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The McChrystal Way of War

March 1, 2013 Topics: CounterinsurgencyPost-ConflictSecurity Regions: AfghanistanIraq

The McChrystal Way of War

Mini Teaser: The general was an innovative thinker in the midst of major changes in the Army.

by Author(s): Gary Hart

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.

Setting the stage for those insurgencies, Osama bin Laden unified a host of relatively minor conflicts throughout the Middle East and Asia into an Al Qaeda–led struggle against the United States and its stationing of troops in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf War. Then came 9/11, and the world changed. The scramble to mount a force to capture bin Laden and crush Al Qaeda “felt dangerously ad hoc,” McChrystal reckons, and our “failure to trap bin Laden in Tora Bora in December and the messy Operation Anaconda . . . seemed to validate this concern.” Here as elsewhere, McChrystal refuses to pin the tail on the political donkey, but his message is implicit. He astutely observes:

I had a nagging feeling that a whole world of Afghan power politics . . . was churning outside our view. I felt like we were high-school students who had wandered into a mafia-owned bar, dangerously unaware of the tensions that filled the room and the authorities who controlled it.

He adds: “The strategy to help build Afghan institutions was well conceived, but the West’s effort was poorly informed, organized, and executed.” In referring to “the West,” he is clearly implicating the political and diplomatic, not the military, command structure. And as his and our government’s attention turned from Kabul to Baghdad, he recognizes yet again how unsophisticated and politically naive we were. The romantic balloon of neoconservative fascination with Iraqi expatriates quickly burst: “I came to believe [that] the inaccuracy of Iraqi expatriates’ claims about their ability to marshal opposition to Saddam should have made us question their overall credibility.” Three-quarters of McChrystal’s memoir is given to his service in senior command positions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which gave him a window into political decision making. His skepticism rose with the increasing transparency of the window as his military roles became more important.

Between McChrystal’s West Point graduation in 1976, the year following the end of the Vietnam War, and the post-9/11 dual engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military, and especially the army, had to rebuild itself—not only structurally but also, and more so, mentally. The U.S. military is not accustomed to losing, and Vietnam was seen as a loss. That experience caused young officers such as McChrystal to study the changing nature of conflict and to call into question the applicability of traditional nation-state military structures, weapons and doctrines to indigenous, postcolonial civil wars and the rise of so-called nonstate actors on the global scene.

Thus, the period of almost exactly twenty-five years between the end of the Vietnam War and the events of 9/11 saw the U.S. military rebuilding its morale at a time when it was also beginning the painful transition from “the most powerful nation on earth” in traditional military terms to a nation facing standoffs with more primitively equipped indigenous forces in two theaters. McChrystal was at or near the center of this historic transition, and that is what makes his memoir so valuable and important.

In this regard, he should consider a more philosophical account of lessons learned during this period, which could serve as a guidebook for the continuing transition. This memoir does not contain such a gold mine but rather nuggets of valuable ore represented by critical experiences along the way in both theaters. The two central military themes woven throughout are “jointness”—the integration of multiservice command structures and organization (often against stiff traditional service resistance, which he does not focus on)—and the expansion of special operations, notoriously so in the SEAL raid on the bin Laden compound.

BY EARLY 2004, the joint special-operations task force originally conceived in 1980, and in which McChrystal first served in 1990, had become JSOC, and he became the first head of this special-operations command. Its principal mission was in many ways a precursor to the dramatic elimination of Osama bin Laden years later. In several chapters McChrystal documents in considerable detail the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the jihadist insurgency in Iraq, who led the anti-Shia forces, created terrible bloodshed, and prevented even preliminary stability and national unity. This narrative would provide a movie script rivaling Zero Dark Thirty. By now, McChrystal was becoming a sophisticated political analyst, as his summary of the motives and mentality of the Zarqawi-led jihad demonstrates.

Pullquote: McChrystal was right to tender his resignation. The president might have given more thought to rejecting it.Image: Essay Types: Book Review