Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Gen. McChrystal’s Share of the Task

Unlike his operational handbook, Team of Teams, this book is an autobiographical review of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s tours of duty as the task force commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, while the technical details provide hard-won lessons in leadership that are broadly applicable to any challenge a reader might confront, they are contrasted against what he does not say. Also contrary to those teaching moments, nothing ages faster than current events. Even those who learn from the past are condemned to live among those who did not. Gen. McChrystal credits his team of teams for killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and for winning the battle of Fallujah. However, the action here ends before the rise of ISIS.

My Share of the Task: A Memoir
by Gen. Stanley McChrystal
(Portfolio/Penguin, 2013)
 
McChrystal writes well but the book is targeted to a military audience. For example, he uses the word “guidance” in the special sense that has nothing to do with missiles. When you receive your commander’s guidance, as the 2-star Maj. Gen. McChrystal did from his 4-star general Abizaid, you are being given expectations, limits, and measures of success. But it is all verbal, often just a chat. You are supposed to fill in the blanks and know what to do and what not to do. McChrystal never explains that. He just says that he received guidance, and the story continues from there.

The military is a small community. Captain Stanley McChrystal was deep in Georgia, Fort Stewart, 20 miles up a country road, when he met CPT Dave Petraeus. They would serve together again. In that span, like other senior staff officers McChrystal’s career took him down several different roads – airborne, Green Berets, mechanized infantry, Rangers—which he credits to giving him a broader view than he would have had if he had specialized and stayed in one command structure. In those different billets, he worked with other people he would meet again as he rose in rank.

As a major, attending the Army’s command and staff course was required. Usually, that means Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. Instead, McChrystal was sent to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

“Sited in scenic Narragansett Bay, the Naval War College was academically stimulating beyond anything I’d yet experienced. Unlike more structured programs with long class hours, the Navy emphasized extensive reading punctuated by limited but focused seminars. I’d always loved to read, and the instructors pushed me into the works of Clausewitz, Homer, and others that helped build a firmer foundation of knowledge.” McChrystal did not mention that at the same time he also completed a master’s degree in international relations at Salve Regina University. (He does say so in Team of Teams.) Several other generals also earned advanced degrees at Salve Regina.

Later, McChrystal has little to say about the death by friendly fire of Ranger Specialist Pat Tillman. Tillman's death grabbed media attention because of his religion, or lack of it. Tillman was openly an atheist, which is less popular than being openly gay. McChrystal was the special operations commander. He renders no final judgement, but only delivers a brief outline of the event. Even the unusual fact that Tillman reeceived a posthumous Silver Star is delivered in one sentence with no personal observation.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, on August 2, 1990, McChrystal was with the operations directorate of a joint task force at Fort Bragg. He was on maneuvers at Fort Bliss when the news came. His deployment to Kuwait to analyze SCUD missile attacks was brief. The war ended. He returned to the 82nd Airborne in 1994 and reported to Colonel John Abizaid. Six years later he returned again and Colonel McChrystal took over the post of assistant division commander from Colonel Petraeus. They met again, in the wake of 9/11, deployed to Afghanistan, where they set up their aluminum frame cots in their command offices.

The book dives deep into the creation and management of a joint force special operations directorate to retake Iraq from the insurgency. McChrystal also commands a similar force in Afghanistan. The details of the protracted, repetitive battles are less revealing of the man we have already come to know. He turns Task Force 714 from a “tribe of teams” into the “team of teams” needed to win the battle for Fallujah. Adaptable, open, intelligent, TF 714 becomes the “Entrepreneurs of Battle” needed to overcome a decentralized, information-driven, fanatically dedicated adversary. Some of the fighters fought each other, Shiite against Sunni and Sunnis in reprisal, or different Shia militia vying for control. But that merely complicated the picture without changing it.

Afghanistan was different. Slapping on his four-star Velcro insignia as his plane lands, McChrystal returns to Afghanistan to follow the thin guidance of his president. He never complains. He remains objective, operational, strategic, tactical. But our national motto conveys an ironic pun: E pluribus unum means to make one out of many, but it also means that from out of all of these many, here is yet one more. And Gen. Stanley McChrystal was just one more commander in what is not a seventeen-year war, but seventeen one-year wars.

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1 comment:

  1. The minister quoted Team of Teams at my Unitarian Universalist services a few weeks ago. I considered reading it, but reviews suggested it was treating not having a matrix rather than tall silos as something new. Avoiding silos and walls has been common practice in tech for at least 20 years, so I thought I wouldn't get much out of it.

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