I read this immediately after reading Broadwell's bio of David Petraeus. This book is exponentially better. It opens with his foreword that publishing was delayed by a year due to editing and security screening by the Pentagon, and his frustrations with that process. As a result, he states had to alter some of the content, facts, details, but felt that the stories were still close enough to maintain their integrity. That's a good note for reading any modern war memoir-- remember that it's been made less-true by the Pentagon. This book is a bit dry if you're not deeply interested in tactical operations and planning of special operations and the lives of officers. While the Epilogue contains the outline for his next book on leadership, there is not a lot of explicit leadership teaching that takes place in the book. Being from the first-person, you have no idea what others really think about him or how effective they saw him. One caveat to this book is that you do not get the dirty reality of combat from the ground-level as in Filkins' The Forever War, American Sniper, or Lone Soldier, which cover some of the same territory and operations. I would also recommend Thomas Ricks' The Generals which covers the breakdown of accountability in command of the U.S. Armed Forces to get an appreciation for how rare it is that McChrystal was fired. But some of the reality seeps through as McChrystal sees Iraq deteriorating in 2004, is disgusted by Abu Gharaib, is furious over civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and lacks words to explain to his soldiers why they're there. The only f-bomb tirade in the book comes when he takes command of ISAF and makes a point that they have to stop killing civilians to have a shot at turning the country around.
Like most Americans, my view of McChrystal was colored by the Rolling Stone article that led to his resignation (as well as the 60 Minutes piece that highlighted on his rigorous physical discipline of running). I think the recent exposure of Rolling Stone's publication of proven falsehoods (the false rape at UVA), subsequent retraction, and determination of The Columbia Graduate Schoolof Journalism that Rolling Stone failed to follow "basic practice" of journalism is enough to make that a blurb, not to mention that McChrystal was cleared by two Pentagon investigations that discovered no violation of ethics standards or eyewitnesses supporting the journalist's account. But anti-military types might reject this book out of hand. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.
McChrystal comes across as introspective, constantly observing the culture around him as well as what is going on inside his own head. He has an MS and served as a fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations along with spending time at Harvard, so he's not a low-IQ individual. He listens to audiobooks on his long runs and lists several that impacted him when deployed (Freakonomics being one). At the time of publishing he was teaching a course on leadership at Yale.
The author was the son of a Vietnam veteran and grew up playing with GI Joes and reading juvenile biographies of various war heroes. He grew up near West Point and took it as a given that he'd go there. He struggled with math and science but excelled at history. He continually earned demerits for his "behavioral nonsense." He married the daughter of a veteran, and while her perspective is missing from the book he seems to want to express his love for her throughout the book; while leaving out much of the rest of his family life. He was at West Point in 1971 at the height of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and was finishing school at a time the Army's morale had sunk to new lows. After joining the Green Berets he noted the poor morale, discipline, and leadership demonstrated by drug and alcohol abuse.
After the Iran hostage rescue debacle and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Special Forces saw increased investment from the government and a great deal of reform. Much of this book is about the reform and evolution of the Special Forces through the 80's-90's and after 9/11 and Iraq.
He served in a mechanized infantry battalion before joining the Rangers in the 1980s, but he was stateside when Reagan sent them into Panama and his wife had to talk him out of his disappointment. McChrystal would go back and forth between Rangers and the 82nd Airborne, initially under Gen. Abizaide. During the '91 Gulf War he worked with a British SAS commander and forged a friendship that would last through his Afghanistan deployment. After his "good experience" at Harvard he returned to the Rangers and saw deployment in Afghanistan in May 2002.
The largest part of the book focuses on his assignment in Iraq to capture Al-Zarqawi and degrade his terrorist network as part of Task Force 6-26. It has much historical value in showing how tactics evolved as the enemy evolved, and the difficulties of both winning hearts and minds as well as capturing a high-value target. As McChrystal was head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, which he calls "Task Force 714") he shuttled between the U.S., Afghanistan, and Iraq and the jobs blur together. While he notes his disgust at Abu Gharaib he highlights how his men upgraded prisons. But, I notice that there were several stories over that period of how his men controversially engaged in enhanced interrogation procedures in Iraq. In contrast, in the book he describes in detail the long, pain-staking process of getting information from prisoners without torture. Similarly, McChrystal describes at length the Pat Tillman affair. Tillman was awarded for the valor of his maneuvers, not for being killed. McChrystal claims that he assumed others in contact with the family would inform them of the friendly fire. He notes that he was accused of cover-up because his communications in regards to Tillman were classified, but he notes that as JSOC commander all of his communications were required to be classified.
It is interesting, but somewhat dry, as Task Force 714's hunt for Zarqawi continues. McChrystal is coordinating with CIA analysts, incorporating more sophisticated signals intelligence and other technology such as drones, and patiently waiting on leads from prisoners and informants, all while others worked with the Iraqi government to bring about stability and democracy. When "experts" talk of defeating ISIL in Iraq today, they seem to be ignorant of the years of ground work that had to be done to dismantle a much more localized network of terrorists.
McChrystal was "surprised" in 2002 to see how the Bush Administration seemed to be focusing less on Afghanistan and more on Iraq. He registered concern after the total number of the army of Iraqi defectors supposedly eager to fight Saddam was fewer than 100, noting that the "signs were there" that the Iraq war was not being sold at face value. He writes of meetings where Rumsfeld differed with the military staff and the friction between the civilian and military leadership, noting that both are good-intentioned. He did not like the "triumphalism" of L. Paul Bremer and the Administration after Saddam was captured and other key events, noting they missed the ball to let Iraqi's make key announcements as the liberation looked more like a U.S. occupation. One awkward meeting between himself and President Bush, Bush asks him whether he wants Zarqawi captured or killed. McChrystal thought he'd be more valuable alive, whereas Bush indicated he just wanted him dead.
He details the "surge" in 2006 and the Sunni Awakening that made success possible. He writes that the surge was about shifting from fighting Sunnis to fighting Shia, which is not perhaps what most Americans think of but explains some of the difficulty we have in supporting Shia-led militias against ISIL today.
The last quarter of the book focuses on his brief time as ISAF commander in Afghanistan, which has a markedly different tone than the rest. In Afghanistan, McChrystal got to know the people and the culture more than he did in Iraq. He clearly still has affinity for the place and his wife serves on the board of a charity there. I was surprised how much deference he showed to Hamid Karzai, whom he considered a trusted ally. He is constantly giving him the benefit of the doubt. Every other book (Gates, Clinton, Panetta, Broadwell/Petraeus) and article I've read on Afghanistan savage Karzai in retrospect as a corrupt, untrustworthy partner who undermined the coalition. McChrystal paints him as a man constantly under threat of assassination, trying to build a coalition of unfriendly parties while constantly being undermined by the West's seeming indifference to mounting civilian casualties in drone strikes and night raids. He also cautions others against listening to what Karzai says to the media (which alarmed many Senators) and instead what he does. Karzai invites McChrystal to various shuras and this meant a lot to the General. In Washington, the General accompanies Karzai to a hospital where he sees an emotional Karzai talking to soldiers horribly wounded on behalf of his country. He was aware of criticism that he was too close to Karzai:
"I questioned whether I was too respectful of him and his position, whether I'd gone native. Shouldn't I take a harder line? But in the hall-of-mirrors politics of Kabul, I looked to his actions, not his words...Karzai wanted night raids to stop, and yet we'd quadrupled the number of...raids...(Although) I knew he was deeply skeptical of our logic for brining more foreign forces to his country, he'd agreed to support my recommendation to add forty thousand..." (loc. 7969).
McChrystal's main concern is reducing civilian casualties, reforming prisons, fostering a broader commitment from U.S. forces to nation-building, and borrowing "clear and hold" tactics from both the British in the 1800s and the Soviets in the late 1980s. He was the 12th ISAF commander and did not feel a great deal of optimism-- he felt he had six months to execute a strategy, but thought the Taliban could be marginalized such that the democratic Afghanistan could function across a large area. He developed the idea of "Afghan Hands," units of volunteers (they were later not volunteers) specially trained in Afghan languages and culture that would rotate into Afghanistan, back stateside, then return to the same region they had previously operated in order to maintain continuity and show the locals they were committed to keeping their promises. While this seems like a great idea, it's untenable given that Obama had a stated draw-down date preference and the Army was not committed to the program-- a frustration for McChrystal. During this time, he sensed the "deficit of trust" between the Obama Administration and the military and said it was unintentional but harmful. Like the Broadwell account, the Administration seems overly paranoid and sensitive. Interestingly, McChrystal relied on books like Daniel Ellsberg's account of the Pentagon papers for guidance in thinking about power and ethics.
Unlike Iraq, there was no civilian administrator who could coordinate all the efforts between USAID, the military, the U.N., and others. McChrystal asked Karzai permission to execute orders given to him by POTUS, which is amazing and was appreciated by the Afghan President. The police needed to be built, and this was harder than building an army. Corruption and tribal links were hard to overcome. McChrystal never addresses the economic factor-- the war on the opium trade that many Afghan farmers (and the Taliban) rely on. His wife and family now needed extra security in the U.S. Towards the end of his time, he meets with an American platoon that has just lost one of its own, the soldiers are asking questions like "Why are we here, sir? What's the point?" He writes:
"I couldn't solve the platoon's problems that day...I lacked the eloquence to assuage their concerns and could only epxlain the strategy they were a part of. I tried to show them I understood, and cared."
Just as things get rolling along, McChrystal is blindsided by the Rolling Stone article which seemingly came out of nowhere. The reporter had embedded with them for months and he and others thought he had witnessed the moments of remarkable cooperation of international troops and Afghan locals and that the story would be positive. Again, later investigations could turn up no eyewitnesses corroborating key statements and events in the article, but the damage was done. McChrystal simply took the blame, flew back to Washington, and resigned in a 20 minute "conversation" with the President. He got to keep his pension and enjoy a military send-off, and was later asked by Michelle Obama to work on a project for military families, showing no hard feelings. His wife seemed please that they were out of the Army and could still "be happy." "Life would go on," writes McChrystal (loc. 8117).
The book closes with an Epilogue of McChrystal's observations and thoughts on leadership, which probably is a preview of his new book Team of Teams on leadership and team-building. Here are the highlights of the epilogue (loc. 8144-8210).
"Leadership is difficult to measure and often difficult even to adequately describe."
"(Leadership is not command. Some of the greatest leaders commanded nothing but respect."
"Leaders are empathetic. The best leaders I've seen have an uncanny ability to understand, empahtise, and communicate with those they lead."
"Leaders are not necessarily popular."
"The best leaders are genuine...Simple honesty matters."
"Physical appearance, poise, and outward self-confidence can be confused with leadership--for a time."
"Leaders walk a fine line between self-confidence and humility....I learned that it was better to admit ignorance or fear than to display false knowledge or bravado."
"People are born; leaders are made....whateverleadership I later possessed, I learned from others."
"Leaders are people, and people constantly change...well into my career I was still figuring out what kind of leader I wanted to be...bouncing between competing models...As I got older, the swings between leadership styles were less pronounced and frequent as I learned the value of consistency."
"Leaders make mistakes, and they are often costly."
"There are few secrets to leadership. It is mostly just hard work. More than anything else it requires self-discipline."
"In the end, leadership is a choice...A leader decides to accept responsibility for others in a way that assumes stewardship of their hopes, their dreams, and sometimes their very lives."