General Stanley McChrystal: Context for a Commander
General Stanley McChrystal is not defined by his rank. He is defined, instead, by past choices and his life’s experience. In the most traditional of all branches in the U.S. Army, Infantry, McChrystal pursued an extremely non-traditional career. Unlike other West Point graduates, McChrystal did not climb the career ladder by choosing low risk assignments that would impress promotion boards. Instead, he chose to be a leader of light infantry and “special operators” at a time when such units were considered nothing more than exciting specialty assignments. Promotion boards believed such units had little to offer in terms of the leadership training Army officers would need to fight a war with the Soviet Union. In spite of the prevailing attitude in the Army, McChrystal devoted himself to the development of light infantry and special operations doctrine. No one realized at the time that McChrystal, ever the maverick, was creating a highly trained, hard hitting, brutally effective combat force that would become the model for U.S. power projection in the post-9/11 world.
Growing up as a boy and as a West Point cadet, McChrystal would have known that the ultimate responsibility of any military officer is to command. To be a commander is to shoulder the obligation for the personal lives of all subordinates within the command, to assume accountability for the command’s performance, to shield the command from all unnecessary meddling from above, and to support one’s subordinates in the execution of their jobs through thick and thin. Commanders accomplish missions not only through management but through personal leadership and example. An officer is a living example of loyalty, devotion to duty, and honor.
If being an officer is a commitment to a set of shared values, being an infantry officer is a commitment to a way of life. An infantry officer is not only a soldier but a warrior in the most primal sense of the word. An infantry commander is the embodiment of the warrior ethic. Infantry pits an individual’s physical fitness, cunning, and training against an enemy in close combat. It is up close and personal. Infantry officers aspire to be tougher, meaner, deadlier, and smarter than their enemy and can get by on less food, sleep, and drink than anyone else. Within Infantry Branch, the elite are light infantry, so called because they are designed to fight in mountains or jungles; they eschew the very heavy vehicles, support units, and artillery of the mechanized infantry “heavy” divisions. Airborne units, more commonly known as paratroopers, and the elite Ranger units of the Army are the premier light infantry forces of the U.S. Army. For McChrystal to have had multiple commands in both airborne and Ranger units is telling. As a light infantry commander he would be expected to accomplish his mission in spite of the fact that he would never have enough soldiers, supplies, ammunition, food, water, or time to accomplish it the way he would like.
Within the Army, the elite of the elite are the Special Forces and McChrystal commanded a Special Forces unit while still a junior officer. Special Forces, more commonly known to civilians as “Green Berets,” is a highly skilled force whose mission is to train foreign military units how to fight insurgencies and counter insurgencies. With the take down of Osama Bin Laden being a rare exception, most special operations missions remain classified. It is the unfortunate characteristic of special operations missions that when successful, people rarely hear about them, but when they go wrong they make headlines around the world. Yet it is from such failures that the most important lessons are learned. Among those lessons is the fact that special operators have to be extremely fit, expert shots, medics, and “quick studies” of highly technical information. Every member of the team has to understand and be able to perform the job of every other member. Special operators believe anything worth doing is worth doing perfectly. Consequently, practicing becomes a fixation until perfection is attained, and then it’s time for improvement. When political leaders commit special operations forces, those forces need to have a clearly defined mission and be under the control of special operations professionals. In addition, the mission must be relentlessly pursued until it is accomplished. When things go wrong, the civilian leadership—who committed those forces in the first place—has the responsibility of backing those professionals with the full power of the United States. Finally, no one gets left behind, nothing that can help the enemy can be allowed to fall into enemy hands, and full honor and respect must be paid to those who sacrificed their lives for their comrades.
On 9/11, the moment came for which McChrystal had trained his entire career. The nation was attacked by an enemy that even the most powerful nation on Earth found hard to locate, isolate, and destroy. The only weapons available to the President that he could reasonably expect to capture or kill the terrorists were the light infantry and special operations forces. This was an enemy McChrystal understood and for which he had trained his men, his body, and his very soul to defeat. Every lesson that had been learned in special warfare in the last thirty years was put to use. Operating as a highly trained, well equipped, intelligent force, his SOCOM teams located, stalked, and captured or killed the enemy. Forces the Army once thought were too specialized to be any great value were employed by McChrystal to dismantle terrorist networks piece by piece.
General Stanley McChrystal knows more about special operations than anyone else in the United States and possibly the world. He served within what was once defined as a niche in the U.S. Army and supervised its growth into the very model by which our military has operated for the last five years. His commitment to his mission transcends anyone’s idea of “holding a job” or “pursuing a career.” To him, his mission is his calling and he will accomplish that mission at the risk of his life. There are no days off and no vacations if the mission is not getting accomplished. There are no excuses for failure. One does his duty, upholds the honor and traditions of the unit, and serves his country. And, if the time comes, one is willing to risk one’s life or one’s career to protect the troops, advance the mission, and defend our nation.
Glenn T. Johnston, Ph.D., serves as the Director of the Stevenson University Archives and as a Professor in Stevenson’s Public History Program. He holds a Ph.D. from University of North Texas and—as a former U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer who served with the 2nd Armored Cavalry, 82nd Division (ABN), and XVIII Corps (ABN) from 1977 to 1984—maintains a keen interest in military history. He is also the former president of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.