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Stanley McChrystal Memoir: The Afghanistan War Commander Wouldn't Play Politics

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STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL
McChrystal reviews troops at his retirement ceremony, July 2010. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite | AP
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WASHINGTON -- How was it that Stanley McChrystal, a revered combat leader who reached the pinnacle of his career as the four-star general commanding the longest and perhaps most complex political-military conflict in American history, fell so fast, so dramatically, so quickly?

And why is it that three and a half years after McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, with yet another new military campaign plan designed to win the war, that the United States seems no closer to a satisfying end to the conflict?

In a new memoir, My Share of the Task, to be published Monday, McChrystal comes at these questions only obliquely. But he acknowledges a critical error: Unlike previous successful wartime leaders -- Dwight Eisenhower comes to mind -- he maintains that he wouldn't and didn't play politics. A reader finishing these nearly 400 pages suspects he disdained the political machinations that in Washington were determining the course of the war he was prosecuting thousands of miles away.

"I resolved to try to steer clear of politics,” he explains. “That wasn't easy." Nor, he acknowledges, 31 months after he was forced to resign, was it smart.

McChrystal insists that he sought to emulate the traditional ideal of the professional soldier -- to operate as far as possible outside of the sometimes-messy business of backroom statecraft.

But, as his memoir makes clear, his attempt to avoid politics created a deeper problem. In the fall of 2009, McChrystal was assembling an ambitious new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, just as the Obama White House was struggling to extricate itself from the deeply unpopular war. It was a time of intense and sometimes ugly partisan infighting with leaks and rumors raging through the White House, Pentagon, Capitol Hill and the 24-hour media.

At issue was the very course of the war: Shut it down and bring the troops home, or ramp up the effort to win.

What the nation badly needed at that critical juncture was a wartime commander who could not only inspire troops in battle, but could lead in the political arena as well. It needed a warrior who understood what was possible in Afghanistan and how to do it, someone who could knit together a coalition of support from such antagonists like Vice President Joe Biden, who favored a massive troop withdrawal, and Sen. John McCain, who was thundering for a massive troop increase.

In hindsight, McChrystal writes in an exasperatingly passive voice, "there were political realities outside my view ... I recognized, perhaps too slowly, the extent to which politics, personalities and other factors would complicate a course that, under the best of circumstances, would be remarkably difficult to navigate."

That a man so clearly talented -- a brilliant combat leader, most would acknowledge -- a voracious reader of history, a warrior fiercely dedicated, fanatically hardworking, demanding of and tender toward his troops -- could be blindsided by political intrigue and his own missteps, mirrors the ancient truths of Greek tragedy.

There was bad blood between the White House and the military long before McChrystal handed in his resignation in June 2010.

That was hours after Rolling Stone portrayed the lean, four-star commando as "The Runaway General" who coerced an intimidated President Barack Obama into sending more warfighters to Afghanistan and then engaged his staff in a few rounds of bashing the clueless civilian-politicians in Washington.

It's hard to imagine how a seasoned professional soldier -- a West Pointer who studied Clausewitz ("War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument"), who dramatically expanded and led secretive hunter-killer teams across Iraq and two dozen other countries, who served in Washington as director of the Joint Staff and had risen to four-star rank -- never seems to have developed the political antenna to warn of approaching threats, or to have mastered the basic mechanics of political maneuver.

Things got so bad, McChrystal relates, that he was shocked to find that while he was trying to fine-tune the Afghanistan War strategy, the Obama White House in the late fall of 2009 was still grappling with the question on the minds of most Americans: What exactly was the U.S. trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?

Or, as an exhausted infantryman put it to McChrystal during one of the general's battlefield tours: "Why are we here, Sir? What's the point?"

At just under 400 pages, McChrystal's memoir, written in 22 months and approved after an exhaustive Pentagon review, never clears up that question -- and dances away from other issues with scant explanation.

Many readers, for instance, might skip to the episode (page 387) in which he and his staff allowed Michael Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone -- a magazine known for its anti-war passion -- generous and extended access to their operations and private lives.

Apparently, McChrystal never gave this decision a second thought until he was awakened at 2 a.m. on June 22, 2010, with the news that the article had been published and "it's really bad."

His first thought: "How in the world could that story have been a problem?"

McChrystal takes just a page and a half to recount the incident, from that moment to the president's acceptance of his resignation. Readers will search in vain for an explanation of whether the general and his staff did and said what had been reported; if they did, why; or why precisely they allowed Hastings such unrestricted access. In short, were they guilty, and if so, what the heck were they thinking?

In true stoic warrior form, McChrystal simply takes responsibility: "Regardless of how I judged the story for fairness or accuracy, responsibility was mine. And its ultimate effect was immediately clear to me."

In similar fashion, McChrystal skips lightly over issues which deserve fuller explanation.

In April 2004, for instance, Spec. Pat Tillman of the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment was accidentally shot and killed by fellow troops during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan. McChrystal says he immediately advised the Special Operations and Central Commands that an investigation was underway but that early evidence pointed to friendly fire as the cause of his death.

Under intense pressure from the Bush White House, which wanted to portray Tillman as a combat hero, Tillman's family was led to believe that he died courageously under enemy fire. That misleading explanation was drafted by McChrystal's staff and approved by the general.

But he dismisses the entire episode by concluding that "any errors, which I should have caught, were not the result of any intention to misrepresent or mislead … to this day I am saddened by Ranger Tillman's death, as I am for the loss of every service member I served with, and for the pain such losses cause each family."

Only rarely in his memoir does McChrystal allow a glimpse behind his public persona as the stoic, unfeeling warrior. In one telling anecdote, he relates going on a daytime raid with Army Rangers on a house of suspected insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq.

The Rangers moved quickly and gathered a group of local men from inside and around the buildings on the concrete parking areas in the front. To ensure security, as they moved to identify each man, they had him lie on the pavement with his hands behind his head. One Iraqi was notably older than the others, and a young Ranger, without instruction, retrieved a white plastic chair for him from an automotive maintenance shop. As was normally the case, even in daytime, there were no women in the immediate area. But I saw a boy, probably about four years old, standing near one of the men, no doubt his father.
As the Rangers motioned for the men to lie down on the ground, I watched the boy. He stood quietly, as if confused, then, mimicking his father, the child lay down on the ground. He pressed one cheek flat against the pavement so that his face was turned toward his father and folded his small hands behind his head.
As I watched, I felt sick.
I could feel in my own limbs and chest the shame and fury that must have been coursing through the father, still lying motionless. Every ounce of him must have wanted to pop up, pull his son from the ground, stand him upright, and dust off the boy's clothes and cheek. To be laid on the ground in full view of his son was humiliating. For a proud man, to seemingly fail to protect that son from similar treatment was worse.
As I watched, I thought, not for the first time: It would be easy for us to lose.

But the war went on. "We could only hope the residents understood these raids were necessary," McChrystal writes, and a few pages later adds: "Our war demanded relentless focus and a hardening of natural emotions."

Yet it comes as no surprise that a man who devoted eight years to combat in two brutal and bloody wars, himself the son of an Army general who fought in Korea and Vietnam, feels profoundly the valor of shared sacrifice among men at war. Of war itself, McChrystal has almost nothing to say: no musing, at the end of his long career of service, about why he fought, and to what end, whether in the future the use of violent force could be or should be avoided. Or, more usefully, how to bridge the gap of mistrust between senior military leaders and the civilians they serve.

In a mea culpa of sorts, McChrystal offers that he sought as a senior commander to follow the ethic proposed by Samuel Huntington in his classic 1957 work, The Soldier and the State.

Huntington, McChrystal writes, "argued that a military commander should endeavor to operate as independently of political or even policy pressures as possible. And yet I found, as much as I wanted my role to be that prescribed by Huntington, the demands of the job made this difficult. The process of formulating, negotiating, articulating and then prosecuting even a largely military campaign involved politics at multiple levels that were impossible to ignore."

The counterpoint to his distaste for politics is one which readers might ponder. At a time when few Americans volunteer to serve, when the military seems a world away from the American mainstream, he takes just a moment to reflect on the nature of war and the community of those who volunteer to take part in it.

On a long helicopter flight north across Iraq on Christmas Eve 2009, hunched against the cold blast of air from an open hatch, he reflects that this is where he feels most comfortable.

I knew from history that war comes with frightening regularity, often fought over the same ground and similar causes as previous conflicts. Wars often begin with enthusiastic vigor but typically settle into costly, dirty business characterized for soldiers by fear, frustration and loneliness.... I felt the unbroken tradition of commitment to a mission, and a fierce commitment to one another. Like the generation they followed and those they now led, they came forward when called and sacrificed when needed. They did so quietly, often in shadows, with no expectation of reward. They were no better than their grandfathers, and not a bit worse.

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