“My wife will shoot me if I let you see our messy bedroom,” says Stanley McChrystal, as we negotiate the figure-hugging stairs of his Virginia row home. “But I have been shot before.”
America’s most controversial general since Curtis LeMay, that zealous bomber of things, is now a gracious suburban host of 64. “This is my father in Vietnam,” — we are on the landing now, which he could charge admission to as a gallery — “and this is a hand-drawn map of Kabul by British officers from 1842. This is the route they took to Jalalabad. One guy made it out of 15,000. I kept it on my desk in Afghanistan as a reminder. ‘Let’s not be too sanguine.’ ” Or the enemy too sanguinary.
Before he commanded all coalition troops there, McChrystal re-wrote counter-insurgency doctrine as head of the US special forces. He joined his soldiers on night raids and tussled with Washington over resources. His spartanness and dissident streak put commentators in the mind of, variously, Martin Luther, a Jedi, Marlon Brando’s renegade colonel in Apocalypse Now and, in the magazine article that exploded his career, a “snake-eating rebel”. It was in the pages of Rolling Stone in 2010 that he, or at least his aides, were seen to disparage civilians as eminent as Joe Biden and Richard Holbrooke. Barack Obama accepted his resignation. “It was good in some ways,” he says now, of not having to retire in the usual way. “I didn’t have a year to dread or mourn.”
Donald Trump, accused of dishonesty by McChrystal, tweeted last month that the retired general has a “big, dumb mouth” and got “fired like a dog”. Odd simile aside (which of our canine friends have been dismissed from gainful employment?), McChrystal seems to prefer this kind of rough-and-tumble to unreflective soldier-worship. “The balance is skewed now,” he judges. “Trump bringing in generals was a reflexive attempt to leverage that. Once you start this disdain for civilian government and reverence for the military, you go in a strange direction, like Pakistan. And if going into the military is looked at as a route to going into government, that’s a bad thing.”
Almost as bad, to McChrystal’s taste, are the craft breweries that have transformed the once-terse American beer menu into a Finnegans Wake of compendious choice. And so we are sipping his favoured Bud Light Limes. One is disinclined to make a fuss when one is drinking out of the official glassware of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Physically, McChrystal is an older, taller Lance Armstrong. The cropped hair, the angular physiognomy and the leanness of frame all promise a certain aerodynamism, as though he himself could be weaponised were the Pentagon to run dry of cruise missiles. Wire spectacles and a plain shirt suggest a soldierly abhorrence of fuss. His one adornment is his West Point ring, as red at its core as the one on General Patton in Franklin Schaffner’s Oscar-drenched biopic. (He is a film nut.) “You get to choose what stone you put in it,” he says. “This is just a cheap garnet. But that’s what my father had in his ring.”
Short work made of the beers, we repair to the dining room, where a former soldier, no older than 30, is catering for us. Snakes being out of season, McChrystal and I each settle down to a deep bowl of chilli, capped with gratings of cheese. “This smells great,” he says, “and it’s good for me too.” He is half right, and we wade in.
These days, McChrystal runs a consultancy that he walks to each morning. There are ventures into scholarship at Yale. He has a book out, Leaders, a Plutarchian study of bosses with 13 case studies that span Coco Chanel (“I knew nothing about her”) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mastermind jihadi whose killing he ordered in Iraq. “But of the 13 people, if I was hiring a CEO, it would be Dr King, by far,” he says, of the civil rights leader, whose management of a fissiparous movement has been less sung than his grandeur of speech.
A convivial semi-retirement, then, but McChrystal was almost hard-wired for action. Born to an infantryman at Fort Leavenworth, near the geographic bullseye of the Lower 48, I wonder if he was always going to be a soldier. “My mother opined to my father that I wouldn’t be,” he says. “She knew I had different interests. I liked to write. She was pretty liberal. A little more out there. But I never considered anything else. I only applied to one college [West Point]. I didn’t even visit any other ones. I didn’t do due diligence on other vocations.”
It was the special forces that excited him. “In 1965, Robin Moore’s book The Green Berets comes out. In 1967, the movie comes out. I see that and go ‘Wow’. I see The Longest Day, the Rangers going up Pointe du Hoc. I was thinking, ‘I want to be elite’.” The special forces took a reputational dip after Vietnam (“So you want to join Speckled Feces?” asked a superior, when McChrystal applied) but they soon recovered their former renown as the pinnacle of uniformed bad-assery. McChrystal, though he stresses that “special” does not mean “better”, searches for a metaphor to capture their exclusive status.
“Everybody,” he says, “wants to work for the Financial Times.”
Having underestimated the kick of chilli before — a south Asian’s hubris — I am relieved that McChrystal’s version does not trouble the higher reaches of the Scoville scale. There is no loss of masculine face in front of this dead-of-night enemy-slayer. Either side of the bowl are servings of cornbread and cheese sticks, two of those American comfort foods that appear to retain their spell over the citizenry well into and beyond middle age. “My great aunt is from the Deep South and she used to send me cheese sticks to Iraq all the time,” he says. “Each one is like 8,000 calories.”
The allusion to weight reminds me that McChrystal and I have an idiosyncrasy in common. We eat just once a day, at dinner. As the only other person I know who does this is the singer Sisqó, of “Thong Song” fame, whose availability for Lunch with the FT has not been tested, I have to ask about it.
“I’d always been athletic,” remembers McChrystal. “Then as a lieutenant I started getting a little . . . chunky.” This is the first and penultimate time his statesmanlike growl falters a tad. “I don’t like that. I don’t like the feel of it. I found when I ate one meal a day, I felt good. And at night, I could just enjoy that meal.”
“It means you can pig out at dinner time,” I say, nodding strenuously. It is an epicure’s diet as much as a weight-watcher’s.
“Exactly. I will periodically eat breakfast or lunch with the family, and I will invariably regret it.” He means the breakfast or lunch — barbarous customs, both — not the presence of his wife, Annie, whom he met while at West Point, or their children. Behind him are framed photographs of the family and a trove of historical books. Titles as epic as Once An Eagle and The Search for Alexander frame his head. The house honours the martial ethos wherever it can. Upstairs is the patch of wall that once bore a framed portrait of the Confederate general Robert E Lee. McChrystal ditched it after the far-right violence in Charlottesville, lest visitors conflate his awe of the man (“Zero demerits at West Point”) with fealty to his cause.
Cornbread, a southern staple, turns out to be moreish in the extreme and my eyes sweep the room for seconds. McChrystal went to school in Washington, which, as the rest of the world forgets, is below the Mason-Dixon Line. The south decorates his accent (“failure” is “fai-yer”) but can someone who grows up in the geographic flux of army life be “from” anywhere? “Most military do consider themselves from somewhere,” he says. “I sort of don’t. I consider myself southern by background but I am not really part of that culture. We considered ourselves kind of military.”
The larger question is whether America is coming to consider itself “kind of military”. Prussia, said Voltaire, was not a state with an army but an army with a state. While the US is still a democratic republic, it is with some gusto that it honours the military in airports, in advertisements and, less innocuously, in government, where once-epauletted men are counted on to contain the elected president. I wonder if some of this is over-atonement for the abuse of soldiers during and after the Vietnam war. McChrystal remembers it well enough.
“I would say from 1965 to the early 1980s, soldiers were getting spit on in airports. I went to West Point in ’72, and the first time I was allowed off the post was the fall of that year. Six hours in New York City. We’re in uniform. We think we’re kind of cool. We’re in Times Square and these girls drive by, flashing us the bird. [The war in] Grenada helped to fix things. Then after the Gulf war, everybody is a hero. Part of that is unhealthy.” The dread must be an America of “red” generals and “blue” generals, to go with the red judges and blue judges.
He dates the partisan cleaving of the nation to at least the 1990s. “The amount of vitriol focused on Bill Clinton was more than we had seen for a long time,” he says. “Then during the Obama administration, I talked to people who were doing well, rational business people, who said “What about this guy!” They had an absolute disdain for him. And I had arguably been fired by him and I didn’t have that feeling. I’d say, “What about that guy bugs you so much?” I didn’t get the vitriol. His governance was not radical. There was this perception of arrogance. People who didn’t like African-Americans could hate him. People who didn’t like Ivy League lawyers could hate him.”
As the dishes are cleared, I invite him to compare the two presidents he served. “George W Bush was someone I had a lot of trust in. I didn’t agree at the time with the decision to invade Iraq because I didn’t think it was necessary. But I believed he was trustworthy, meaning he would back you up if you did something, whether it went well or not.”
“President Obama,” he continues, “was more analytical. But it was the first term. One of the primary goals was to be different from Bush. And it handcuffs you if you say everything before you was not good. It was a new team around him that was not blooded or cohesive. You were dealing with a collection of people all of whom were trying to figure out where they stood in the pecking order. There was a lot of politics.”
That last word is enunciated with some disdain. McChrystal was born under a general-president, Dwight Eisenhower. LeMay once ran as George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate. Colin Powell, Wesley Clark and David Petraeus have either tried or been touted for high office. McChrystal has the raw materials of a politician — charisma, brains, an ineffable leaderliness — but it is easier to imagine him eating brunch than volunteering for that life. There is some obvious pining for generalship, but not for fame per se.
McChrystal rises to help with a recalcitrant coffee machine. “You gotta talk to it, that’s the secret.” Duly cajoled, it comes to heel. When he returns, bearing inadvisedly late-night Americanos, I ask about the forever wars, which constitute the prime of his service, and its unexpected end. “The response to 9/11 was a lot more vicious than [al-Qaeda] expected,” he says, “but once they got through that they saw what we could and could not do. They thought, wait a minute, we can stay in this fight.”
Even before the Rolling Stone piece, he was criticised for his team’s interrogation techniques and his part in the alleged cover-up of the death by friendly fire of Pat Tillman, a former NFL star who had enlisted after 9/11. But McChrystal also helped to transform counter-insurgency with his emphasis on information. Troops became nimbler and closer to the civilian population. Zarqawi, the “first emir” of al-Qaeda in Iraq, appears to stand out as his favourite enemy.
“We started tracking communications in which he motivated his people around Iraq,” he recalls. “Then second- and third-hand reports of battlefield circulation. And it was first-class work. So even though we were inflamed at his beheading of Nick Berg and others, we knew we were dealing with a naturally capable guy, if not formally educated, kind of like Giap in North Vietnam.”
“We were getting closer. We spent three weeks tracking him. We had a detainee giving us information. Then in the afternoon, we saw him from a Predator and did the air strike. But we didn’t have positive ID. We took fingerprints off the body and sent them back to the FBI. And they’re taking their time. Several hours.” When the confirmation was beamed back to the Middle East, “it was as good as it gets”. Trained in the cold war, McChrystal adjusted to the sub-state enemies of the terror age, and now wonders if the world is reverting to great power conflict. “The distance you would have to travel to have a major war is less than it was.”
That is a matter for others now. From the sting of battle to this peaceful home, this diverting library, this portfolio career: it is the dream life for most people, but can it ever sate a warrior? “Be thou at peace,” they sing at West Point. With a taxi on the way, I ask him if he is true to the lyric.
“I think I am at peace,” he says, and my ears pick up the flicker of his voice over the first two words. “But I would love to have zero blemishes. I’ve learned there is no point trying to re-litigate it. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, there’s a great moment when Wales stands over the grave of a young guy who dies and says, “All I got to say is that I rode with him and I got no complaints.” A friend of mine and I say that to each other pretty often. If people say Stan McChrystal was a good guy, I trusted him, I’d be good with that.”
Janan Ganesh is a US columnist and FT associate editor
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