Today is the publication date of General Stanley McChrystal’s book MY SHARE OF THE TASK. I’m looking forward to reading it, but have already seen press reports stating he barely discusses the Rolling Stone article that brought about the end of his career. He simply assumes responsibility for the entire affair, as I would absolutely expect. When the article first appeared and the whirlwind began – over two years ago, right before the publication of ONE ROUGH MAN – I wrote a blog about it. I never posted it due to competing demands of publishing and a little pressure from others not to aggravate the very media industry that would be reviewing ONE ROUGH MAN. To this day, I regret that decision, and figured better late than never. General McCyrstal is one of the smartest officers our Army has ever produced, and it’s tragic his career ended because of a flawed journalist with an agenda. Michael Hastings took the Rolling Stone article and wrote a full-length book, which lost one publisher when the Army finished its investigation and couldn’t corroborate his story. Today, Hastings continues his agenda, now trashing GEN Petraeus every chance he gets. Anyway, General McChyrstal will never refute the story, but I can. The original Rolling Stone article can be found here. The following is an uncut blog from over two years ago, so do some math when you see dates, timeframes, etc.
I realize I said I’d be blogging about themes in my book, but something real-world happened recently that I’d like to discuss. In late June, the United States lost one of the finest minds on counter-insurgency in GEN McChrystal, and I’m weary of reading blogs and posts about how it is “about time someone told the truth” and how an “outsider journalist finally got it right.” Nobody’s said a damn thing about what General McChrystal is really like, preferring to believe the Rolling Stone article’s tripe. I told myself I wouldn’t get involved in fights on this blog, and would remain “above the fray” so to speak, but the article is a travesty, and the damage from it demands a response. I’ve waited for someone that knows him to set a counter-balance, but I haven’t seen it. So, here’s the GEN McChrystal that I know.
First, some ground truth: I am not, nor have I ever been, in GEN McChrystal’s inner circle. I was not in Afghanistan with him when the Rolling Stone article came out. I haven’t seen him for nearly three years. The fact that I’m blogging at all would sicken him to his core.
So what authority do I have to discuss the topic beyond the Rolling Stone reporter with a scalp on his belt? I served under McChrystal for close to five years. First as a Troop Commander, then as a Squadron Commander, in a unit tasked with the highest priority combat missions within the United States umbrella. My last two years were spent on a rotational basis as a commander of a classified taskforce under his direct control. I think I’m qualified.
The question I’m asked most often is “Why did he do it?” Like he took a fall on purpose. The next question is “But if it isn’t true, why doesn’t he rebut it?” Which is what I’ve heard every talking head say over-and-over again. On both counts, they miss the mark.
Before I answer those questions, I want to dissect a few of the author’s comments in the article, not to pick out easy targets in an ad hominem way, but just to show what I saw in the first few paragraphs. Paragraphs that indicated the author had a clear plan of attack that was completely counter to the man about whom he was reporting.
After a little warm up on the “rogue general” theme involving bad mouthing the French (with GEN McChrystal actually shooting the finger to his chief of staff – something so out of character it’s like it was written by a hack Hollywood screenwriter), he states that GEN McChrystal’s favorite beer is Bud Light Lime, a tidbit that would subliminally show how close the “reporter” got to the “real” GEN McChrystal. That’s all great Rolling Stone fodder, but here are some facts: Gen McChrystal has been at war for close to a decade, all in Muslim countries where alcohol is forbidden. I’ve seen him at social occasions and in combat, and he’s not a big drinker. If he has a favorite beer, I don’t know what it would be, but do know it sure as hell wouldn’t be something as eclectic as Bud Light Lime. I’m sure that brand name was picked because it was just off-kilter enough to sound real to the reporter, given his extensive “experience” at war. It wouldn’t do to have the General drinking plain old Bud Light, after all. I’m not implying that Gen McChrystal never drinks; just that it isn’t high enough on his agenda for him to actually have a favorite beer. A favorite beer hovers somewhere around his favorite toilet paper, which is to say he has never really given it any serious thought.
The writer then continues, stating that GEN McChrystal’s favorite movie is Talladega Nights. I’m not even sure where to go with that one. It’s so out of character that I wonder if the writer was in a room with someone pretending to be GEN McChryrstal. The man isn’t big on movies. While under his command, he would become aggravated when we watched movies in between missions because the time could be better spent studying the enemy. If a soldier had time to watch a movie, he wasn’t putting enough effort into solving the problem. It’s almost like the guy wrote what he thought a rogue general would watch. If you actually had the audacity or stupidity to use a movie quote from Talladega Nights to McChrystal, he would have looked at you like you were an absolute moron. Which would also be the exact moment that you ceased to exist for him, because unlike the article portrays, he cares about one single thing: a commitment to success for our nation.
I’m now going to get petty on the inconsistencies because I think it does show how much “research” the reporter did. He proudly quotes that McChrystal was once the “regimental commander of the 3rd Ranger Battalion.” That sounds great, but the regimental commander is in charge of the REGIMENT. Not the BATTALION. I’ll give the guy some props here though, because McChrystal was in charge of both 2nd Batt AND the 75th Infantry Regiment. First one, then the other, as he was promoted up the ladder. So, the reporter’s partially right, like a broken clock that’s correct twice a day.
Enough on the faulty reporting. I could go on and on with the discrepancies and outright lies in the story (General McChrystal was promoted to Major General after Tillman’s death – when in fact he was a Major General before he even assumed command, etc), but I know that folks who want to believe the reporter will do so regardless of what I say. After all, the reporter’s not getting anything out of lying, is he?
So, why would GEN McChrystal allow such reporting to happen? In my opinion, there is no grand conspiracy. Simply put, he trusted Hastings and that trust was misplaced. It happens all the time in all walks of life, from Bernie Madoff fleecing America to a husband or wife getting blindsided by an affair. I’ve heard people say that GEN McChrystal just didn’t understand the press because of all of his “black ops” time, and thus pulled a Pattonesque screw up, but that’s not the case. He was the press spokesman for the Pentagon at the opening of our assault into Afghanistan. Trust me, he understands the press. When in Iraq he had a healthy appreciation of the damage and/or the reward the press could provide. As the commanding general of Afghanistan war effort, his appreciation only became stronger.
Another theory is that he did it on purpose, because he “didn’t like the cards the administration was dealing”. This, too, is bunk. The cards in GEN McChrystal’s hand were plucked from the deck by him. He created the campaign plan and sold it to the national command authority. He got nearly everything he asked for. Far from wanting to quit, the GEN McChrystal I know thought to the core of his being that he was going to win. Period. Just like had happened in Iraq. On my last rotation in Iraq there were a thousand murders a month in Baghdad alone. It was a cyclone of sectarian violence that had convinced me we were doomed. GEN McChrystal thought otherwise, and, along with GEN Casey and the other architects of what became known as “The Surge”, worked to win. And I’ll be damned if they weren’t right. Afghanistan is no different, and the GEN McChrystal I know would not cash it in. Period. Especially to some reporter from Rolling Stone who made him look like an ass.
So what happened? Simply put, I believe he was duped by an untrustworthy reporter. GEN McChrystal understood the impact of information, and probably thought Rolling Stone would be a good venue to change some minds on the war. To get out some ground truth on the fight and impart his viewpoint to an audience that typically only gets one side of the story. He’d had a pretty good track record with reporters. Some articles bad, some good, but all-in-all, a win on the information front. This should have been no different, but, unfortunately, he was in the crosshairs of a gossip columnist guttersnipe and failed to realize it.
If you were to go to any battalion in the US Army – or Marines – you’re going to hear bitching about higher command. Squads bitch about the platoon leader. Platoons bitch about the Company Commander. Companies bitch about “those idiots at battalion”, and so on, until you reach a level where you hear bitching about the National Command Authority. I’m not saying it’s right. Just that it’s not indicative of what GEN McChrystal’s staff actually thought. They were just venting.
When I was with him, one would be hard pressed to leave alive if you were to utter some of the things in that article. This reporter chose to immortalize every bad thing he heard from a bunch of unnamed “aides” for a quick buck and his name in lights. Imagine all the hurtful things you’ve ever said; now imagine them in a national magazine. It wouldn’t be flattering, and you’d be stuttering “But, but, but…that’s not me…”
Which brings up the point of why GEN McChrystal won’t say it’s bullshit. The answer is that it won’t benefit the Afghanistan war effort. Yes, that’s right, he cares more about the mission than his personal footnote in history. The article’s damage was done, and fighting it would only serve to prolong the agony, which would hurt the effort in Afghanistan. Something he considers more critical. In the end, he held the nation’s interests above his own. Something the reporter from Rolling Stone would never understand. Or maybe he completely understood, and deliberately crafted a story that would serve his purposes. Judging from his other reporting, that may be the case.
We have yet to feel the second and third-order effects of destroying GEN McChrystal’s Army career. While the damage to the counterinsurgency fight will be significant, I’ll leave that analysis to others and focus on an area that has received scant attention. Journalists gleefully seized on the story like rapacious sharks, not even realizing the damage the article has caused. Succeeding in the military is a slog-fest fight from the beginning–a slow, hard grind where skill and perseverance get you to the top. It’s not like Hollywood, where one good movie makes you a star, or apparently like journalism, where one juicy story can put you in the spotlight. It takes dedication and commitment, and no commander will now risk thirty years of hard work for reporters who may just be trying to get their names in lights.
Try being an honest journalist attempting to report about any other general at war nowadays. You’re going to find yourself outside waiting, because there’s no way to differentiate between reporters who are in it for the good and those looking for gossip. After all, GEN McChrystal, a man who dealt with the press on a daily basis at the pentagon, and has given hundreds of interviews since, failed to see the danger. No general in his right mind is going to let a reporter get within a half-mile of him, and I don’t blame ’em.
All of which is a shame, because most reporters respect the rules. Most reporting is honest, and America deserves to know the truth. Without the embeds, we get vague theories based on what the reporter hears outside the tent, away from the command. A half-baked guess at best, which leads to half-baked opinions, and then half-baked voting by a population that doesn’t understand the intricacies of what’s at stake–in a country where the military is a reflection of the society at large.
Good luck with that. Don’t start bitching at the Army, though. Send a note to Rolling Stone.