After serving for nearly four decades in the U.S. Army, overseeing special operations in Iraq and commanding the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal has a few things to say about leadership. In My Share of the Task, the retired four-star general recounts his storied career from entering West Point in 1972 to his resignation and retirement in 2010 following a controversial article in Rolling Stone magazine in which his staff reportedly criticized the newly-elected Obama administration. McChrystal recently spoke with U.S. News about the transformation of the military, what makes a good leader, the future of Afghanistan, and why he stepped down. Excerpts:
How has the military changed since you joined the Army?
When I entered the military in 1972, it was almost a World War II structure in mindset. When I left the Army in 2010, it had changed structurally, but [also] the information and precision weapon changes had a cataclysmic effect because suddenly the fabric and tactics of war were very different. We used to talk about controlled supply rate for ammunition, and commanders used to get briefed on how many artillery rounds were available on a given day. When I was in command in Iraq and Afghanistan, the controlled item was bandwidth, how much bandwidth we could push around for how much information, because that became the critical item. The other huge change was, all the way through 1972, we were a draft army. And that had some good things to it; it brought a wider group of people into it. From really the time I started until the time I got out, it has been a volunteer force, and that has been very different. It's got some weaknesses, it's not quite as connected with the population because it represents a smaller swath of America, and there's danger in that.
What's the danger?
Well, in the wars since 9/11, I think less than one percent of America has been directly affected by the wars. In the Civil War, one out of [roughly] 68 Americans was wounded. So you knew somebody in your family or your town. Nowadays, that number is one out of every 7,293, rough math. And so you don't know one. So, I think that that's an issue America has got to come to grips with.
What makes a good leader?
I describe in the book that in the 82nd Airborne Division—which had about 15 battalions, 600 or so people each—if you took the best battalion and the worst and you switched their commander and sergeant major, in 90 days the best would become the worst and the worst would become the best. A good leader has the ability to understand the culture of the organization and empathizes with the members. I don't mean sympathize, I mean empathize, meaning that leader understands what makes the organization's culture operate. The force I led in Iraq was a counterterrorist force of many older service members, but also this wide group of intelligence analysts and other experts from different agencies from around the government that were culturally remarkably different. They essentially spoke different languages; they listened to different music; they dressed differently. But we were able to bind them together with this sense of shared purpose. They all had ownership of the end product.
You describe a "deficit of trust" between the Obama administration and military commanders in 2009. Is there the same amount of tension today?
I don't know, but I would suspect not, because the deficit of trust I talked about I think probably occurs to some degree in every new administration. Just like as you see in President Lincoln’s experience in the Civil War, it took him two to two-and-a-half years before he personally was comfortable as a commander in chief. And it took a similar amount of time before the military learned to be comfortable dealing with an effective commander in chief. So it's not that there's mistrust, but trust takes time. It's like a marriage. It's like anything; it has to build through shared experience.
Why did you resign in response to the Rolling Stone article controversy?
I had the Rolling Stone embed because we were doing a wide variety of media to try to explain the war to the American people and to our European allies. And when the story came out, I was completely surprised by the tone it took, and I didn't agree that it was a fair depiction of the team. But, as you know, a media controversy swirled, and they take on a life of their own. And my concern was it was going to distract from the mission; it was going to give my boss, the president, a challenge to deal with that was going to make his job harder. Whether there was true fault warranted, and there was later an Inspector General report that found great differences from the article, it didn't matter. At the time, I'm comfortable it is my responsibility to offer my resignation, and I don't have any hesitation. I still feel that way.
President Obama just announced a handover of security operations to the Afghan forces as early as spring. Are they ready?
Well, you know, by some metrics they're not. But I think what's really important is the psyche of the Afghan people here. The Afghan people are terrified of the future; they are afraid of a Taliban return. I think if we offer them a strategic partnership that says we are your ally, we are reliable, that the numbers of troops and the amount of money is much less important than that psychological commitment.
Does Afghan President Hamid Karzai have the political capital to secure immunity for U.S. troops after withdrawal, which President Obama has tied to U.S. presence there?
I suspect that he does. I suspect that the Afghan people and the Afghan political body absolutely knows that this is a critical issue. They watched what happened in Iraq, I don’t think they want to see that happen. And clearly we can’t put American service members in a position where they don’t have fair and reasonable protections.
What's next for you?
Leadership. I am teaching leadership at Yale, and then I cofounded a company, the McChrystal Group, that does leadership consulting with non-defense firms. We help them deal with competitive environments. Just like our military changed in response to the world shifting so fast, that's what we help companies do.
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