January 6, 2013
Modern generals' memoirs are mostly ghostwritten these days and follow a familiar template: open with a battle scene to hook the reader, then flash back to the author's youth, before bringing the story up to the present day, focusing most of the attention on the last and highest-profile assignment. "My Share of the Task" by Stanley McChrystal follows this general outline, but it is considerably more thoughtful and better crafted than most.
The difference is noticeable from the very first chapter, "Ghosts of Christmas Past," where Gen. McChrystal describes a Christmas-time trip he made on a Black Hawk helicopter around Afghanistan in 2009 to spread holiday cheer to units under his command. In a few well-chosen phrases—perhaps provided by Sam Ayres, "a young Yale graduate" whom he credits for making the story "come alive"—he deftly evokes his life. "Soothed by the rhythmic vibrations of the rotors," he writes, "my mind wandered to the more than half-century of Christmases I'd experienced." It is an effective literary device, and Gen. McChrystal is able to make clear immediately his dedication to his brother soldiers, to his wife, Annie, and, above all, to the Army and the nation.
He is an Army brat. His father was a general and a decorated veteran of Korea and Vietnam. "He was my lifelong hero," Gen. McChrystal writes. "From my earliest memories I'd wanted to be like my father. I'd always wanted to be a soldier." In 1972, he entered West Point, where he found a passion for "reading biographies and histories," which has borne fruit in all the historical and literary allusions that stud the pages of "My Share of the Task." The book opens, for example, with a quotation from the British travel writer Freya Stark—a name less often heard in officers' clubs these days than that of "Tony Stark" (aka Ironman).
He received more than his share of demerits at the academy, chafing at the Army's petty rules and restrictions. So it was perhaps no surprise that, after graduation in 1976, he gravitated to the semi-independent Special Operations Forces. In those post-Vietnam days, morale was low across the Army, and the reputation of the Special Forces even lower—Gen. McChrystal cites a fellow officer referring to them as the "Speckled Feces." He wasn't deterred, and as a Green Beret team leader "had about as much latitude as a post-Vietnam lieutenant could have, received great support but no micromanagement from my commanders, and set the standards and direction for my team." This was to be characteristic of his own leadership style as he steadily climbed the career ladder in Special Operations and airborne units. He made general just nine months before 9/11. Two years later, he was chosen to take over the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
JSOC is composed of elite units like the Navy SEALs and Delta Force. Setting up his global headquarters at a dusty air base at Balad, north of Baghdad, Gen. McChrystal increased cooperation with civilian agencies like the CIA and FBI, inviting them into the JSOC operations center. This was a radical innovation for an ultra-secretive organization that had always tried to keep a tight grip on information. But Gen. McChrystal saw that better integration with other parts of the U.S. government was necessary to generate the intelligence to penetrate sophisticated terrorist networks.
He also realized that there had to be closer relationships among intelligence analysts, interrogators and the "operators" who acted on their information. He made these disparate specialists cooperate closely together. That, in turn, made it possible for JSOC to score notable successes like the killing in 2006 of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq—an elaborate operation whose genesis and execution is detailed in "My Share." "What had been impressive but rudimentary," Gen. McChrystal writes with justifiable pride about his time at JSOC, "was now a relentless counterterrorist machine."
Gen. McChrystal wasn't to have the same degree of satisfaction during his final operational assignment, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2009-10. His immediate task was to dispel the "creeping, fatalistic pessimism." He kicked somnolent officers in the metaphorical rear end (he tried but failed to get rid of a garden area at his headquarters where staffers could relax but did manage to ban alcohol), set separate commands to train Afghan security forces and better integrate operational efforts of U.S. troops and our allies and, most important, won 30,000 additional troops from Washington in November 2009.
But President Obama and his aides were miffed when Gen. McChrystal's secret assessment of the situation leaked during the fight for more troops. The politicos felt boxed in by the military's demand, which created the toxic situation that was to end the general's career just a year later.
At 2 a.m. on June 22, 2010, he was awoken in his spartan quarters in Kabul by an aide who told him: "Sir, we have a problem . . . The Rolling Stone article is out, and it's really bad." A reporter from that magazine, whom Gen. McChrystal had naively allowed to accompany him, reported his aides' disparaging banter about administration officials. The general quickly resigned his command after being called back to Washington. He makes no attempt in "My Share of the Task" to defend himself or suggest that he should have remained in command. If he has any regrets, he doesn't share them.
That reticence may frustrate readers in search of greater introspection (or news nuggets), but it is in keeping with Gen. McChrystal's stoic, self-denying warrior's mien. This is, after all, the man who famously ate only one meal a day so as not to waste time and complains in this book about "the packed malls and overfed greed of so many Americans." Despite its lack of startling revelations, his memoir is a compelling account of his impressive career, whose most important legacy—the revamped JSOC—remains on the front lines to this day.