For those in the counterinsurgency, it’s a bad time for public relations. Retired general David Petraeus resigned as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over an extramarital affairs scandal. Journalist Thomas Ricks’ book “The Generals” denounced modern military commanders as incompetent. The enhanced interrogation techniques depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture.
However, retired general Stanley McChrystal’s recent memoir, “My Share of the Task,” read like an oasis amidst much cynicism about America’s “long war” on terror. Those looking for the “real” McChrystal, those who want to dig up juicy bits in a bare-it-all memoir, will be disappointed by “My Share of the Task” — the general took the high road and kept it classy. Writing in a stoic prose occasionally dotted with bloody details, McChrystal recounts his life in terms of leadership lessons. The war he depicts is neither a Pindar ode nor a magazine exposé.
To admirers, McChrystal will be remembered as the brilliant and innovative commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq. To detractors, his legacy will be marred by Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone article, which depicts McChrystal and his aides mocking civilian government officials. McChrystal according to McChrystal is a human who made mistakes — and, nonetheless, a leader devoted to his family, the military and America. The general’s values may seem old-fashioned or trite in our post-modern Yale society, but we must remember that he lived most of his life in the military. The civilians among us may not fully identify with his experience or beliefs as described in the book, but, as readers, we can appreciate his stoicism — or at least, recognize the pettiness of complaining about walking up Science Hill.
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McChrystal’s undergraduate years, as described in “My Share of the Task,” make most of our Yale lives feel like a vacation.
The son of Major General Herbert McChrystal, “Stan” entered West Point in 1972. The disciplinarian nature of the U.S. Military Academy was a world apart from the countercultural, anti-war pop culture. “A decade of fighting in Vietnam and a series of scandals like My Lai had degraded the military’s credibility with the country, and as cadets we were periodically reminded that we were out of step with the views, values, and lifestyles of many of our generation,” McChrystal writes. This observation wasn’t merely a plebe’s introspection; he continues to dwell upon the growing gulf between the military and civilian worlds throughout the book.
Nevertheless, McChrystal did not try to hide the rough edges of his younger years. Early on at West Point, he earned bad grades and once got wasted in his barracks — a big “no, no” at West Point. As a result, McChrystal spent countless hours marching as punishment. But his antics and energetic spirit made him popular among his classmates and as it turned out, peer evaluations accounted for a significant part of a cadet’s class rank. Maybe there is something to McChrystal’s reputation of being “badass,” to quote Hastings. Even the critical reporter cannot help notice how loyal and dedicated McChrystal’s aides were to the general.
Although McChrystal seems to flash his exploits with a secret smurf, his tone is strangely humble. Even generals have a checkered past, he seems to say. Not everyone’s a goody-goody like David Petraeus.
“Leaders walk a fine line between self-confidence and humility,” McChrystal later reflects.
A fine line indeed, as the general would learn painfully on June 21, 2010 with the appearance of that infamous Rolling Stone article that ended his career.
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If there is something McChrystal can feel confident about, it’s his grit. He reportedly ran seven to eight miles daily, ate one meal each day to save time and slept four hours at night. These are flat out statistics. Likewise, the general describes his budding military career with a factual tone. For instance, he graduated from the Ranger School, an intense 61-day program known as the “toughest combat course in the world.” How tough? Two Ranger students died in wilderness training a few weeks before McChrystal’s class started.
His military and academic preparation for his eventual generalship was extensive. He served as an intelligence and operations officer in South Korea and saw action during the Gulf War. In addition to studying at the Naval War College, he served as a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The section documenting the general’s ascendence through the military hierarchy may not be the most exciting read, but the memoir takes a livelier turn at the Iraq War. McChrystal served as the commander of the JSOC from 2003 to 2008, a top secret organization established to eradicate terrorists. Operating out of an air base at Balad, north of Baghdad, the general set up a headquarter that facilitated communication between interrogators, analysts and “operators,” or those who carried out raids and surveillance. One might chuckle at the irony of how McChrystal preached transparency and data within JSOC while the military so neatly kept the organization’s activities under wraps.
Perhaps that’s why McChrystal’s account of his JSOC days read like a spy novel. Like George Smiley’s relentless hunt for Karla in the “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” series, the general’s search was for an even deadlier enemy — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. A Jordanian militant Islamist who trained terrorists in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi moved to Iraq, where he organized violence against Iraqis and Americans alike.
Through a slurry of bombings and beheadings, shootings and suicide attacks — some by al-Zarqawi’s men and some not — McChrystal never lost track of his goal to capture the terrorist leader. Although observant readers of current events probably know what led to al-Zarqawi’s targeted killing in 2006, it would be irresponsible for this reviewer to give away the plot. Superficially, the hunt for the master terrorist seems like the stuff of Hollywood — but it’s not. War continues after the death of a villain. “We had killed Zarqawi too late. He bequeathed Iraq a sectarian paranoia and an incipient civil war,” McChrystal notes.
In his final assignment, McChrystal served as the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, where he hoped to improve a failing counterinsurgency campaign. Quickly, he found himself caught between a Pentagon that requested additional troops and a White House reluctant to allow big-scale escalation. He fought hard to get 30,000 additional troops in November 2009, but also drew the ire of the White House. Although McChrystal sympathizes with military leaders, he never directly pointed fingers when describing the conflict between the Obama administration and the Pentagon.
Drawing from political theorist Samuel Huntington’s book “The Soldier and the State,” McChrystal writes, “a military commander should endeavor to operate as independently of political or even policy pressures as possible … yet I found … the demands of the job made this difficult.”
“Rolling Stone” article or not, the general found himself in a precarious political position in early 2010.
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We don’t talk about the political demands of military leadership enough. Go into the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and you will see an exhibit of Civil War generals. Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson. They appear fearsome and resolute, standing or horseback. They developed brilliant tactics and led their men into battle.
But war is not some glorified chess game. Often, we don’t remember the dirty, political bits of military leadership. America is a democracy, which means public opinion matters. Battlefield victories matter, but so do scandals. Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire, allegations of torture by the JSOC and that infamous “Rolling Stone” article — these all matter. While McChrystal does not brush aside each of these subjects, he does not discuss them extensively either. He does not gush forth apologies, but he stoically accepts responsibility for his actions.
“All leaders are human. They get tired, angry and jealous and carry the same range of emotions and frailties common to mankind. Most leaders periodically display them,” he reflects.
“My Share of the Task” does not present the intimate close-up modern readers demand of memoirs. Don’t expect an Oprah-esque tell-all because McChrystal lived most of his life as a soldier. Whatever your view of him, a “runaway general” or a military maverick, you should remember he is a man — like Horatius, like Nelson, like those who fell at Gettysburg in the brave days of old.