The Beam in Stanley McChrystal’s Eye
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This past Sunday I visited my father’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery—he was a U.S. Army medic and Vietnam War veteran who died of cancer in 2013. Expressing thanks to my father—and the many thousands of others interred at our nation’s most sacred graveyard—seemed appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Arlington was once Robert E. Lee’s estate; it was seized by the U.S. government during the Civil War to serve as a military cemetery. It seems fitting, considering Lee’s role in the deaths of many of the first American soldiers to be buried there.
Yet for some, no penance can ever atone for Lee’s sins. Among them is retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal, who says in a new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, that Lee’s public memory must be dispensed with. It’s an ironic statement to make, given McChrystal’s own less-than-heroic track record.
McChrystal’s publicity tour for his latest book is in full drive, with opinion pieces in The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and interviews on The Federalist Radio Hour and with New York Times Magazine. His recent op-ed in the Post is titled “Good riddance: Americans need to set aside icons like Robert E. Lee to live up to our potential.” In it, McChrystal explains why he—a graduate of Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, and Lee’s alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy—determined after 34 years that it was time to send his personal portrait of Lee “to a local landfill for its final burial.” His reasoning is peculiarly opaque, perhaps because his metaphor for perceiving the Confederacy’s greatest general is a kaleidoscope.
Considering whether Lee—who defended the right of secession, on the side of slavery—is deserving of public monuments is one thing. Arguing that every last vestige of honor and praise of the man must be stripped from our public consciousness is quite another. Moreover, McChrystal seems to contradict his own reasoning when he notes that for most of his political career, Abraham Lincoln “saw slaves as rival laborers for white wageworkers and thought they should go back to Africa.” Are we to praise leaders guilty of racism and other isms considered intolerable and unforgivable by contemporary society or not? McChrystal lacks any consistent rationale that doesn’t reduce to “most people think Lee should go, so I think Lee should go.”
Consider my drive to Arlington National Cemetery from my home elsewhere in Northern Virginia. At one point, I get on Route 29, or the Lee Highway, another nod to the same Confederate general. I later jump onto the George Washington Parkway, named in honor of our first president, who happened to own hundreds of slaves, 54 of whom were sold to Louisiana slavers upon his death. Then I drive past Theodore Roosevelt Island, named after our 26th president, a proponent of American imperialism and colonialism abroad. Arlington itself has memorials to Confederate war dead, President William Taft (another imperialist in Latin America), and the Rough Riders (more imperialism). Of course, all of these men and the institutions they represented espoused sexist views of one form or another; they all would have found homosexual and transgender behavior appalling, if not criminal.
Perhaps in time, American leaders like Washington, Roosevelt, and Taft will be the recipients of public censure, their names excised from public monuments, buildings, roads, and islands. For now, McChrystal would presumably reject such measures as extreme. His praise in the same article of the inclusion of women in combat roles and the open service of LGBTQ troops, however, suggests he is more than willing to kowtow to the latest cultural trends, regardless of their morality, rationality, and effects on the mission of the U.S. military.
Speaking of leadership in the U.S. military, we should remember McChrystal’s many failures. Unable to secure victory against an insurgency in Afghanistan, McChrystal requested that then-president Obama provide tens of thousands more U.S. troops. At the time, the general asserted that “we must conduct classic counterinsurgency operations” and declared that success depends not on “seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces” but on “gaining the support of the people.” Nine years later, the counter-insurgency campaign rolls on. The Afghan government now controls only a little more than half the districts in its country, and is reliant for its existence solely on the largesse of Western donors that bankroll it.
Ever the senior military official-cum-optimist, McChrystal, like every other U.S. general to command the war effort in Afghanistan, failed to deliver the message that every administration since Bush II has needed to hear—that the war is unwinnable. Driven by ambition, egotism, or both, the general declared that the battle would undoubtedly be won if only enough troops and material support were provided. McChrystal didn’t last long enough to accomplish much in Afghanistan—he was fired in June 2010 after a Rolling Stone article revealed that he and his staff had badmouthed and criticized the president. Since then, he has sat on the board of directors of JetBlue Airways, Navistar International, and FiscalNote, as well as served as chairman of the board at Siemens Government Technologies and Service Year Alliance. As the military-industrial complex consistently proves, failure need not determine your financial future if you have enough ribbons.
McChrystal’s particular gift to the public is, ironically, his knowledge of exemplary leadership. Yet what the general peddles is a form of Machiavellian expediency and Jamesian pragmatism. He writes in one recent article (also on Lee), “leadership itself is neither good nor evil. Malevolent leaders emerge as often as those we judge to be good. Leadership is better judged as either effective or not.” There is a hint of truth in this claim—yes, any leader, no matter now nefarious, should be studied for how he or she motivates people, crafts narratives, and achieves his or her goals. But since the ancient world, philosophers have argued that achieving good ends by immoral means nullifies the good achieved. Certainly immoral ends realized by immoral means are even worse. In either case, it doesn’t matter how effective the immoral actors are. Perhaps it is McChrystal’s embrace of relativism—so tangible in his writing on Lee—that explains his proposing Robespierre and Zarqawi as paragons of exemplary leadership.
Which brings us to an interesting question, given McChrystal’s eagerness to censure a once beloved officer and war hero—who is worthier of a legacy, Lee or McChrystal? The former was, McChrystal well acknowledges, a man of exemplary, unparalleled virtue in his time, respected by men across the North and the South. I recently discovered a children’s biography of Lee from my childhood, a hagiography of sorts from the 1950s, written by two Northerners! Lee was a brilliant tactician and a man of deep faith, unwilling to violate his conscience. He was also a rebel and a slaveowner, responsible for the deaths of thousands of American citizens and for propping up a fundamentally exploitative society. He died five years after the Civil War while serving as president of Washington and Lee College.
McChrystal egregiously failed at his greatest mission: to win the war in Afghanistan, after he pressured the president to put 30,000 more troops into harm’s way in 2009. Not surprisingly U.S. and coalition forces suffered their highest fatality and injury rates in 2010 and 2011. He also served in Iraq as chief of (JSOC) Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008, which prominent media reported had engaged in harsh interrogations and targeted killings. McChrystal was also accused of leading operations that involved illegal renditions, torture, and assassinations.
But McChrystal is a “manhunter” no more. Now he makes millions of dollars off of his military career, eager to perpetuate the same military-industrial complex that brought him to fame and power. Now he employs self-serving irrational rhetoric, lauds Machiavellian stratagems, and panders to the latest societal trends, even if it means holding the military—and American society—captive to social sexual behaviors (i.e. transgenderism) only recently considered to be demonstrative of mental illness. The engineers of our brave new world are very happy to have Stanley McChrystal at their service, thank you very much, though top brass serving the technocratic elite’s agenda are a dime a dozen at this point. I’m no prophet, but I’d be willing to wager that Lee’s legacy will always shine brighter than that of McChrystal’s.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.