After Obama's dismissal of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, military colleagues and friends talk to Ellen Knickmeyer about the surprising things the general might do next.
After notifying the Pentagon this week that he will retire from the only profession he has ever known—that of a military man—Gen. Stanley McChrystal now faces the toughest question of a battlefield commander cut off in the prime of his career: What next?
While blogs are prophesying everything from book tours to the cable-TV talk circuit to Senate runs for the fired Afghan commander, longtime friends and aides of McChrystal say they expect the gaunt four-star general to take the more MacArthurian route—and fade away.
McChrystal, a former Special Ops guy, a nation-builder, and a commander-under-fire, will now have to adjust to the commute and chores and household tiffs that constitute civilian life back home.
“Honestly—the only thing I ever heard him say he wanted to do, after he completed his mission in Afghanistan… was eventually retire and open a bookstore,” wrote one officer, who is close to McChrystal, by email. The retirement conversations recounted by the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, took place earlier in McChrystal’s time in Afghanistan, before publication of the Rolling Stone story that portrayed the general and his aides as openly dismissive of civilian authority. The magazine story abruptly brought on McChrystal’s dismissal last week as the top general in Afghanistan.
• Daily Beast writers weigh in on Petraeus’ confirmation This week, Pentagon officials said McChrystal had notified them he intends to retire from the military altogether. According to news reports, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that President Barack Obama had pledged to ensure that McChrystal would receive the pension and other benefits of a four-star general, although technically he had not served as a four-star long enough to qualify for the greater benefits. Still relatively young at 55, McChrystal has known little but the military: After a childhood spent on the move as a military brat, accompanying a father who retired as a major general, McChrystal entered West Point as a teenager, and has served ever since.
The general has yet to say what he plans to do in the unfamiliar role of a civilian. Given the abruptness of his departure, he may yet have to decide himself, aides and friends say. “I think it’s reasonable that he takes some time with his family before he figures it out,’’ Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a former spokesman for McChrystal, said by email from Afghanistan.
Acquaintances are adamant that McChrystal isn’t likely to follow the partisan or political paths of some other high-profile military departees, such as Oliver North or Wesley Clark. Outed in the Rolling Stone piece as a Democrat and a 2008 Obama supporter, McChrystal won’t be out to settle scores against his old boss—or anyone else, they predict.
“I cannot imagine a scenario where he would be a pundit or write some sort of tell-all book or other sort of grand-standing,” says the officer close to McChrystal. “It's simply not a part of his nature. Nor is it something I can imagine him ever being comfortable with.” The general, this officer says, is “one of the most humble men I’ve ever worked for.”
Still, McChrystal has surprised before—as with his career-ending agreement to be tailed by Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter, as the general and his staff drank, sang, and talked trash. Whereas The New York Times and most other publications had depicted McChrystal as a self-denying, almost abstemious man who ate only one meal a day, the Rolling Stone piece showed another side of McChrystal—the military frat boy who, as a cadet at West Point, racked up more than 100 demerits, passing out in the shower after downing a case of beer.
Having lost the career he had built over a lifetime, McChrystal now faces “those kinds of fundamental questions he hasn’t asked himself since he left West Point—well, since he entered West Point,” says a retired general who has known McChrystal for most of his career. Like the other officer, he spoke on condition he not be identified, although like everyone interviewed for this article he spoke glowingly of McChrystal. Tight-lipped in speaking publicly of one another even in normal times, retired and current military officers are even more so now, post-McChrystal.
Chief among those questions is McChrystal’s next move—the retired general thought that could be anything from an executive position in the defense industry to leadership of a nonprofit organization. And McChrystal, a former Special Ops guy, a nation-builder, and a commander-under-fire, will now have to adjust to the commute and chores and household tiffs that constitute civilian life back home. In the estimation of the retired general, readjustment alone can take years.
“He’s going from being in a war zone to not being in a war zone; being responsible for the lives of soldiers,” to reestablishing himself “as a family member in a family unit,’’ says the general, who has gone through that process himself. “These are huge personal transitions,” he says.
As for dreams of running a bookstore, or dropping out of the rat race completely—“we all talk about fishing and golf” after the military, says the retired general. “None of that ever happens.”
Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.