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'I Accepted Responsibility': McChrystal On His 'Share Of The Task'

Stanley McChrystal's new memoir, My Share of the Task, recounts lessons from his years in the military. (Penguin Books)

Gen. Stanley McChrystal says he's moved on with his life. The four-star general was forced to resign from the military after his aides were quoted in a Rolling Stone article making disparaging remarks about members of the Obama administration.

McChrystal's high-profile role as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was a different task from his highly classified missions in Iraq. While he says he was well-prepared for the military side of the job, McChrystal tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin that he was "certainly not comfortable" with the media part.

"I chose to be as transparent as we could — more transparent than some people advised I be. In retrospect, clearly, like with the Rolling Stone article, I wish it had not come out that way," he says, "but I wouldn't change the approach on transparency. I think, at the end of the day, you do better when you tend toward being transparent, even though there's some risk."

In McChrystal's memoir, My Share of the Task, he describes a culture gap between the military and civilian worlds. The lack of understanding, he says, complicated the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and bred distrust between the White House and the Pentagon.

In Afganistan, An Uncertain Mission

McChrystal spent the bulk of his career in special operations, very elite units that carry out highly classified missions. In Iraq, he eventually became the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, tasked with hunting down and killing insurgents.

His mission in Afghanistan was much less defined. When he got there in 2009, McChrystal says, the war was "badly under-resourced." He says he had to "change the psychology of all the players" — the U.S., its allies and the Afghan people — to convince them the forces would be successful.

He was constantly communicating with the leaders of dozens of nations and the public about the war.

"There's this intense media spotlight, there's a need to be transparent, and, oh, by the way, I'm also trying to fight a war at the same time," he says. "It's a challenge, but it goes with the job."

McChrystal says it soon became clear that not everyone envisioned the mission in the same way.

"Many people had different views not only of what the mission was then, but also the direction that we ought to go," he says.

He ran into misunderstandings between military and civilian leadership over things as simple as terminology ("defeating" the enemy doesn't mean you have to kill them in military lingo, but civilian leaders were concerned by the term).

"What it really showed was because different cultures — the military, civilian, whatnot — all have their own lexicon, you can be having a conversation where you think you're communicating effectively ... but you're not," he says.

He says it's the responsibility of the military to explain to civilian leaders what its strategic goals are and what resources are needed to achieve them.

The Article That Ended His Career

McChrystal resigned after comments that he and his staff made about members of the Obama administration in what he believed to be an off-the-record setting to a Rolling Stone reporter. The magazine published the comments in an article titled "The Runaway General" in the summer of 2010.

McChrystal, his wife, Annie, and his staff were at a bar in Paris with the reporter. That night, McChrystal and his wife came away with a very different feeling than what ultimately came out in the article.

"I was very surprised by the tone of that article when it came out. I did not think it was a fair depiction of the team," he says, "but it created a controversy. I was in command, and I accepted responsibility."

McChrystal says the incident isn't necessarily a reflection of the military-civilian understanding gap. He says it was more a matter of context. At the time the comments were made, McChrystal says, he didn't think of them as being insubordinate.

"I know that staff was neither disloyal or intentionally disrespectful," he says. "But, you know, when something becomes a media controversy, it is very difficult to fight that fight at the time."

Life Out Of The Media Spotlight

When asked if he now sees how the comments, in isolation, could be interpreted as insubordinate, McChrystal just says he's moved on.

"I don't judge it either way," he says. "I accepted responsibility, I ended my career over that, and I've moved on with my life."

He says that as soon as he resigned, a network of supporters helped him start to get past the ordeal.

"When you go through some controversy and you see your face on the news in a negative way for 48 hours ... you doubt yourself," he says. "And your friends make the difference. They become a safety net that come in and say, 'That's not the case.' And the relationships that you've built ... come to the fore."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

General Stanley McChrystal says he's moved on with his life. The four-star general was forced to resign from the military after his aides were quoted in a Rolling Stone article making disparaging remarks about members of the Obama administration. McChrystal has written a memoire called "My Share of the Task." And in it, he describes a cultural gap between the military and civilian worlds; a lack of understanding that he says complicated the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and bred distrust between the White House and the Pentagon.

When I spoke with General McChrystal, I asked him about a story in his book about one Christmas Eve. As the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, he was spending the night flying around the country visiting troops. At one outpost, McChrystal saw a name patch that caught his eye. He knew the name. This soldier's father had died under McChrystal's command a few years before in Iraq.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: So I'm looking at his son who's probably 19 or 20 years old and he's a private. And I'm thinking this guy doesn't want to be recognized, doesn't want to be made a big deal about, but he has taken the place in the ranks that his father had taken. And he's out in a tough place serving his nation, and I thought about the continuity and the tradition that that reflected.

And so, those kinds of experiences stay imprinted in your mind. And so, I tried in my book to paint the personal side of soldiers because they're not nameless faces. They are people with families and hopes and dreams.

MARTIN: Your dad was an Army general. You, yourself went to West Point. Was this career path clear to you from a really young age? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

MCCHRYSTAL: Rachel, I did from as early as I can remember. My grandfather was a soldier. My brother is. My four brothers all were soldiers. My sister married a soldier. So when I got the opportunity to the West Point, my goal was to be a combat infantry soldier like my father.

MARTIN: You spent the bulk of your military career as a special operator. These are very elite units in the military. We often say that they work in the shadows, they carry out very highly classified missions. You ultimately became the commander of Joint Special Operations, commandeering the war in Iraq. You and your teams had a very specific mission there. You were tasked with hunting down and killing insurgents.

Can you give us a sense of the pace of that work at the time? How many missions were your teams carrying out each week, each night, even?

MCCHRYSTAL: In the summer of 2004, I think we did 18 raids in a month across the country. And that seemed like a breakneck pace to us. But by two years later, by August of 2006, we were doing 300 raids a month which meant 10 a night. And we were operating at a pace none of us had ever thought possible. And because a lot of these special operators are anonymous to Americans - you see movies and you think of these guys as sort of bearded, cynical, mercenary-like figures - I wanted in my book to give a sense that's not the case at all.

Most of the special operators are in their 30's and 40's, they're not young. And at one point, in one of my units, half of the organization had purple hearts, which meant that they had been wounded in combat. And yet they were still in the fight.

And over about a two and half year period, we put together a network that connected across the country. We did this extraordinary explosion within our headquarters of focus on intelligence. And we've learned that we could operate on intelligence very quickly because we were getting so much better at it.

MARTIN: So you leave Iraq on the high; that was an important national security priority, but it was a very defined mission. You then went on to Afghanistan, assigned to be the top U.S. commander there. Describe how that mission was different for you. How did you have to become a different kind of general there?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sure. That was a war that had actually - an effort that had begun in the fall of 2001. But by 2013, it had been badly under-resourced. It was unclear to many people what we're trying to achieve. And so, what we had to was we had to change the psychology of all the players. We had to convince our coalition that we could do this successfully. We had to convince political leadership in 37 countries, particularly the United States, we could do it.

But most importantly, we had to convince the Afghan people that what we're doing was in their interest, we cared about them and that we could be effective.

MARTIN: You said a lot of people were unclear about what the mission was. Were you clear? Did you understand what you were supposed to do?

MCCHRYSTAL: I thought I did when we started. But as we did the strategic assessment, in that summer of 2013 and then went into a decision-making process that fall, it was clear to me that everybody didn't view the mission the same. And many people had different views, not only of what the mission was then but also the direction that we ought to go.

MARTIN: You described actually through one anecdote, a videoconference with the White House. You're in Afghanistan. You're hooked up with the Situation Room. And one White House official asked you when you're describing the mission, why are you using the word defeat. Why aren't you using a lesser word, like degrade the Taliban?

Did you feel the White House was moving the goalposts on you, when it came to your objectives?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, in that particular case, I think it showed the cultural challenge because we had put on paper the word defeat and to a military person that's got a very precise meaning. It means we are going to prevent the enemy from accomplishing his mission. It doesn't mean you have to kill any of the enemy, you've just got to prevent them from doing what they're trying to do.

And yet, we found that there were people in the White House that were interpreting that as it eliminate the enemy - wipe them out. And so, they were saying, why do you think you've got to go all the way to defeat.

What it really showed was because different cultures - the military, civilian, and whatnot - all have their own lexicon, you can be having a conversation where you think you're communicating effectively - and it's all good people - but you're not. It's more obvious when you're dealing with an Afghan leader with a big beard who doesn't speak your language, because you know there's a cultural barrier. But when you're both speaking English, you don't remember sometimes that there may be a cultural barrier that's just less visible.

MARTIN: The way you write about the buildup to the surge and that debate, it appears that you didn't really think that your civilian leaders really got what it took to run a war; the resources, how they're allocated, how they're deployed. Is that fair to say?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think it's fair to say that it is the job of the military to explain what it is we're trying to do militarily and what resources are required. I think it's natural that civilian leaders aren't going to automatically know the math that the military uses. And so, we've got to be able to explain it in very clear terms.

MARTIN: This was a different role for you, the job in Afghanistan. For much of your career, as you mentioned, you were in Special Operations Command - those aren't public jobs. You're not in front of TV cameras. You're not briefing Congress.

In Afghanistan, as the commander there, this is a public job. This is a political job. Do you think that was a good fit for you?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think it was certainly a challenge for me.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCHRYSTAL: You're exactly right. I came out of the shadows. I'm in charge of a war that is failing. I have to interact with 46 nations to get people focused on the same strategy moving forward. And at the same time, essentially, I've got to educate people in 46 nations, their publics through the media about the war. And I've got to do the same with the mothers and fathers in America who are contributing their sons and daughters to the cause.

So there's this intense media spotlight. There's a need to be transparent. And, oh, by the way, I'm also tried to fight a war at the same time. It's a challenge. But it goes with the job. It's just a level of complexity that is sometimes not appreciated until you're actually in that position.

MARTIN: Do you think you are well prepared for that element of the job?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think I was very well prepared for the military part of the job. I enjoyed the interaction with the government of Afghanistan, key leaders, the Afghan people and the governments. I think that on the media side, I was certainly not comfortable with it. I chose to be as transparent as we could; more transparent than some people advised I be.

In retrospect, clearly, like with the Rolling Stone article, I wish it had not come out that way. But I wouldn't change the approach on transparency. I think, at the end of the day, you do better when you tend toward being transparent, even though there's some risk.

MARTIN: You did ultimately lose your job because of comments that you and your staff made about members of the Obama administration, in what you believe to be an off-the-record setting, to a reporter from the Rolling Stone. It was a bar. You were in Paris, in France. It happened to be your anniversary and your wife, Annie, was also on the trip. She was in that bar that night.

And you describe in the book your wife's impression of the evening. What did she tell you when it was over?

MCCHRYSTAL: Annie, at the end of the evening, as we went back - we're about to go to bed - she says I'm really glad the reporter was there because it was important that he see the camaraderie between your small team. I had a German officer, a French officer, an Afghan officer, several Americans, all of this team that had - most of them had been at war for many years and they were together and she thought it was important that he see and appreciate the level of commitment to each other and the level, really, of love they had between each other.

MARTIN: So she was glad the reporter was there, that he saw that. But that same reporter walked out of the same bar, the same situation and saw something very different. He wrote about it and it cost you your military career. You were all in one room and yet this conversation was perceived very differently by those in the military and those outside. How do you make sense of that? How could the perceptions be so different?

MCCHRYSTAL: I was very surprised by the tone of that article when it came out. I did not think it was a fair depiction of the team, but it created a controversy. I was in command, and I accepted responsibility.

MARTIN: You talk the gap sometimes between the military and its civilian leadership when it comes to having a specific culture, a different culture, a different lexicon. Does that particular incident illustrate further that cultural gap, a gap in understanding between military and civilian worlds?

MCCHRYSTAL: I'm not sure it's a gap in understanding in that particular case. It may be a little bit. I think it's more built-up trust. If you know somebody very, very well, if you've built up very strong ties personally, when you hear or read things about that person, you can put them into context. If you don't, then it's very hard and you get a report and you may take it at face value. But if they see wider context, they may be able to put things into better perspective.

MARTIN: But you're suggesting that the comments that lead to you dismissal, if they had been taken into context, perhaps would not have been perceived so egregiously. But you were forced to resign as a result of these. Did you think those comments that your staff made were insubordinate and disrespectful at the time or did you not think about it?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, at the time, I didn't at all. I know that staff was neither disloyal or intentionally disrespectful. But, you know, when something becomes a media controversy, it is very difficult to fight that fight at the time. So it was appropriate for me to offer President Obama my resignation and I have no hesitation that taking responsibility is what a commander must do.

MARTIN: When you look back on those comments, though, in isolation, do you see that they're representative of some kind of insubordination?

MCCHRYSTAL: Rachel, I've moved on from that. I don't judge it either way. You know, I accepted responsibility, I ended my career over that and I've moved on with my life.

MARTIN: Being a soldier as obviously a huge part of your identity. It was what you did, being a McChrystal; your dad, your siblings. Give us a sense of what it has been like to try to move on.

MCCHRYSTAL: What I found from the moment that I offered my resignation, I had this network of friends and people who cared about me. And people came out of the woodwork to reinforce that. And, of course, when you go through some controversy and you see your face on the news in a negative way for 48 hours or something, you doubt yourself.

And your friends make the difference. They become a safety net that come in and say, that's not the case. And the relationships that you've built, some of which you don't even realize how strong they are, come to the fore. And the people that I had fought wars with, the people that I'd done other things with, he people that I love, particularly my wife and my son, are so strong and they make you stronger.

MARTIN: General Stanley McChrystal. His new memoir is called "My Share of the Task." You can read in excerpt at nprNPR.org. General McChrystal, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

MCCHRYSTAL: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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