General McChrystal used to love speaking to the press about how the war in Afghanistan was “a war of perceptions.” It was counterinsurgency lite, a shorthand for the idea that the counterinsurgent has to change the views of the contested population in order to succeed in drying up the insurgency. This makes the general’s implosion-by-interview even more puzzling. Surely someone who understood the importance of perceptions would be extra careful around the press. Hell, you don’t have to be extra careful to avoid being portrayed the way McChrystal and his staff come across in the now-celebrated Michael Hastings profile. You just have to have a reasonable concern for your reputation.
What jumped out in the Rolling Stone article was just how blustery and needlessly aggro the McChrystal posse was. A general chooses his aides carefully, and these guys (I’m assuming they were all men) seem like the last people who should be involved in a politically difficult war. This portrait lends credence to my suspicions—edited out of every piece in which I mentioned the general—that McChrystal is indeed a Special Ops knuckledragger who talks COIN but doesn’t have a clue about anything but killing. I won’t even mention McChrystal’s insistence on acting like a country bumpkin in Paris (guess he’s talked his way out of that ambassadorship).
But then, if McChrystal had a clue about how media works, he wouldn’t have pulled a clumsy cover-up over the grim circumstances of NFL star Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. (There’s an interesting piece in the Sports section of the Times about this.)
As with most cover-ups, the deceit made the whole episode infinitely more painful and shameful than dealing with the tragedy honestly.
One common thread here is hubris, the arrogance of a golden boy from a cloistered background—his father was a two-star general, he grew up on Army bases, then went to West Point—who thinks he can get away with anything. And another is the lack of a moral compass. This might have to do with McChrystal’s seeming enthusiasm for the ethically challenged Karzai brothers and the crowd around them, a group that is best described as evil henchmen.
Maybe McChrystal doesn’t think ethics matter; maybe they’re too “Gucci,” to use his dismissive adjective for the unnecessary pleasures of fine dining. (A wise middle-aged friend has been agreeing with my doubts about McChrystal for months, not because he follows the Afghan news, but because he thinks there’s something seriously wrong with anyone who only eats one meal a day.)
On a recent West Point staff ride in Gettysburg, I was struck by an inscription that I hadn’t thought about in decades: “…with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” It’s from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and it suggests a very Lincolnesque combination: humility before human frailty, joined with moral courage. They’re among the qualities that make leaders great. They’re very necessary in Afghanistan, where reality is almost infinitely granular, and where evil is never more than a stone’s throw away. I don’t have the sense that Stanley McChrystal gets those qualities. And I’m glad to see him gone.