Stan McChrystal has spent a long career considering questions of risk, leadership, and the role of America’s military, having risen through the Army’s ranks ultimately to take command of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a force representing 150,000 troops from 45 countries. Retiring as a four-star general in 2010, he has gone on to lecture at Yale and launched the McChrystal Group, where he taps that experience to help organizations build stronger teams and devise winning strategies. His latest book, which he tells Tyler will be his last, is called Risk: A User’s Guide.
He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded October 6th, 2021
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m here with Stan McChrystal. I sometimes call him General Stanley McChrystal. He has a new book out, co-authored with Anna Butrico. It is new and exciting. It is called Risk: A User’s Guide. Stan, welcome.
STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Thanks for having me, Tyler.
COWEN: Let me start with some questions about risk. Now, if we go to the postwar era after World War II, a lot of serious intellectuals thought the risk of a nuclear war was pretty high in the next few decades. We built bomb shelters everywhere. Were we then overreacting? Or are we, today, under-reacting? When were we thinking badly about risk?
MCCHRYSTAL: It’s funny, my third-grade classmate, David Langely — his father was an Air Force major, and they actually built a shelter under their front yard, a bomb shelter, and that was the time in the early 1960s when that seemed to be very, very real. I don’t think they were overreacting. I actually think that the likelihood of nuclear war was probably closer than we thought. Now we’ve lived near the precipice long enough where we take it for granted. Things like cybersecurity, I think, are a greater risk than we actually admit.
COWEN: Do you think 1950s America was better at thinking about risk because it had just lived through World War II? Or are we better at thinking about risk?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think the people who were thinking seriously about risk — you hate to generalize — were thinking better. If you think about all of the deep thought that went on nuclear strategy — while on the one hand, nuclear war was unthinkable, and we laugh now with the Dr. Strangelove idea, how could they even contemplate it? In reality, game theory and whatnot was actually some pretty careful thought on actual risk and then things like deterrence.
COWEN: When it comes to warfare, what do you think is, today, the most common probabilistic mistake made by US policymakers? I don’t mean this to be about naming names. Just in general, what’s our blind spot?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I think we want to oversimplify it. We want to look back at World War II and see it as simplistic. You go crush your enemy into rubble, and then in the aftermath, you rebuild.
Yet, from Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we often don’t admit the complexities because you’re dealing with war among people and of people. So, you’re dealing with societies, not straight weapon on weapon or an army on army. I don’t think we do that as well as we should.
COWEN: If that’s the most common probabilistic mistake of policymakers, what would be the most common probabilistic mistake of military commanders in the US?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it’s a subset of that. Military commanders have been shaped to think that they have to win battlefield victories. It’s hard to argue with the importance of being able to do that, but in the modern era, that very rarely solves the problem. The problem is bigger and more complex than that. For example, the first Gulf War, which is held up as an example of a very clean victory — in reality, in the aftermath of that, Saddam Hussein used the chaos to brutalize part of his population and to cement his hold on power.
We didn’t solve the problem. We solved one problem — Kuwait — but we didn’t solve the bigger problem. I think military would like to keep it neat and clean. We would like to say, “Give me a very straightforward military problem, and I will solve that.” But very few problems in the world lend themselves to that.
COWEN: If we think about military combatants in the field, say a sergeant, involved with combat, what’s the most common probabilistic mistake they’re going to make?
MCCHRYSTAL: There, it’s a further subset. You have taken an individual, trained him to be a warrior, and to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so they are spring-loaded to want to use that particular tactic. That’s what they’ve been trained, and then they run into complex problems in villages and towns and cities, and they find it’s not simple. It’s challenging for them.
COWEN: If we think about today, say, the risk that China would make a more serious move against Taiwan, whether an outright attack or something extremely provocative, are we under- or overestimating that risk? And why are we making the kind of mistake we’re making?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think we’re probably underestimating that risk. When you consider China, you have to consider the sweep of their history and where they think they are now, the Middle Kingdom. And they are trying to avoid the idea that they’re being contained by any outside power, particularly the United States. Then you look at Taiwan itself. Taiwan, of course — Formosa in the minds of most Chinese — is a legitimate part of China.
The idea that part of China is being occupied by former Chinese nationalists, becoming this somewhat independent entity, is like a rock in their shoe. It can’t help but be frustrating. If you look at it from their standpoint, one of their goals is to avoid containment. Another is to build up their national identity, which means controlling all of your territory, and then the idea that they want to be a more international power.
I don’t necessarily mean that they are going to go into foreign wars, but they’re going to push back those who would stop them from being engaged in the world. I think the idea that they might do something on Taiwan — because it hasn’t happened for so many years, we tend to think it will never happen. We tend to think in terms of linear. If something hasn’t happened for a long time, it never will, and then we’re always shocked.
COWEN: So, you think we extrapolate too much from the relatively recent past?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, if you think about most people — they think that national boundaries don’t change much, but that’s because after World War II, not a lot of national boundaries have changed. Some have, but if you go before that, they actually change in history pretty routinely. The idea that the globe and national boundaries and identities are what they are now and will be in the future would be counter to historical experience.
COWEN: Let’s say you’re a thinker, a planner, a commander, and you want to train yourself out of this habit, this mistake that other people are making of extrapolating too much. What literally is it that you do to your brain, to your body, to your habits to get you out of that way of thinking?
MCCHRYSTAL: To be honest, Tyler, I wish I knew.
COWEN: But you must have done it if you see this mistake. You have an outside vantage point, where you’re not making it. The other people are making it.
MCCHRYSTAL: I think I’ve made it along with everyone else, and I try not to, but that I do. The reality is, you have to step back — almost an out-of-body experience — and look historically at things and say, “Okay, what has happened in the past? And why wouldn’t that happen again, or some new permutation of that?” It’s a discipline.
The person I’ve seen most impressive with that is Dr. Henry Kissinger. I’ve been in the room with him a couple of times — sort of a fly on the wall — and someone will bring up an issue, and he will suddenly soar up to 30,000 feet, and he will describe it in a way that no one in the room has been doing at that point. I think there’s a discipline of thought to do that, and it’s not very common.
COWEN: Do you think reading a great deal of history is useful for thinking about risk, or only modestly useful?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it’s not only useful; it’s essential. If you don’t know history, you constrain your mind almost into personal experience only.
COWEN: How useful are war games in thinking about risk? I mean the board games, the box games. I don’t mean war-gaming as you do in the military. Just plain old war games, like Avalon Hill in the old days.
MCCHRYSTAL: Anything that forces you to problem-solve is very good about thinking about risk because you’ve got an opponent who is trying to cause you problems, to create threats and put you at risk. Of course, you’re trying to do the same. Chess is, of course, another version of this, so I think that they’re really good at building that muscle memory in your mind.
COWEN: How well do you feel we understand the probabilistic reasoning of the Chinese, say? Very different culture, quite different history. Are they a black box to us? Or do you feel, somehow, we grasp their calculations?
MCCHRYSTAL: I don’t think we grasp their calculations. I don’t think they’re a black box if you read their writings and if you listen to what they say. In fact, I think that they signal pretty carefully what their intentions, or at least their aspirations, are. Their aspirations, of course, are to be much more a player in the world than we have seen them in our lifetimes because if I go back to most of my lifetime, at first, it was China in the 1950s, and then the Cultural Revolution, then a very poor country struggling to get ahead.
That’s not China now, and that’s not China in the future, and they don’t see themselves that way. I think we tend to lag the reality by quite a lot.
COWEN: How well do we understand the probabilistic and risk thinking of the Russian leadership?
MCCHRYSTAL: That’s actually easier to understand because, in that case, you can focus it almost in the mind of Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t represent all Russians, but for the last 20 years, he’s been a pretty good proxy for where the Russian psyche has been since he captured their imagination, starting with Chechnya. If we think of Russia as having been prostrate at the end of the Cold War, and we viewed them as a beaten former superpower, they are trying to get back on the national stage.
Now, they have far worse cards to play than China for the future. They’ve got a real demographic problem. They’ve got other issues, but the reality is, in the short term, they’ve got some aspirations to be powerful in the Mideast, to be powerful . . . Look what they’re doing with natural gas this winter with Europe. They’re going to play the cards they’ve got more aggressively than we might expect them to.
COWEN: So, in your mental model of Putin, he’s not risk-averse. He’s willing to suffer great personal loss if there’s some chance of creating chaos and furthering Russia’s place on the world stage.
MCCHRYSTAL: I think that he is. When you use the term personal loss, I don’t think we’ve ever tested that because we really haven’t confronted Putin himself very much. But I think that Russia is willing to suffer a fair amount of pain to try to get back into a position that they think they should be in as a superpower.
COWEN: If we’re trying, as American citizens, to understand the risk calculations of, say, EU, German, French policymakers — how they think about these risks, what’s the main thing we don’t understand about them?
MCCHRYSTAL: I don’t think you can generalize too much, but if you look at the European nations, each of them has an interesting calculus. There was a period in the Cold War where their dependence on the United States was comforting, and it was irritating — the idea that they needed the United States to be the 800-pound gorilla in NATO. They would like a measure of independence from that.
At the same time, independence from that without enough national power or enough unity across the EU is pretty dangerous. I think the idea that, although Russia does not come close to what the Soviet Union’s power was, Russia — if they are aggressive in places like the Baltics or Ukraine and others — can really put the other European powers in a difficult position.
Then economically — as I mentioned natural gas earlier — if the countries of the EU are put in a position where they are less powerful economically, and they don’t have political unity, then there’s that balkanization, where each individual country finds themselves not strong enough physically with material power, economic or military power, to feel they can stand up confidently, then it’s problematic for them.
COWEN: It’s a common view on the American right that Germany is not sufficiently afraid of Russia right now. Do you agree with that? Who’s making the risk miscalculation? The Germans, the American conservatives, someone else?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think the Germans are sufficiently worried about Russia, but we forget that they are also in close proximity to Russia. It’s one thing to say that Russia is a big problem, but Germany has a certain dependence on things like natural gas and other trade with Russia that the United States doesn’t have. Russia is a reality.
The United States, from a long way away, can put a finger in the eye of Russia with relative impunity. Germany’s a strong country but not as strong as the United States and not as far away. I think Germany is more likely to be in a position where they think a realistic approach with some accommodation makes more sense, whereas it doesn’t seem to be an imperative when you have the geographic position of the United States.
COWEN: Since 9/11, there have not been many major terror attacks on US soil done by foreign terrorists. Why is that? And should we take much comfort in that fact?
MCCHRYSTAL: That’s a great question, Tyler, I ask myself. I think that the improvement in American intelligence and, to a degree, counter-terrorist operations was part of that. It became far harder for an organization like al-Qaeda to pull off a 9/11-scale attack. What I never have been able to understand is why they didn’t try to prosecute a number of much simpler attacks — bombs in shopping malls and whatnot — because it would’ve been very difficult to stop and would’ve been terrifying for Americans. In my mind.
COWEN: What’s your best model of why that hasn’t happened? They could have crossed the Mexican border, bought a few submachine guns, done something terrible.
MCCHRYSTAL: I’m really not sure. My sense is that al-Qaeda . . . Someone hits a grand slam in the third inning of a game, and when they get up in the sixth inning, they’d like to hit another home run. My sense is part of that psyche involved to them — I just don’t think that they thought realistically enough about creating the effect that they could do. They were looking for the big dramatic operation.
Now, that doesn’t mean other organizations will be as limited. It’s very likely that another organization will take a different approach, most likely cyber, but they could have a significant effect with a number of smaller attacks.
COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?
MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.
I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.
COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.
You want military service to be spread across the nation geographically and sociologically. I actually think that that aspect of the all-volunteer force has weakened us a bit. We have created a bit of a warrior caste, and it’s insular. You grow up in it. My family was very much that way, and I think that it’s not healthy for the long-term good of the force.
We need to look at another way of recruiting, and try to go out and get a broader cross-section of America, and keep bringing that in because when we talk about diversity, it’s not about race or gender. It’s about different perspectives and different experiences and different talents. The military has to avoid the idea that we recruit best from the Midwest or the South and a certain demographic because it single-threads us.
COWEN: How much do you worry about what is sometimes called “the woke”? A sometimes extreme set of political views — do you think it turns some young people against the military or diverts their attention from the possibility of a career in the military? There have been some recent military ads that seem to be trying to appeal to the woke people. How does this picture fit together for you?
MCCHRYSTAL: I’m going to start by defining —
COWEN: You teach at Yale, just to be clear, so you come in contact with the woke, yes?
MCCHRYSTAL: I do. Let me say first that everybody defines woke differently. There’s a certain extremist level of that, where people have views that are far different than mine. But I think the idea of understanding that race and other things have been thought of in a pretty limited way in the United States for a very long time, questioning how things have been done in many of our cultural habits, is necessary.
From that standpoint, if somebody wanted to say, “Is Stan McChrystal woke?” I’d have to say “Probably I am.” Taking that, I think what we need to do is tell people that the common defense of America is every American’s responsibility. It’s not the warrior class. It’s not a limited group of people with big biceps and maybe small brains — in the minds of some people — who are willing to go out and fight foreign wars.
It’s got to be young people from every family that ought to reflect America. If you hold a mirror up to the face of the US military, you ought to see our nation. If you don’t see our nation, then you have a problem long term.
COWEN: Teaching now at Yale, what have you learned from that teaching about how to improve military recruitment? Because those are a lot of students who won’t apply, right?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It’s interesting, it’s education. I got to Yale in 2010, and they were just making the decision to open ROTC up again after 40 years. I would argue that Yale used Vietnam War, and then they used “don’t ask, don’t tell” as excuses not to have ROTC for way too long. It limited Yale’s diversity, and it limited Yale’s open-minded perspective.
They started getting it back, and that’s been a good move. There’s increasingly a balance there. Now, at the same time, most young people that are at Yale don’t have any real touch with the military. Their brothers and sisters haven’t served. Often, their parents haven’t served. Maybe their grandparents haven’t served.
So, when they get interaction with people in the military — there are a number of active-duty officers and senior NCOs being sent to Yale now for graduate degrees — and I teach a number of them — they have a disproportionate effect on young people because it’s the first time any of these young people have been up close to anybody who’s a soldier.
It can be eye-opening for them because they have a view that’s often very narrow of what a soldier is. They’ve seen some movies, and they’ve got a two-dimensional, stereotypical opinion of it. It’s very opening. That’s where we need to open it. I think more needs to be done.
COWEN: Is the US Officer Corps too educated or not educated enough?
MCCHRYSTAL: I don’t think it’s possible to be too educated.
COWEN: But are we selecting too much for highly educated people at the expense of talent that may be just as good but not with an advanced degree?
MCCHRYSTAL: You’re right, talent doesn’t always reflect itself in a degree. Sometimes talent reflects itself in a combination of values and experiences and native intelligence. You don’t want a bunch of dumba**es, but at the same time, everybody having a PhD isn’t necessary, either. What you’re really looking for is people with the right core values and enough innate talent to be able to be developed into good leaders with good sound judgment.
COWEN: If you’re considering recommending someone for a high promotion, what qualities in them are you looking for? Other than just the obvious, like good values, work hard, smart, common sense — but what else? What’s your magic ingredient, where something clicks, and you say, “That person can make it”?
MCCHRYSTAL: There’s no single one, but the two that I would jump on is, first, self-discipline. You say, “Well, all soldiers are self-disciplined,” and I’d say that’s not true. Self-discipline, to me, is not whether you get up in the morning and make your bed, although those might be indicators. It’s really, do you treat people the way you know they should be treated? Do you do the hard things, even though they may be inconvenient or frightening? Not all military do that. Not all leaders do that.
The second is the ability to make a decision with uncertainty. I’ve struggled with years as to whether that is born or developed. I remember asking my father, “How do you tell who’s going to be good in combat?” I was just a brand-new lieutenant asking the old soldier’s wisdom. He said, “Who can make decisions in combat?” I said, “Well, how do you know?” He says, “Until you’re in combat, you don’t know.”
You can tell, as he described, a person who’s trying to drive uncertainty to zero will keep asking for more information. They’ll try to get to mitigate all of the uncertainty out, and of course that’s impossible. Some people just have the ability to live with not having perfect knowledge, and yet, they can accept that and still make decisions decisively.
COWEN: When do you think the United States will have women as truly senior commanders in its armed forces? And how would you manage that transition? What would you do?
MCCHRYSTAL: We already have some, so it’s moved along pretty well. But to understand why it hasn’t moved faster is, for many years early in my career, the jobs that were given to female officers, even though they may have been just as talented — you went to a military base, the protocol officer was always a female. So they would put them off in these jobs, and when we get time to select them for higher-level responsibility, their records of experience didn’t match their male counterparts.
Now, it wasn’t their fault, but the reality is, when you made that decision, they actually didn’t compare. Really, you have to have a period of affirmative action. You have to promote some senior women, and you need to accept risk in that because they will be less prepared than some of their peers. You say, “Well, that’s too risky for the nation.” I think it’s too risky not to.
Now, you’re only going to have to do that for about a generation because you have to provide senior-level examples to younger female officers to help them get up there. Without any, it’s really hard to continue the progress. We’ve seen a lot, but it still has a long way to go.
COWEN: Do you think there’s too much of an up-or-out element to promotion in the military?
MCCHRYSTAL: No, I don’t. It’s important that people realize they’ve got to perform, and they’ve got to be good. Now, having said that, I am going to say that there is too much of a one-strike-and-you’re-out problem. If we go back to the Second World War, a number of officers were given command of infantry divisions, for example, and they got relieved of command because they didn’t do very well. Then they got put in command of another division, and in many cases, they did very well.
We have a no-blemish habit in the US Army, for example. Even as a young officer, if you get scuffed up a little in your record, instead of someone taking that as “Well, they had a bad experience, and they learned from it,” that’s almost guaranteed to prevent your promotion to high rank. As a consequence, what you tend to get higher level is people who’ve never had any blemishes, which means maybe they’ve not taken enough risks; maybe they’ve lived a little too conservatively. And that’s a real negative for producing a better officer corps.
COWEN: Let’s say I’m in the military, but I’m not, in the moment, in combat. I’m not on an aircraft carrier also. What should be the restrictions on my smartphone?
MCCHRYSTAL: Never thought about that one, Tyler, actually, because there are some real challenges there. One of the problems with the smartphones is, people are able to call home every 20 minutes if they want to. When a person’s deployed, they live all the problems at home, which it’s hard to do what you’re doing at the moment and do it at home. There’s also the ability to track it.
COWEN: Of course.
MCCHRYSTAL: I’m really not sure, but we probably need to have a cell phone that they can use for work purposes, one that does the function because we need technology to leverage. But you probably have to put severe limits on things that would allow them to be leveraged by foreign intelligence.
COWEN: Should I be able to download TikTok, which, of course, is Chinese, or WeChat, for that matter?
MCCHRYSTAL: In my opinion, no. You’ve really got to take a look upstream at all of these, and we’ve got to start cleaning that up. We’ve got to get trusted, clean networks. And the ability to improve what we’re doing — not just in cell phones, but in wider networks — is there, but we really haven’t done it today.
COWEN: What would you do to limit the risk of what you might call the seditious, violent right wing in the military becoming more influential? What can we improve to check that problem?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I think it’s a serious problem. One is, we’ve got to communicate in the military and not be shy about it. We’ve got to say that what the military stands for — support of the Constitution and whatnot — cannot be perverted or corrupted by people who want to take a very narrow or extreme view on either side, but you see it much more on the right, right now.
Then, just like we did with gangs in the 1990s, we’ve got to go to ferret it out. We’ve got to identify those people who are on social media or even face-to-face who are reflecting those kinds of views, and you’ve got to have the courage to get rid of them or take a UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] action against them because that’s a cancer that could grow inside the force.
People say, “Well, how bad can it be?” Well, a sergeant can take young privates and have an extraordinary effect on them, and a lieutenant can do the same with people. The ability to cascade down extreme views is extraordinarily dangerous.
COWEN: If it has reached a somewhat dangerous point, what should we infer about how we should change the culture of the military? Because it’s not an accident that it’s a problem, right? There’s something about how you train people that’s connected to what can go wrong.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, and I’m humble about my ability to give you a really good answer on this one. I think one of the things is our recruiting. Because it’s gotten fairly narrow, and it’s gotten self-reinforcing into certain areas of the country, in certain parts of American society, the danger is that the military becomes an echo chamber reflection of that. I would widen recruiting. I personally think we ought to have a draft. Everybody ought to be open to a draft.
Now, we don’t need everybody in the military. I’m not saying increase the size, but I’m saying have a draft and bring people in and use other people for other civilian national service requirements.
COWEN: This would be women also in your vision?
MCCHRYSTAL: Of course. In fact, I would argue, even people with significant handicaps can serve now. There are some that would disqualify you, but many of the jobs, the vast majority of the jobs in the military don’t take a strapping 6-foot-2 barrel-chested male. They require somebody willing to do your job and a smart person, so I would open that up.
COWEN: What if someone can’t read and write very well? They’re not disabled. It’s just, they’re not highly literate. What do you do with them? You’ve drafted them. They show up. Maybe they even mean well.
MCCHRYSTAL: In the 1970s and ’80s, of course, we had to deal with that. In my early years, we had something called BSEP, Basic Skills Education Program. Now, it was inconvenient to put people in Basic Skills Education, but it was important. It wasn’t a bad thing for society or for the military. I probably would look on a case-by-case basis.
I would avoid McNamara’s 100,000, when he brought in people with very low scores, because you limit the force’s capability. If somebody doesn’t have education, if they’re ignorant but not stupid, you can address that. If someone doesn’t have the mental abilities to learn, then you’ve probably got to take another look.
COWEN: What would you do to improve our ability to train foreign armies, which is hard, right? Very different cultures, language problems, gender issues, religion.
MCCHRYSTAL: If you look at places in history where that’s worked well, it takes cultural acuity on the part of the trainers. The idea of US special forces has always been to train teams in the language and the culture and put them in an area, have them very familiar. But we haven’t been able to stay the course very much. We move people around so much. We really don’t have a cadre of people who’ve got real experience in parts of the world that we can use. That’s what you’ve got to develop.
The British used a tremendously effective technique of just small numbers of people seeded, but they were sent for long periods of time. In the northwest provinces of India — when it was British India, now Pakistan — they used to send officers. The East India Company would bring officers in, and their tour of duty — their first tour was 10 years. After that 10-year tour, they would go home for a year, typically, and get married, and then come back. By that time, they had become completely fluent in the language and fluent in the culture.
I don’t think, if you don’t do that, you’re ever going to be very effective at doing it.
COWEN: If recruiting is hard, and we want to recruit more people, and learning languages, developing cultural acuity is hard, how do we push all that together and make it work? What has to give?
MCCHRYSTAL: You’ve got to be willing to train them. You can go out and try to hire people who already have language skills or very high language potential to learn, but we have not taken the time to train people in languages. We have to put the resources.
During World War II, in the first year or two, we trained something like 5,200 Americans to become fluent in Japanese, a very difficult language. In the period in Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t think we trained one-tenth that many, even though we were there much longer. We were unwilling to make the commitment, and it wasn’t just money.
The military services have been averse in the past to sending someone like Tyler Cowen to school for language, because they have fear that you’ll become focused just on that, and they will lose your skills for the wider service. We’ve always celebrated and promoted generalists.
In fact, when I was a young officer, I had Spanish language on my record. I wasn’t very good in Spanish, but I’d taken advanced Spanish at West Point. But it was not a good thing to have on my record because every year or two, they’d come up with this idea. They’d send me off to some assignment I really didn’t want, which wasn’t going to be very good for my long-term career. I tried to jink and jog and avoid those.
You’ve got to change that a bit. I think you’ve got to make being fluent in at least one language for officers a requirement, and for more junior soldiers, something that we will reward.
COWEN: When you went to West Point, what was, for you, the most interesting class?
MCCHRYSTAL: By far, revolutionary warfare. There was a class taught by recent veterans from Vietnam, but it covered revolutionary warfare through history: Yugoslavia, Indochina, Vietnam, and whatnot. It was war among the people, whatever the popular term in the moment was, and we dug into the doctrine of it, the experience of it, the difficulty of it. And I found that was the one that, when I left the academy, I thought most about later.
COWEN: What made the professor so good?
MCCHRYSTAL: The professor I had was good. They had personal experience and a passion for it, but they also leveraged some very good literature on it, books like The Centurions and others. We read some historical novels, but we also really studied the experiences. I think because Vietnam was so recent, it felt very relevant to the instructors. It felt very important. They had to get that across to us, to make sure we understood what a challenge this was.
COWEN: If I’m looking to movies, which movies can people watch, do you think, ultimately, are the most accurate portrayals of the military? Are there any good ones?
MCCHRYSTAL: It’s hard for me to judge portrayals of the military back from wars that I wasn’t in. Because I know the ones I like, but I can’t tell which are accurate. If you watch the movie Black Hawk Down, the very high-energy pictures of the actual combat, I think, were a little overdone, and close friends of mine who were there will say, “Yeah, that was Hollywooded up.”
But at the same time, I thought that the depiction of how the movie portrayed Delta Force operators, the JSOC commanders who I had known, General Garrison — and they depicted him in the movie — and then the Rangers, was remarkably accurate. It felt as though they had captured the essence of how the people I had known for so much of my career acted. I thought it was pretty realistic to the personas.
COWEN: Is military fiction a genre in decline? Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead was a huge bestseller in its day. Now people live in Brooklyn — they read Jonathan Franzen. Has that changed? Or is military fiction still relevant?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it’s in temporary decline. One of the reasons it’s in temporary decline is you don’t have a broad experience in the population with military service. Military fiction is more apt to be interesting to people who either served earlier in their lives or they are close to someone who served, and therefore, there’s a curiosity.
Right now, we have some military fiction, some of which is way glamorized. If you’ve had no connection with the military at all, it’s hard to really appreciate whether someone’s captured things in a very compelling way.
COWEN: Do you read science fiction for military ideas?
MCCHRYSTAL: I don’t. I read some when I was young, you know, Heinlein and whatnot, but I have not read much of it.
COWEN: If we just take the military living quarters you’ve experienced throughout your career and think of them as hotel rooms, what would you do to improve them?
MCCHRYSTAL: I was very happy with the quarters I got. When I was young, we had very small quarters given to us when I was a captain and whatnot, but everybody had the same quarters. We were all in these neighborhoods where you knew your peers. Nobody had a bigger house than anybody else. Everybody made the same amount of money, and it was shared experience that made it special.
Then, as I got older, I was lucky enough to live on posts at older quarters built in the 1930s. They were these big, rambling, old brick houses that had basements and things that many modern houses don’t have now. I loved them. They weren’t as modern as many other houses. They didn’t have many of the convenience you would joke about. The plumbing didn’t always work as well as you like. There were a hundred coats of paint on every wall, but they were a wonderful life to live in.
The reality is, the only thing I would do for military quarters is change where they are and how they’re used. For example, if I built barracks, I would build rooms for sergeants who are not married to live in the barracks, and I’d give them apartments there. You want people of multiple generations in some close proximity. You don’t want to have all the young people boxed off here and the older people completely somewhere else.
COWEN: As you may know, in the Netherlands, disabled individuals — under some circumstances, they’re given vouchers so that they actually have access to sex workers. Now, many people, men also, come out of the US military disabled. Should we do the same for them?
MCCHRYSTAL: I’ve never thought about it. The problem with doing something like that is the argument that sex workers are often exploited very badly. To the degree, which I have not personally experienced the industry close enough to say it wouldn’t be, but I’d be really frightened that we would create a bunch of people who end up having to be sex workers because that’s the job they can get. You don’t want to force people into that kind of life.
COWEN: What more should we do for the disabled leaving the military? Let’s say they can’t serve anymore.
MCCHRYSTAL: Clearly, you’ve got to give them an opportunity to get a job. The great cure for so many problems in life is some kind of very functional way to work and contribute because that’s where most of us derive our satisfaction and, say, feeling of self-worth. That’s important. We could do a better job than we do right now because, again, with technology, there are so many things even someone with a significant disability can do. We need to fight to decrease the barriers.
COWEN: Let’s say an enlisted man or woman who is quite young, possibly headed into combat — they come to you or someone you know, and they ask for advice on how to write their will, how they should think about this, or what they should do. You’re not going to tell them specifically how to allocate any resources they might own, but what do you say to them? How do you think about that issue?
MCCHRYSTAL: I have been asked this before. I say don’t be superficial about it. Think about if you’re really gone, who could use whatever it is you can leave, whether it’s your insurance policy, if you have outside money and whatnot. Don’t find your bunkmate in the barracks, and just because it’s funny, you sign each other’s wills to each other. Think about someone in your family or someone because you want to make an impact.
You’re going to be gone, obviously, if your will is being exercised, but you want to have an impact on somebody who will actually benefit from it. It’s one of the first times in life many young people can think very realistically about the reality they’re not immortal and that what they do can have an impact on other people.
COWEN: What do you think, emotionally, has been the hardest part of the military jobs you’ve had?
MCCHRYSTAL: You’d say up front that it would be putting people in harm’s way, but it’s not because everybody enters the military with that expectation — the people who are making the decision to put people in harm’s way, or the people who are being sent in harm’s way.
I had the most difficulty with debilitating injuries that people got — a few in training, but more in combat — that ended their ability to be soldiers. It’s one thing if a person is killed. It’s another to go to the hospital bed or see them when suddenly they are physically unable. They’ve lost a limb or something, and they can’t be in the club anymore.
We all say we’ll be friends forever and stay connected, but the reality is the healthy ones go on to the next operation, and you leave the wounded and dead behind, and they try to band together. I found it most difficult to make that separation from the wounded.
COWEN: What gave you the greatest joy?
MCCHRYSTAL: Clearly, when you see young people grow up, as I’m sure somebody watched my generation grow up as well. A young person comes in the military. There is a private or a young officer, and then suddenly, one day, you see them operating with confidence, actually doing really good stuff, and talking to you like a fellow leader. It’s an extraordinarily special moment.
Then of course, when they get older and you get older — I had some sergeants major who had been privates when I was a young officer, and so we literally had paralleled our way up. That sense that both had become experienced professionals and there’s a mutual respect — that is a pretty neat feeling.
COWEN: You’re not in the military now, obviously, so what is it you do to fill that gap?
MCCHRYSTAL: The moment I left the military, there was this sense of loss because I was born in a military hospital. I’d gone to West Point at 17. And in a moment, in an instant, I was no longer a soldier. I couldn’t identify myself as a soldier. I didn’t feel at home, suddenly, among soldiers.
So what I’ve done is, I’ve tried to replicate that. We joke about it, but soon after I retired, we started a company, and it’s got 85 people now. Essentially, when people asked me why I did it, I said, “Because I want to be part of something. I want to be part of a team. I wanted a place to go around people that I really liked and admired.” It’s got young people and middle people and some old people.
I can do enough self-analysis to know that I was trying to recreate the comradeship part of my military experience. It’s largely been successful, so I’ve really enjoyed that. I get many of the same satisfactions that I got in the military relationship. It made me realize that what I loved about being a soldier was less about carrying a weapon and being a soldier than it was about being a part of a team.
COWEN: If we think about the post–World War II era, and to some extent after the Korean War, Vietnam War, you have a significant percentage of American males having been through that camaraderie, but also a pretty high degree of traumatic stress. That’s not the case anymore. It’s a much smaller minority. How do you think that changed our nation in the ’50s and ’60s that so many men had that background?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it was positive because one, so many people were veterans or have been involved heavily in war sacrifices that nobody felt they could pound their chest and say, “I served and therefore, I’m special.” Everybody thought, “That was a responsibility, and I met my responsibility.” I think it was very good.
Also, even though there was trauma involved, everybody went through some trauma through that period. Instead of feeling or being viewed as victims, everybody viewed it as we, as a group, went through this. I think that was very positive.
Now that we’ve got a very small percentage of Americans, a couple of things happen. One is, Americans who didn’t serve feel a bit guilty, and they look from the outside and they say, “Thank you for your service,” and they try to be nice.
But also, the danger is that people who did serve start to feel self-righteous. “I served and therefore, I must be more patriotic. I must be something more than other people.” Neither of those things are really healthy. We all have a responsibility to society and each other. I think we’ve got to view it as common requirements as common.
I would argue that our failure against COVID-19 is a failure to view public health as in the common defense. That’s one of the challenges that’s come out of this.
COWEN: Maybe it’s hard to generalize, but if a young man, say, has been through extreme traumatic stress in combat — emotional, psychological stress — are you more in the direction of “Well, they need a lot of therapy. They need to talk it through”? Or do you think just suppression is better? Because after World War II and the Korean War, it seems to me, we, as a nation, mostly practiced suppression. What do you think about that issue?
MCCHRYSTAL: I don’t agree with suppression because there are some people who have real trauma. But I will be honest with you, I also think if you go looking for trauma long enough, you’ll find it — meaning, whether it’s there or not, you can almost create it by looking for trauma and telling people, “You must be traumatized because you went through this.” Then after a while, they go, “Oh, I must be traumatized,” and it almost becomes self-fulfilling.
Having said that, I think that a lot of people have gone through a lot. What they need to do is understand that anyone who goes to combat comes out differently. They don’t come out worse. Trauma doesn’t always produce weakness. It doesn’t produce flaws. It may produce a little bit more resilience. It may produce a little bit more maturity. There are competing things.
I don’t like the idea of suppression because that’s unhealthy. But at the same time, we don’t want to look at every veteran as a victim or a casualty.
COWEN: If you think about the numerous Afghans who fought with the United States in Afghanistan, how is it you think they understood America? What did they value in their picture of America? And how accurate was it?
MCCHRYSTAL: It was flawed, but it was genuine. What I would say is, in 2001, the Afghans had a view of America from having helped America fight our Cold War enemy in the ’80s. They fought Russia. We never fought the Soviet Union, but the Afghans lost 1.2 million Afghans in that war, which we funded and whatnot. Then we turned away, and they had their internal problems with a civil war and then with the rise of the Taliban.
When we arrived in 2001, their expectations were huge. They expected that now this is a chance to lose the Taliban leadership, which they didn’t like, but also to make political and economic progress, because now the United States, the 800-pound gorilla in every way, was on their side and in their corner. Now, some of those expectations were unrealistic. They hoped so many things would happen. And they contributed to many of the failures — the inability to wrestle corruption out of the system and whatnot.
But over the years that I was involved, from 2002 to 2010, there was an increasing gap between what they were getting from the relationship with the United States, the experience, and what we were able to provide or did provide. Now, there’s a lot of blame to go around on that. Actually, a tremendous amount of progress was made, but they got increasingly frustrated that all of this, they felt was possible, and yet couldn’t be achieved for a number of reasons. That almost created a sense of bitterness: “You know, we ought to be able to sort this out, but we’re not doing that.”
I still think — and there’s a differing body of knowledge — many Afghans didn’t like America or viewed our use of too much power as being negative. There’s certainly some validity in that. At the same time, if you’d asked most Afghans, would they rather have Americans there in a big way helping them or the Taliban in charge, I think they’d absolutely lean toward the Americans. But they didn’t believe we were going to stay, so they didn’t feel like we were reliable. That became another source of frustration.
COWEN: What was the main thing you learned from them?
MCCHRYSTAL: The Afghan people could go through a tremendous amount. You would go to an Afghan village, and you’d fly over it early in the morning. It’d be freezing cold in the winter. There wouldn’t be a single bit of smoke coming out of a chimney. There was no heat whatsoever. And life was primitive beyond which most Americans can even conceive. This is in the 21st century.
First, they’ve got a stoic ability. Maybe it’s been forced upon them, but it’s amazing, their ability to tolerate things and their ability to take a long-term view. And they would have a tremendous sense of loyalty to people whom they built a relationship with, this idea that they would stay true to someone that they committed themselves to.
At the same time, like any other population, they suffered from misinformation and ignorance and belief in things that were completely wrong, or misperceptions which made it difficult for them.
COWEN: Not right now, but how much medium-term optimism do you have for Afghanistan?
MCCHRYSTAL: It’s great you worded it that way, Tyler. Medium-term, I think things are going to move forward. I don’t think Afghanistan is anything like it was in 2001. There’s been too much progress socially, too much education. I think the Taliban are going to find that they caught something they really aren’t prepared for. They’re going to try to reimplement what they had in the 1990s, and it’s going to be very uncomfortable.
I expect in the near term, there will be a lot of friction, and then one of two things is going to happen. The Taliban will just find they’ve got to mature and accommodate and evolve themselves into a different kind of government, or they won’t be able to maintain control. I think that the former is more likely, that the Taliban are forced to change who they are, but I’m not sure which of those two options is going to play out.
COWEN: What did we learn from the Armenia-Azerbaijan war? Is it all just about drones now? Or is that an outlier?
MCCHRYSTAL: No, it’s an awful lot about drones now. The idea that you can use technology — we really started seeing this in Ukraine when Russia started using a combination of drones and really quick intelligence-sharing to mass artillery and whatnot.
I think in the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, you’re finding that even relatively — I don’t say backward, but less advanced nations can put out really advanced technology. You’re not talking about that being limited to superpowers to have smart weapons and whatnot. Everybody’s got them now.
COWEN: When will be the first drone assassination within the borders of the United States? And what should we do about that now?
MCCHRYSTAL: It is probably closer than we think. I don’t think it’s hard to do. You can go and buy off-the-shelf technology at Best Buy or RadioShack or anything like that, and you can get enough to do it. It’s hard to stop. They’re developing techniques, but it’s really hard to stop.
If it’s not just an assassination of an individual, what about somebody going after an aircraft as it’s taking off, things like that. Just the ability to do the mass thing — I am surprised we haven’t seen it. Every morning I get up, I wouldn’t be surprised to . . . And it could easily come from domestic players.
COWEN: Let’s say 20 years from now, 30 years from now, what does the equilibrium look like for controversial public figures? Will it be a world where you almost can’t go out in public?
MCCHRYSTAL: If the trend continues where it is, I think you’ll have a tremendous number of people who won’t even consider becoming public figures. They will just avoid it. Then you will have these people who I call Teflon celebrities, where their goal in life is to be a celebrity. They just don’t mind that. They will step into the limelight, as many have now, and they will live there.
The danger is that our politicians come from that latter group — people who are willing to go into very public spaces like that, or actually the people who in previous times would’ve been superficial celebrities. I think that’s very, very dangerous, but we’re going to have to come to grips with it.
The social media ability, the glare — if we can’t get some maturity in this and some new accommodation, then I think we’ll have a very difficult period 20 years from now. I can’t envision exactly what the solution is, but I know there’s going to have to be something.
COWEN: Is there any plausible scenario where defense beats offense, or at least holds it back?
MCCHRYSTAL: In one sense, yes. You say, “Well, we’ve got this high technology available to terrorist groups, and homemade precision strikes and assassinations are going to be easier.”
On the other side, and maybe equally negative, we’ve got a surveillance-based society now. We actually can know everything about Tyler Cowen, and we can watch you almost every minute. And as that expands more, the ability to be a nefarious player or something like that — it’s going to get really hard. I would argue that if you consider that as defense — knowing everything all the time — then that could easily get more powerful than the ability to attack.
COWEN: So, more nations will go the Chinese route in some manner?
MCCHRYSTAL: I absolutely think so. In fact, it will probably go faster than we expect it to.
COWEN: Now, if drones have become so much more important — we mentioned cyberattacks before — great risks, right? What does this mean for who the military has to recruit? It seems like a very different recruiting problem than what we used to have, and maybe a harder problem because people who can work with cyberattacks — they can earn a lot more money in the private sector than, say, a guy who’s 6 foot 3 with big muscles. How are we going to deal with this?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, that’s a cultural shift that has to occur in the military, but it has to occur, and has to occur soon. I think we’re going to have to start recruiting people with the talent for that or the ability to be taught that. They may not have the skills walking in. The military — as it did in the aerospace age — needs to become the training ground for people, to teach them high-tech skills.
Right now, the commercial world is ahead of the military on things like cyber, in terms of training basic skills and digitization. The military’s relied on trying to bring people in who are pretty good already, and then focus them on certain tasks. The military’s got to think about creating an education system for talented people so that becomes a recruiting tool.
If you come in and work in the military, you get access to technology and training that is hard to get on the outside. You get people for a number of years, and then they graduate on to whatever tech firm. That means we’ve got to reverse. We got to get the engine on the train right now because it’s not there.
COWEN: To close, two questions about you. You’re famous for eating only one meal a day. Do you still do that?
MCCHRYSTAL: I do.
COWEN: Okay. The question is, what’s the meal?
MCCHRYSTAL: It’s dinner.
COWEN: What do you prefer to eat for the one meal, if you have your way?
MCCHRYSTAL: I’m not a foodie; I’m basic. I like salad, but I like a very basic dinner. I like a lot of chicken. If you take me to a fancy restaurant and you try to serve me fancy food, I’ll eat it because it’s my one meal a day, but the reality is, it’s completely lost on me. I just don’t get any satisfaction. It’s very basic food in significant quantities at night.
COWEN: Final question — what will you be doing next? Your new book is out — Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico. What next?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think I’m never going to write another book. It’s a lot of hard work. This is the fourth one. What we’ll be doing is, in McChrystal Group, we’ll be taking the ideas of risk, and we’ll continue to work with civilian companies. We’ve worked with a number of states and cities to try to let them find a path to become more resilient, more capable as entities because that’s where I think the future has to go in organizations.
COWEN: Stan McChrystal, thank you very much.
MCCHRYSTAL: My pleasure, Tyler. Thank you.
Thumbnail photo credit: Leading Authorities, Inc.