A General Who Speaks His Mind (Even When He Shouldn't)

Gen. Stanley McChrystal at a White House briefing May 10, 2010, with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, one of the officials McChrystal's staff is depicted as criticizing harshly in a "Rolling Stone" article. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Generals and their staffs have been complaining about the politicians back in Washington for as long as anyone can remember. But generally speaking, they do it privately, not for publication. So how did Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff get caught out by Rolling Stone bad-mouthing their civilian masters? I do not know what the ground rules were with the author of the piece, Mike Hastings, a former NEWSWEEK correspondent. (It was all on the record, according to a Rolling Stone editor.) But I have some insights into General McChrystal, with whom I spent some time last September for a profile in NEWSWEEK.

When I arrived at his headquarters in Kabul, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post had just broken a huge story—a leak of General McChrystal's request for a big troop buildup in Afghanistan. In later retellings, including one by my colleague Jonathan Alter in his new book on Obama's first year, The Promise, the leak was seen as an attempt by the Pentagon to force the president's hand, to make him agree to provide another 40,000 or so troops (read an excerpt from the book mentioning the incident here). That may be. But I had the distinct impression as I spent some time around McChrystal that the leak did not come from him. He was made very uncomfortable about the publicity. He did not strike me as the sort of political general who leaks to reporters for political advantage.

Rather, he was a soldier who was deeply concerned with his personal honor and the duty of soldiers to be honest with their civilian masters. I could see that he was wrestling with the question of how to be straightforward with his superiors in Washington. He said he had been influenced by a book called Dereliction of Duty, by Col. H. R. McMaster, which took to task the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Vietnam for not leveling with President Johnson about the true requirements of waging (and winning) the war. McChrystal, while good humored, was very much a straight arrow with a strong sense of personal integrity. He was not a Pentagon smoothie or a "political" general. He seemed uneasy about Washington politics. Indeed, he got himself in trouble a few days after I left Kabul by telling reporters, at a speech in London, that he would oppose any attempt to shift the U.S. strategy from a full-scale counterinsurgency to a more limited counterterror campaign. Since the latter was being proposed by Vice President Biden, McChrystal's outspokenness did not win him any friends in the vice president's office. Indeed, according to Alter's new book, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen was dressed down by President Obama for not keeping a lid on his subordinates.

Now McChrystal is back in hot water and personally apologizing for the comments attributed to him and his staff. He was foolish to be so unguarded around Rolling Stone. But better to have a ground commander who feels compelled to speak the truth than one who just tells his civilian bosses what they wish to hear.