General McChrystal – Lessons of Leadership

The pace and complexity of modern warfare has increased to a point where it requires different models of leadership to prosecute wars, General Stanley McChrystal told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Thursday. The General, a former head of the Joint Special Operations Command and former US commander in Afghanistan, said that US Special Forces are incontestably the best in the world, but that doesn’t mean they are a panacea for all our problems overseas, and he also advocated strongly for a one-year system of national service – not necessarily military – for all young people in the US.

General Stanley McChrystal served in the US military for 38 years – when he went to West Point in 1972 the Vietnam war was still going on, and he quickly realized how estranged the military was from US society as a whole, when he got flipped off by a girl in a car in Times Square because he was wearing his cadet’s uniform. “You suddenly realize there is a feeling about who you now are.” But in the intervening four decades there has been an enormous shift in the public’s perception of the military: “Suddenly the army got more professional – we were able to separate how the people felt about the military and how they felt about the war.” The past decade has been “a rough one for the army” he said, and the military couldn’t have sustained it without the public support it received – particularly given the fact that there was no draft. He cited the case of one Ranger whom he knew who was killed recently on a tour in Afghanistan – it was his 14th combat tour since he signed up in 2001. “He had effectively been fighting all the time since 9/11.”

McChrystal is deeply wedded to the Special Forces, but warned about over-relying on their capabilities. “We’ve developed an incredible tool, the best in the world, but there’s a temptation to use them for too many things.” Civilian decision makers have become accustomed to the successes of the teams from Delta and the Seals and others, “but that doesn’t mean they can do anything and everything.” And he pointed out that every military action has a reaction to it – “just because it is a small operation doesn’t mean there are no ramifications.”

The General’s four star career came to an end in June 2010 when an article published in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “The Runaway General” suggested that he and his team had made disparaging remarks about the president. McChrystal said the article distorted the facts, and after he had read it “I actually said I’m asleep, I must be in a dream.” But the very fact that it had appeared while he was leading a war effort forced him to make a decision – to fight the case in public or to resign. “I could have said the article is not true - but I put the president in a rough position. The priority was the mission. I don’t have any doubt about what I did - resignation was right.” McChrystal said that his whole life he had thought he could be fired for incompetency, or killed on the battlefield, “but I never thought I would be accused of disloyalty. Kind of felt like I had been hit by lightning.” He resigned, then began teaching at Yale and founded a business consultancy teaching leadership skills to the civilian corporate world. “You can keep replaying that, or you can move forward... I was given the gift of a bad experience.”

One of the biggest changes to leadership in warfare is the accelerated speed of decision making. He compared modern warfare to playing “blitz chess” where each of the opponents’ pieces is controlled by a different player, and they can make four or more moves at a time without waiting for you, coming from different directions. “Suddenly you find yourself in this fast reactive mode and you just want the merry-go-round to stop.” But it doesn’t, and so the military has decentralized decision-making so that troops on the ground can react more quickly, but at the same time has centralized the information flow, so everyone else in the battle space knows what is going on.

McChrystal has become a strong proponent of a one-year National Service system for young people, aged between 18 and 28, so that they could learn to serve – in education, health care, conservation or the military – before going on to study or work elsewhere. “We have let the concept of citizenship deteriorate a little bit. If you go back to the Second World War, every family was touched in some way – I think they are the ‘greatest generation’ because of their sense of citizenship.” McChrystal’s ideas are now being developed by the Franklin Project, named after Benjamin Franklin who similarly thought that service by citizens was central to a democracy.

When asked about the growing violence in Iraq and whether US troops left Iraq too quickly, McChrystal said his personal opinion was that the US should have negotiated more strongly to have concluded a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed some US forces to stay after 2011. “From 2005 to 2008 we wrestled al Qaeda down to the ground and took them out of the fight,” he said. But since the US forces left, “we have allowed the Iraqis to go back to their basic instincts.” The Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki, a Shiite, has done “a terrible job in not making the Kurds and Sunnis feel they are part of the country.” The Sunnis in particular are afraid, and that has opened the door to a resurgence of the (Sunni-led) al Qaeda, now called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who recently were able to take over Fallujah again. And terrorists now come and go across the border between Iraq and “the bleeding sore of Syria.” A continued US presence would have helped prevent this deterioration, in his view. “I think we made a mistake there.”

A woman in the audience who had served in the military asked whether McChrystal agreed that women veterans got less respect than men. He said that women who serve not only work as hard as men, but “we are having this debate about women in combat 15 years after it started happening - I have seen women in combat, I have seen them getting wounded.” McChrystal’s year at West Point was the last year it was all male cadets - at the time of the change the old timers said that if they allowed women in, West Point would fall into the Hudson River - “it didn’t.”

Another questioner spoke about a former army captain who was rejected for employment by five coffee shops in a row, and who had the sense that there was prejudice by some civilian companies against hiring vets. McChrystal said he felt there was an over-reaction to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, which started in the media. Some potential employers now think all veterans have PTSD and are not reliable. “Anyone who has been in combat comes back changed, but that doesn’t mean they are damaged - just different. For some it is very difficult, but most do just fine.” He said that in the Civil War, one out of 68 Americans was wounded, “so you knew someone who was wounded.” By comparison, one out of 7,260 Americans has been wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “so today most people don’t know someone who has been wounded – we have lost that connection.” But many veterans still need their country’s help as they come back from longer periods of combat than most modern armies have had to sustain.