Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir, 464 pp., $29.95.
UNLIKE TOLSTOY’S families, uninteresting books are uninteresting in their own way; interesting books all operate on several levels. Retired U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal’s My Share of the Task operates on three levels: first, the level of military memoir; second, as a detailed, even intimate, inside perspective on the concurrent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and third, and perhaps most important historically, as an account of the U.S. military’s transition from traditional wars between nation-states to the unconventional and irregular insurgency warfare of the early twenty-first century.
More than one of the endorsers whose words appear on the book’s back cover compare My Share of the Task favorably to Ulysses Grant’s historic memoir. And, at least on the third level of this book, they are right in doing so. This is a scrupulous, though unvarnished, account of a military life as an heir to an army family, a West Point graduate in June 1976, and ultimately as a four-star general officer in command of the NATO-sponsored International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan beginning in June 2009. McChrystal’s impressive career spanned one of the most complex periods of U.S. military history and operates, intentionally or not, as a guide through that history. As he says in the book’s foreword: “The Army I knew as a child, the one I experienced as a young officer, and the one I left in 2010 were as different as the times they resided in.”
Because McChrystal either maintained a detailed diary or made countless calls to colleagues and friends for dates, times and places, his narrative is nailed down with specifics. Shifting bases as he rises through the command structure, McChrystal’s book meticulously informs the reader as to where he is (where more often than not his long-suffering wife, Annie, is not) and who his colleagues in arms are in each venue. He assumes blame when things inevitably go wrong but is quick to share credit, almost to a fault, with those in a colleague or staff capacity.
Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, McChrystal remembers “my mariners, souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me,” and possesses a kind word and generous remark for all who served with him along the way.
It would be a great surprise if this book does not become required reading at U.S. (and perhaps other) military academies and even more so in the network of command and staff colleges for rising officers. There is much to be learned here about strategy, tactics and doctrine, as well as the necessity for their adaptability in often rapidly changing circumstances. This is especially true as our military has been transitioning into an era marked by increased integration of services and commands and the rise of special operations. As proof, one need look no further than the relatively recent creation of the U.S. Special Operations Command, one of our most important joint combat commands.
The hallmarks of a soldier’s life, the first layer of this memoir, are duty, discipline and ambition. McChrystal’s father was a Vietnam veteran, a captain when the son was born, who would rise to become a major general. That McChrystal would attend and graduate from West Point was virtually assumed. The memoir’s early chapters trace his path through the staff assignments at various army bases to his inevitable progress up the command structure from company to brigade to battalion and eventually to leadership in newly formed multiservice special-operations combat units such as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Various academic detours to command and staff colleges and even a stint at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York broadened his horizons. Along the way he encountered and traced parallel career courses with other ambitious, fast-rising officers such as David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno.
There are invaluable insights into military thinking, not least the struggle between the destructiveness of conflict and the desire to be engaged when it occurs. Six months after he left the Army Rangers for the Naval War College, he missed the elite unit’s participation in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama: “Soldiers don’t love war but often feel professional angst when they have to watch one from the sidelines.”
MCCHRYSTAL’S RANGER and other experiences qualified him to join a new task force in 1990, a joint special-operations command unit involving multiple services. He thus emerged at the point of the spear in the burgeoning special-operations approach to irregular warfare. The timing coincided with the winding down of the Cold War and the rise of low-intensity conflict. It would take a new generation of officers, and an even newer generation of national-security policy makers, to appreciate the historic transformation that was occurring. Nowhere would this become more evident than in the insurgencies that emerged from the postinvasion occupation of Baghdad and in the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.