Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stanley McChrystal: The Thrown-Away General

Stanley McChrystal
(Image from Rolling Stone)

By now, everyone has surely heard of the Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings, "The Runaway General," that served to deep-six General Stanley McChrystal's leadership role in Afghanistan and probably his military career.

Although I've had a link to the article for several days, I've not had time to read it until now, after the repercussions have all been felt, the ramifications have all been mapped, and the consequences have already worked themselves out, but to be frank, I think that the criticisms of McChrystal over this have exaggerated his statements, and many of the remarks most criticized were made by others, not directly by McChrystal himself.

Nevertheless, he's the leader, and he stepped over a line in even allowing a Rolling Stone reporter such unfettered access, demonstrating a degree of poor judgment in doing so. The question for me is thus why a clearly brilliant man well-versed in military intelligence -- especially one who's working in counterinsurgency and following a doctrine that emphatically teaches that soldiers should not unnecessarily make enemies out of civilians -- would so radically underestimate the impact of such an article in Rolling Stone, of all magazines to choose!

I'm just guessing, but I think that one thing to consider is the practice of embedding reporters within the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these individuals have bonded with the military and written deeply engaging, sometimes rough and biting, but generally favorable depictions of the men whose fighting they've covered. And Hastings does have some good words for McChrystal:
He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official. He asks for opinions, and seems genuinely interested in the response.
But Hastings never bonded so closely as many embedded reporters have, perhaps because he didn't come under enemy fire and experience the feeling of having his very life protected by the men about whom he was writing.

But I'm only speculating on that point, and be that as it may, I suspect another factor at play here. McChrystal is described by Hastings as a rebel who likes to push against limits, a characterization that McChrystal would have to acknowledge since he likes to quote Bruce Lee's words on going beyond limits:
"There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."
Words are cheap; actions, however, can cost you. Let's reflect on the possible significance of McChrystal's rebellious character by looking at some of his actions:
The son of a general, McChrystal was also a ringleader of the campus dissidents -- a dual role that taught him how to thrive in a rigid, top-down environment while thumbing his nose at authority every chance he got. He accumulated more than 100 hours of demerits for drinking, partying and insubordination -- a record that his classmates boasted made him a "century man." One classmate, who asked not to be named, recalls finding McChrystal passed out in the shower after downing a case of beer he had hidden under the sink. The troublemaking almost got him kicked out, and he spent hours subjected to forced marches in the Area, a paved courtyard where unruly cadets were disciplined.
Despite his troublemaking, he made himself a career . . . by continuing to press against boundaries:
[A]s he moved up through the ranks, McChrystal relied on the skills he had learned as a troublemaking kid at West Point: knowing precisely how far he could go in a rigid military hierarchy without getting tossed out. Being a highly intelligent badass, he discovered, could take you far -- especially in the political chaos that followed September 11th.
Read the entire article for more details, particularly on his putative role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire, an experience that might have taught him that he had a charmed career since many a lesser man would have gone down in the controversy.

Whatever the truth about that incident, General McChrystal was brilliant enough, successful enough, and even irreplaceable enough to keep moving forward in his career despite having -- and using -- a sharp tongue, but his success appears to have blinded him to political risks outside the military, where he apparently didn't realize "precisely how far he could go . . . without getting tossed out," the irony being that not his actions, but rather his words ended up costing him, for when you speak or allow your subordinates to speak frankly and critically about powerful men like Special Envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, National Security Advisor James Jones, Vice-President Joseph Biden, and President Barack Obama, you won't have a career for very long.

As McChrystal found out . . . having gotten thrown away.

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At 11:13 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

"McChrystal is described by Hastings as a rebel who likes to push against limits"

So many brilliant generals throughout history have been the same and uncompromising. I was watching a documentary on Stalingrad and look at the difference between Rommel and Paulus to name a recent example.
I think the news feeds us more information than we really need most days and the personal lives of politicians is under far too much scrutiny. I think you can be a boozy womanizer and still be a brilliant world leader.

At 11:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think so, too, and so does David Brooks.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 AM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

"But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important."

Quite right. I would never run for public office. I doubt my life would stand up to the kind of scrutiny politicians have to endure.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I know that mine wouldn't . . . but don't tell anybody.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Phil said...

Because McCrystal had stated that he thought the campaign in Afghanistan will fail, he won't have wanted to be the scapegoat.

Hence he may deliberately have created the conditions for his dismissal.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If so, that would reflect rather badly on him. Does he seem that sort of man?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Phil said...

....Does he seem that sort of man...?


Considering it was just a few months ago when Obama had had to tell McChrystal to keep his opinions to himself, McChrystal must have known he was skating on thin ice (so to speak) when he spoke freely to the Rolling Stone reporter.

If he didn't consciously create the conditions for his dismissal, he may unconsciously have done so.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see your point, but I still think that he was simply more of a rebel than the sort who would intentionally sabotage his career.

We'll perhaps be hearing more about this in time.

Jeffery Hodges

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