Stan McChrystal, the four-star Army general booted from command of the Afghan war in June after derisive comments from him and his staff got him fired by President Obama, launches his second classroom session — “The Changing Military” — as a Yale University lecturer Tuesday. If it’s anything like last week’s — “The Importance of Leading Differently,” which featured “Case Study 1: The career of Stanley McChrystal” — he’ll prepare Monday by traveling from his home in suburban Washington, taking a run around Yale’s New Haven campus, and maybe meeting with some students over pizza and beer.
It’s a long way from commanding 100,000 U.S. — and 30,000 allied — troops in Afghanistan to commanding a couple of dozen students. But that’s what happens when you can’t command your tongue, or — more importantly — those of your supposedly loyal aides in chats with a reporter from Rolling Stone.
But the former Special Operations officer has picked himself up, dusted off the sting of being the first U.S. military wartime commander fired since Harry Truman cashiered Douglas MacArthur a year into the Korean War in 1951, and is steadily rebuilding his life, associates say (McChrystal declined to be interviewed). His erect stance, gaunt look and short hair makes him recognizable – at least to some people. Following a recent not-cheap dinner for five set up by someone else at a fancy New York steakhouse, the group called for the check. They were surprised when the waiter declined to bring it to them. “They said `Don’t worry about it,’” an associate recalls. Another diner “had picked it up – and relayed a `thank you for your service,’” to an embarrassed McChrystal.
It was a painful ticket to a free meal, but part of a process McChrystal has conducted with his trademark gusto. He has spent the last couple of months decompressing from a demanding military career, rendezvousing with family and friends instead of Afghan tribal chiefs and subordinate officers. Shortly after his farewell ceremony in July (he warned the fellow officers in attendance: “I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter”), he spent several days with his parents (his father is a retired Army two-star general) in Tennessee. McChrystal, who turned 56 last month, and his wife, Annie, have returned to one of their favorites places, Gettysburg, where he can run and study history at the Civil War battlefield. In addition to the Yale gig, he and Annie have joined the board of the Bethesda, Md.-based Yellow Ribbon Fund, a charity that aids wounded troops and their families.
McChrystal has ruled out working for a defense contractor, an associate says. “He wants to give back – that’s why he’s doing the Yellow Ribbon stuff, the teaching – he might do it at the Army War College, too,” the former Pentagon colleague says. “He may do some consulting.”
McChrystal’s Yale posting has generated only minor criticism. About a dozen people protested the decision of Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs to make him a senior fellow as the school year began September 1. Omar Mumallah, a junior at Yale, told the New Haven Register that McChrystal shouldn’t be cited as a role model. “If you want a moral voice, a moral leader, somebody who can lead people towards more noble, more peaceful, more righteous ethical conduct, McChrystal is not the guy,” he said. “It’s just that simple.” McChrystal is teaching a single graduate-level course, Leadership in Operation. The seminars are off the record, Yale has said, and cover topics including leadership, politics and risk. Specific classes will deal with “Coping with Failure” (September 27), “Loyalty, Trust and Relationships” (November 2), and “Communicating the Story – the Media Environment” (November 16).
McChrystal has signed up with a speakers’ bureau, and already has about a dozen speech-dates in the works. Associates won’t say how much he’s paid, but the Leading Authorities website suggests he’s cheapest when speaking close to his $1.2 million home in Old Town, Alexandria, Va., just outside the capital, and more on the East and West coasts. Associates wouldn’t confirm a report that he’s seeking $60,000 per chat.
The Leading Authorities website notes that McChrystal tested out his speaking skills before a critical audience last Thursday: leaders of various associations, who are always seeking speakers for their conventions. “General McChrystal’s talk ended as it started—with a packed room and a standing ovation,” a press release about his talk concluded. “If you are interested in inviting him to your event, don’t hesitate to give us a call.” (Despite the purported “full bio” on the website, it doesn’t mention anything about McChrystal’s sudden fall from grace, simply noting that he “retired from the military in August 2010.”)
McChrystal gives a little pep talk – and a preview of his taciturn speaking style – in videos on the website. “I tend to be very direct as I talk,” he says, adding – perhaps unnecessarily — that “my speaking style tends to reflect a fair level of candor.” He’s got the Army attitude down pat: “You make an effort, you make mistakes, you correct the mistakes and you move on and you get better every day.” In what’s likely to be a key part of his talks, he speaks of “plywood leadership” — the way the military builds headquarters in the middle of nowhere. “We could do it fast and we could do it inexpensively and we could do it really flexibly — we could make it tailored to exactly what the mission was — and because plywood has those characteristics we could also change it,” he says. “We could pick it and we could move it, we could tear it down, we could modify it and without great cost or at great time — we could make it happen immediately.”
Some McChrystal allies believe he got a raw deal from Obama, but the consensus seems to be that the commander’s aides doomed his career with their comments about the nation’s civilian leaders. The Rolling Stone article described McChrystal as “disappointed” by his initial private meeting with Obama last year, and it quoted an aide describing National Security Adviser — and former Marine commandant — James Jones as a “clown,” among other indiscretions.
The Pentagon inspector general is now investigating just how the article came to be: some McChrystal associates have maintained the disparaging comments were off the record, and, in any event, weren’t a firing offense given the fact that many were uttered during a mid-war Paris visit where reporter Michael Hastings shared drinks with McChrystal and his aides. Others say his decision – deliberate or otherwise – to tolerate such comments made him unfit to command.
There also have been changes in Afghanistan since McChrystal’s departure, and not only in the war plans tweaked by his successor – and former boss — General David Petraeus. What seems to have garnered the most attention from grunts on the ground was a recent decision to reverse McChrystal’s ban on fast-food restaurants like Burger King at major U.S. bases in the country. As a special ops “snake eater,” McChrystal and his key aides were used to the austerity of working and living “outside the wire” – away from major posts – and some Pentagon officials suggest this ethos played a role in the burger ban (and perhaps in the trash-talking that ended McChrystal’s Army career). McChrystal’s senior enlisted adviser complained such outlets contributed to an “amusement park” atmosphere in a war zone. But his successor, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, disagreed. “For troops to be able to go and grab a burger or a piece of chicken or whatever, I don’t really think it’s that bad,” he told Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-published newspaper, last week.
Back in Washington, associates say McChrystal is trying to juggle the ups and downs of being a civilian. “He likes wearing T-shirts and shorts,” a friend says, “so that’s one of the best things about being out of the Army.” After years of having Army helicopters and ground vehicles ready to ferry him anywhere, he’s also adjusting to the not-always-reliable subway in the nation’s capital, where a recent 30-minute ride took three times as long. Despite such hassles, he is trying to keep things in perspective. “I’ve spent 34 years with guys who lost their lives, or lost their legs,” he says. “I just lost a job.”