the promise of such human rights, even though many of those governments lack the ability to actually provide such human rights. They are aspirational but not deliverable. Other countries choose to ignore such constitutional mandates or include other constitutional provisions that override such rights. The constitution of the Soviet Union contained many “human rights.” So does the Constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of China. But the people of the Soviet Union had no liberty. And the people of the Peoples’ Republic of China do not enjoy the Blessings of Liberty either.

It is easy to enumerate new human rights. It seems to be almost a requirement during political campaigns as candidates dream up new human rights that can be only granted if they are elected. But it is much more difficult to achieve the goals of these human rights. It is not the intent of the Preamble that people should suffer, or that they lack healthcare or advanced education. But the intent of the Founders would be that such laudable goals be achieved in alignment with the intent of the Preamble and without sacrificing our liberties. Besides, entitlement programs are not without harmful side-effects and unintended consequences. There are trade-offs to any government policy. But our liberty should not be the price we must pay for such policies.

The secret of America’s success has been that ideas and innovations bubbled up from below. Progress has not been commanded from a central authority but arose from millions of Americans trying to achieve their unique American Dream. This was also the secret to General Mattis’ success on the battlefield. Clearly communicating the commander’s intent, gave everyone from subordinate commanders to grunts on the front lines, not only the trust that everyone in the unit was working toward the same goal, it gave them the freedom to innovate in the face of changing conditions.

General Mattis wrote, “a lack of trust will see brittle often tentative execution of even the best-laid plans. Nothing compensates for a lack of trust.” But trust seems in short supply in the current political scene. That is because we are seeking different, divergent goals. Different understandings of what the Preamble’s intent is or should be. If the intent of the Preamble drafted in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and ratified in 1789 after much debate and discussion, is not suitable for the 21st century, then the challenge is to craft and approve an updated version.

The Preamble makes it clear who the commander is: We, the People. But the nuts and bolts of the Constitution sets a high bar to amend or change any part of this founding document. Many people from progressives to populists want to make it easier to change the Constitution or circumvent its intent. They find the Constitution an impediment to the policies they want to implement. But the high bar was set intentionally by the Founders. An easily changed constitution becomes nothing more than a political tool of the party in power. The Communist Party of China easily changed the constitution of China to allow Xi Jinping to be President-for-life. Other constitutions change back and forth on each election. The U.S. Constitution is a framework for the implementation of the intent described in the Preamble. The high bar to amending it means that any change must be supported by a broad consensus of Americans.

The radicals on the far left and far right need to understand that significant change can only occur in America if there is a broad consensus among the people in support of such change. That means that politicians should focus on practical solutions that that have a solid chance of success. And, of course, these solutions must be in alignment of the commander’s intent of We the People.

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