Dec. 4, 2021
It is time to make a strange addition to the shortlist of essential documents on the dishonesty of America’s generals: a new book from retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal titled “Risk: A User’s Guide.”
McChrystal was removed from his command by President Barack Obama but afterward created a thriving consulting firm and often appears on TV to talk about war and politics. His new book is intended to be a primer for corporate leaders trying to navigate the perils of doing business in America. The conceit is straightforward: Hello, I am a retired four-star general who bravely led troops into battle, and I can tell you everything you need to know about managing risk.
There is a lot that McChrystal might teach us, because he was responsible for a series of consequential errors from which valuable lessons could be learned. Those errors include the concoction of a plan in 2009 to defeat the Taliban insurgency by flooding Afghanistan with as many as 80,000 additional U.S. soldiers. This was the kind of troops-and-money strategy that succeeded mainly in killing lots of civilians and helping the Taliban return to power.
On a less catastrophic scale, McChrystal actively participated in the cover-up of the friendly fire killing of NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, whose 2004 death the Pentagon initially blamed on the Taliban, knowing that this was untrue. McChrystal also took the ill-advised risk of allowing a Rolling Stone reporter to embed with his entourage on a trip around Europe, and the resulting article, which conveyed the general’s disdain for America’s elected leaders, led to his early retirement in 2010.
I am not arguing that McChrystal should abstain from writing about risk or suggesting that he didn’t have wartime successes. A book that intelligently drew from both sides of his military career could be useful. But that is not the book McChrystal chose to write, and for that we should be grateful, because he has instead provided us with a far more important document. “Risk” is stuffed with so many displays of dishonesty, ignorance, and banality that it’s the ultimate self-own for a generation of generals who led America into disaster after 9/11 — and profited from it.
With his new book, McChrystal turns himself into an accidental whistleblower.
Fighting the Truth
There is a basic question to ask before buying a general’s advice book: Why are we listening to this guy?
America treats its generals as revered proxies for its ordinary soldiers, loving them even though the wars they’ve presided over have been catastrophic. There has been more than $14 trillion in defense spending since 9/11, more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least several hundred thousand civilians killed (which is a conservative estimate). Throughout these calamities, the generals lied about what was happening, telling Congress and the American public that things were going well when they knew it wasn’t true. The breathtaking scale of their deceit was revealed in classified documents that the Washington Post published in an award-winning 2019 series titled “At War With the Truth.”
Their failures have occurred outside the battlefield too.
One of the most venerated generals of recent times is James Mattis, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and went on to become President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary. Before joining the Trump administration, Mattis was on the board of directors of Theranos to provide advice on “building elite teams.” He received an annual stipend of $150,000 and continued to defend Theranos even after the Wall Street Journal revealed in 2015 that the company’s blood-testing machines were fraudulent. Testifying in September at the trial of the company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, Mattis avidly threw her under the bus, saying that he was “disappointed at the level of transparency from Ms. Holmes.”
A different type of flameout happened to retired Gen. David Petraeus, another famous commander of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who served as Obama’s director of the CIA. Petraeus didn’t last long at Langley because he was having an affair with his biographer and shared classified information with her. The tradecraft he employed to covertly communicate with her was amateurish: They used the drafts folder in a shared Gmail account. And while in Afghanistan, his military aides were excluded from helicopter trips so that his secret girlfriend could ride along. Petraeus resigned from the CIA and pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information, but he’s still respected and has a lucrative partnership at KKR, a private equity firm.
One more item from the annals of generals gone bad:
There’s retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency and briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser until it was realized that he had deceived Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with a Russian diplomat. After pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, Flynn became a star of the QAnon conspiracy crowd and called for America to have one religion (no prizes for guessing which one). His leap into the world of the unhinged is not unique. Retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who served 10 tours in Afghanistan and led the Joint Special Operations Command, is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire and has described the state’s governor, also a Republican, as a “Chinese communist sympathizer.”
You get the point. Putting aside the conspiracy theories, corporate frauds, and the sharing of classified documents with persons not authorized to receive them (your girlfriend), there is little evidence that the experience gained by generals translates into business acumen. In fact, there is evidence that companies with military officers on their boards have worse outcomes than their competitors. It’s hard to imagine two cultures more different. In the military, a general can order the court-martial of a subordinate for disobeying orders. In the corporate world, Elon Musk is powerful, but he can’t send lazy workers to prison. The skills used to organize a sales team for another round of cold calls are not what you need to lead Delta Force operators into mortal combat. And lest we forget, the U.S. military has a culture of sexual assault and harassment that has resisted decades of reform efforts.
Gladwell for Dummies
McChrystal appears to have the distinction of making more money from his military service than any U.S. general of his generation.
According to a recent investigation by the Washington Post, McChrystal has served as a board member or adviser to at least 10 companies since leaving the military. He was paid more than $1 million for serving on the board of just one firm, Navistar International, which also paid $50 million to the government to settle accusations that it fraudulently overcharged the Marine Corps for armored vehicles. McChrystal also drew $70,000 for a single speech at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and $50,000 for an engagement at California Polytechnic State University. Both are public institutions not known to be awash with funds.
The engine of McChrystal’s business endeavors is his eponymous McChrystal Group, which has more than 50 employees and provides consulting services to corporate and government clients. While “Risk” is written in the first person, McChrystal has a co-author, Anna Butrico, who is an associate at his firm. References to the firm are scattered throughout the book, and its acknowledgments section gives credit to about a dozen employees who provided ideas and assistance. The book is prominently featured on the website of McChrystal Group.The handful of pages about Afghanistan skate past colossal failures in which McChrystal was deeply complicit.
The book is dishonest because it ignores or distorts the risks undertaken by McChrystal that failed. This includes the Tillman episode but most crucially the disastrous war strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq. While there are boastful passages about military missions in Iraq that are portrayed as successful — special forces would “identify and engage enemy fighters with stunning speed,” McChrystal claims — the abundant errors made there are basically unmentioned. More to the point, the handful of pages about Afghanistan skate past colossal failures in which McChrystal was deeply complicit. Violent raids by forces under his command are described only as creating “extraordinary political controversy” because they were “antithetical to the Afghan culture.” Nowhere does McChrystal admit the actual reason for the controversy: U.S. and Afghan forces killed an unconscionable number of civilians, and in some instances, the violence constituted war crimes.
Much of the book is not lies, just utter banality. It is a torrent of platitudes like this: “Fear of change is only natural — adaptability requires the ability, willingness, and, I’d argue, courage to dare to become something different.” Or this assemblage of clichés: “Knowing that transformation is inevitable, we can ensure that we’re asking the right questions of ourselves and our teams to calibrate to our new reality in order to be successful in an increasingly digitized world.” And this insight: “Against the greatest threats, winning is most often the product of teamwork.”
The book moves from one bromide to another with eighth grade-level graphics, and one of its key messages is perplexing from a grammatical perspective: that “the greatest risk to us — is us.” It evokes famous events or personalities to make points that are manifestly self-evident, with references to the Alamo, Google, Apollo 13, Aunt Jemima, Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Goebbels, Blockbuster, Enron, Lehman Brothers, “The Wizard of Oz,” the Bay of Pigs, Greta Thunberg, Napster, Gettysburg, the Maginot Line, Coco Chanel, Hurricane Katrina, and the Fosbury Flop, among others. One can imagine McChrystal’s agent pitching the germ of this book as “Malcolm Gladwell for Dummies.”
It’s harmless, you might think. What could be so terrible about a retired general making a few bucks with potted wisdom from West Point and the Sunni Triangle? We can even enjoy a cynical laugh, if we wish, watching a grift come to life as corporate executives make bulk purchases of “Risk” and do calisthenics at dawn with Navy SEALs hired by McChrystal Group. The gullible marks get what they deserve, which is nothing. But I can’t steer my thoughts away from the sacrifices of the soldiers and civilians I met while covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think few of them are pleased or amused by the ease with which fortune and fame are showered on generals who got so many people killed and maimed. Many would regard it as an injustice.
The villain in this story isn’t really McChrystal or his book. He’s doing what Americans are encouraged to do: Swim toward available commercial opportunities and make as much money as you can without breaking the law. Maybe he doesn’t need all that extra cash — generals can receive more than $250,000 in annual retirement pay, after all — but how many people would turn down the partnerships and board seats that are offered to former generals?
The deeper problem, I think, is the adulation that McChrystal and other military leaders get from media organizations. They manufacture the fame that is so misplaced. Here, for instance, is a partial list of the outlets that gave fawning coverage to the rollout of “Risk”: Axios, CNN, PBS, the Washington Post, Time magazine, Forbes, MSNBC, NPR, CBS News, Yahoo Finance, and Foreign Policy. It seems that there was just one news outlet in the U.S. that published a critical take — the National Review, with an article by military veteran Bing West that was scathingly headlined “A General Who Failed in War Assesses Risk.”