General Stanley McChrystal went gently into that good night Friday, retiring after 30-plus years of military service.
There was no ticker-tape parade for McChrystal, who at one time looked to be heading for military and public stardom for his handling of the Afghan war. What occurred instead was a somber ceremony at Ft. McNair, Washington, attended by those who knew and served with the General.
It was little over one year ago that McChrystal was given command of US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops on Afghanistan. New leadership and tactics were strongly needed and McChrystal lived up to the challenge.
“Last year when it became clear to me that our mission in Afghanistan needed new thinking, new energy and new leadership, there was no doubt in my mind who that new leader should be,” explained Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his farewell speech. “I wanted the very best warrior general in our armed forces for this fight. I needed to be able to tell myself, the President and the troops that we had the very best possible person in charge in Afghanistan. I owed that to the troops there and to the American people.”
Often going on night time raids with the infantry, the General rarely slept or ate and could be seen running seven miles every day at 5am. He was the epitome of a soldier’s soldier.
“His fearsome exercise, sleeping and eating routines are legendary. I get tired and hungry just reading about them,” Gates joked.
Yet problems occurred early on, when McChrystal suggested publicly that a troop increase was needed in Afghanistan, information that should have been given only to the President.
The final and most dramatic straw occurred in late June, after copies of an article in Rolling Stone magazine became public. In that article, McChrystal, along with his staff, made disparaging remarks about much of the civilian leadership, including Vice-President Joe Biden. McChrystal was recalled to Washington where he promptly submitted his resignation of command in Afghanistan. Shortly after, he announced he would retire from the army.
Typical to the kind of soldier he was, McChrystal dressed in his combat fatigues at his retirement and did what he could to ease the awkwardness of the moment.
Commenting that no one should try and challenge his war stories, McChrystal joked, “but to those here tonight who feel the need to contradict my memories with the truth, remember I was there too. I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter.”
Returning to a serious note, he explained that his service was not ending in a way he would have liked it to, but went on to thank those he worked with in Afghanistan.
“As COM ISAF, I was provided a unique opportunity to serve alongside the professionals of 46 nations under the leadership of NATO. We were stronger for the diversity of our force, and I’m better for the experience,” said the 55-year-old General, who is being allowed to retire with four stars. “My thanks, also, to the leadership and people of Afghanistan for their partnership, hospitality and friendship. For those who are tempted to simplify their view of Afghanistan and focus on the challenges ahead, I counter with my belief that Afghans have courage, strength and resiliency that will prove equal to the task.”
McChrystal graduated from West Point in 1976 and started a career that would see him complete courses in the Airborne, Rangers, and Special Forces school. He operated in Korea in the early 80s and Desert Shield and Storm in the 90s.
“If I had it to do over again, I’d do some things in my career differently but not many,” summed up McChrystal. “I believed in people, and I still believe in them. I trusted and I still trust. I cared and I still care. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
By Sean Palter
*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely of the author’s, and do not represent those of The NATO Council of Canada.