Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
8Mar/131

General Stanley McChrystal: My Share of the Task

ArendtWeekendReading

Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead will be in conversation with General Stanley McChrystal this Sunday, March 10, at 5 pm  at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. Tickets are available here.

Leadership is rare; in politics today it is quite nearly extinct. Around the world politicians are paralyzed not simply by partisanship, but also by an unwillingness to make judgments. Not knowing what is right, they jockey for political power. They seek advantage, seemingly innocuous to the recognition of a responsibility to something larger than themselves. This is now a worldwide phenomenon. Italy just elected a clown. From Athens to Washington, technocrats vie for power with idealogues, with no one willing to set the common good above their own. In a time of war and economic crisis when we might expect leaders to emerge, this has not happened. At least in politics, leaders have failed to materialize.

According to opinion polls, the only institution in America with an approval rating of over 50% is the military. One reason for this may be that the armed forces have continued to generate leadership, at least to some degree. Colin Powell was for some time looked to as a leader, until his performance at the United Nations damaged his credibility. David Petraeus was lionized for a time, until he was brought down by affair and scandal.  And then there is General Stanley McChrystal.

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McChrystal has just written a book, My Share of the Task, which is about leadership. He begins with the bold claim, that even from his youth,  “Leadership was always the objective.”  And in his short epilogue, he writes: “In the end, leadership is a choice. Rank, authority, and even responsibility can be inherited or assigned, whether or not an individual desires or deserves them. Even the mantle of leadership occasionally falls to people who haven’t sought it. But actually leading is different. A leader decides to accept responsibility for others in a way that assumes stewardship of their hopes, their dreams, and sometimes their very lives. It can be a crushing burden, but I found it an indescribable honor.” McChrystal knows enough to say that leadership cannot be captured in a definition. And yet his book is undoubtedly an illustration through his example.

I cannot help compare McChrystal’s leadership with the political leadership of our country. As I read My Share of the Task, I am struck by McChrystal’s clear moral vision. Honor is at the very core of McChrystal’s understanding of leadership. He writes of the “unofficial code of honor” that governs West Point. While cadets could break rules and regulations and receive mere punishments, if they broke the code of honor, they were expelled. “The code existed to ensure that the words of cadets and officers alike could always, in all situations, be taken as truth. Lies, even small ones, threatened that system of truth.” There is in McChrystal’s creed a steely sense that a leader can make a difference. There is no doubt that McChrystal believes his leadership helped turn the tide of the war in Iraq. And from all accounts, he is right.

General Stanley McChrystal is widely credited with helping to bring about a renaissance in the American armed forces. A soldier for over 40 years, McChrystal served in the Rangers elite special forces, came to command the Rangers and then rose to command the entirety of US Special Forces involved in the war on terror. In that capacity he revolutionized the special forces, taking an agglomeration of tribal groups and integrating them into a single networked fighting machine that is credited with turning the tide of the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq. So successful was McChrystal that President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan.

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It is unclear whether McChrystal’s strategy was working in Afghanistan. His command ended when he resigned, chased out of office because of an article in Rolling Stone Magazine by Michael Hastings. Hastings article, “The Runaway General,” opens with McChrystal asking: “How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner [with a French diplomat]?” When told it comes with his position, he responds with his middle finger and asks: “Does this come with the position?” One of his staff later adds: “Some French minister…. It’s fucking gay.” When McChrystal gets a message from Richard Holbrooke on his Blackberry and exclaims: “I don’t even want to open it.” He puts the phone back in his pants. An aide responds: “Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg.” In another incident, one of McChrystal’s top aides says of the Vice President: "Biden?" "Did you say: Bite Me?" McChrystal knew that the fallout from the article was unsalvageable. He flew to Washington and resigned.

What makes McChrystal’s fall from command interesting is the aura of leadership that has grown up around him and that is on full view in his book, My Share of the Task. McChrystal lives the kind of Spartan full-throttle military existence that is for even our most hardened soldiers a romantic myth of times past. Leadership in his mind requires walking the walk. One “extraordinary demonstration of leadership” McChrystal recounts involves a Ranger military ceremony on a cold and rainy day. The Rangers stood in formation in the rain in front of an empty bleachers.”  One commander, Major General Gary Luck, walked out and sat alone in the bleachers.  “He didn’t wave or call out. He didn’t order us into rigid attention. He simply sat still, under the same rain that fell on us…. I never saw a commander closer to soldiers than he was at that moment.” This is McChrystal’s holy grail: to be a leader loved by his troops, not because they like him, but because they respect him.

McChrystal’s model for leadership in the modern military is, surprisingly, Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of the British fleet who famously lost his life as Captain of the Victory at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. McChrystal argues that “Nelson’s force was able to win without him in command because of what had happened long before the first shot was fired. In the years leading up of Trafalgar, Nelson cultivated traditional strengths inherent in the British navy by making technical mastery and a capacity for independence prerequisites for command.” McChrystal’s gloss is that Nelson promoted “entrepreneurs of battle,” those commanders who shared his vision and his value of technical mastery, but who could act on their own without his authority.

In McChyrstal’s own leadership we see him striving for the very entrepreneurial style he so admired in Nelson. He sets up a command structure so transparent that his subordinates always see him thinking through decisions: “As I stressed transparency and inclusion, I shared everything with the team sitting around the horseshoe and beyond. E-mails that came in were sent back out with more people added to the “cc” line. We listened to phone calls on speakerphone.” He transformed an insular and secretive special forces culture into an open and integrated force, “one of the most important nodes in an integrated network.” The result, McChrystal writes, is that his aides “could frequently anticipate my position on an issue and make the decision themselves.”  His effort was to foster “decentralized initiative and free thinking while maintaining control of the organization and keeping the energy at the lowest levels directed toward a common strategy.”

Over and over, McChrystal emphasizes the way he acted on his belief that commanders must be given the control and authority over their missions. He refuses to second guess his subordinates. He seeks relentlessly to push “authority down the chain of command until it made us uneasy.” He tried to set a “climate in which we prized entrepreneurship and free thinking, leaned hard on complacency, and did not punish ideas that failed.”

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It is easy to call such a reverence for leadership a myth. And yet I am not sure it is. In the Rolling Stone article that brought McChrystal down, Hastings writes: McChrystal “set a manic pace for his staff, running seven miles each morning, and eating one meal a day. (In the month I spend around the general, I witness him eating only once.) It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.” Hastings is clearly skeptical. But My Share of the Task is an exceptional brief for McChrystal.

McChrystal’s book is a scintillating read. The story is part biography, part history of the Iraq war, part an account of the rebirth of the US military, and also a revealing account of new US military strategy of a networked military that melds drones and other surveillance techniques with technologically superior and quickly deployed elite troops.

At its core, My Share of the Task tells the story of the rise of a networked military. The fulcrum of McChrystal’s narrative are the dual efforts—led by McChrystal’s Task Force 714—first to retake the city of Fallujah after the assassinations and public hangings of members of a Blackwater security convoy and then the manhunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

After the U.S. abandoned Fallujah to Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, TF 714 was charged with leading the effort to retake the city. The greatest challenge and need was information and reconnaissance. “Of most value,” McChrystal writes, “was our increasingly sophisticated employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), with the Predator being the most common version.” (137)  What TF 714 needed was technology, analysis and surveillance.

The rise of drones in the US military strategy was, originally, not as an offensive weapon, but as a tool for surveillance. If conventional warfare required surveillance of large and static targets, the war to retake Fallujah “required constant surveillance of people or moving vehicles, often looking to identify subtle movements or specific mannerisms.” What McChrystal sought was a “picture of life within the city,” which came to be known as “pattern-of-life” analyses “that followed the targets’ habits as they undertook their daily routines.” (139)  With drones as eyes in the air, TF 174 “watched the circles where the insurgents sat when they would gather for ceremonial meals of lamb in the compound courtyards just prior to suicide bombing missions. And we bombed those. We saw this patchwork of movement from our eyes in the clouds and rounded out the picture with increasing human and signals intelligence.” (144)

Much of My Share of the Task is a description of McChrystal’s growing awareness and commitment to a new type of war, one that was less a struggle for land or for position but was essentially a “battle for intelligence.” (156) “By the end, in the months when Iraq’s fate would be decided, TF 714’s formidable offering was its network—its ability to gel diverse talents into an organic unit that gathered information swiftly and acted accordingly.” (93)  The mantra that McChrystal embraces is “It takes a network to defeat a network.” What that means is that the U.S. needed an armed forces that operated like Al Qaeda. In such a network, leadership is essential, but a special kind of leadership.

Another theme that reappears throughout My Share of the Task is McChrystal’s thinly veiled disgust at American consumerism. He makes a point of having no TVs in living quarters in Iraq and emphasizes his insistence on Spartan quarters for his operators to prevent distractions. He is upset when “fast-food restaurants and electronics sales displays” pop up around the US bases. He considers these to be a “serious distraction from the business at hand,” and thought that “attempts to replicate the comforts of home could deceive us into thinking we weren’t in a deadly fight.” Over and over we see McChrystal insisting that his forces focus on the task at hand with unswerving dedication.

Such monomania may simply be ill-suited to politics. And yet, to recall great political leaders from Gandhi to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. is to become aware that leadership requires, at the least, an unshakable conviction in what one hopes to accomplish.

McChrystal’s intensity is neither inhuman nor inhumane. There are a number of times in the book when McChrystal reflects on the inhumanity of this particular war. At one point he goes on a dangerous daytime raid with Rangers in Ramadi. As the Rangers arrive at their target they force civilian men to lie down on the ground. McChrystal focuses on a boy, about four years old, standing near a man no doubt his father. As the men forced the men down, the boy, confused, lay down on the ground and “pressed his cheek flat against the pavement so that his face was turned towards his father and folded his small hands behind his back.” McChrystal tell us: “As I watched, I felt sick. I could feel in my own limbs and chest the shame and fury that must have been coursing through the father, still lying motionless. Every ounce of him must have wanted to pop up, pull his son from the ground, stand him upright, and dust off the boy’s clothes and cheek. To be laid on the ground in full view of his son was humiliating. For a proud man, to seemingly fail to protect that son from similar treatment was worse. As I watched, I thought, not for the first time: It would be easy for us to lose.

In another spot, McChrystal reports a story told by one of his operators Chris Fussell who tried to make conversation on a trip once. Apparently “Fuss” asked: "You see one of the dogs died on the target last night?" he asked. He was referring to one of the dogs that soldiers sent into houses ahead of them to check for booby traps. “Really sad,” “Fuss” remarks.  McChrystal snaps back: "Seven enemy were killed on that target last night. Seven humans. Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died? The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."

My Share of the Task is a book needed in our times. It holds out a basic thesis: That leaders matter and that leaders, if they lead, can make a difference. At a time of cynicism and disillusionment in politics, we need to think again about leadership and demand of our politicians that which they at present refuse to offer. For that exemplary lesson, McChrystal’s book is to be welcomed.

For this weekend, sit down and enjoy My Share of the Task. And then, on Sunday, March 10, come join General McChrystal, Roger Berkowitz, and Walter Russell Mead at 5 pm  at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. Tickets are available here.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
15Feb/130

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul

Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.

In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.

The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.

Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.

If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:

When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.

And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.

The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.

Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.

Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.

Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.

Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”

The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”

But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less.  That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.

The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.