Stanley McChrystal is probably the most revered military officer of his generation. He rose through the ranks from being an Army Ranger officer to commanding the Joint Special Operations Command to taking command of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Then it all came crashing down in the summer of 2010, when Rolling Stone magazine published a profile of him in which men under his command were caught saying insulting things about President Obama and his staff. One might expect the memoir of such a man to dish juicy details on the president, who chose to accept his resignation instead of looking the other way. But that is not the case with My Share of the Task, which takes the high road and barely has a bad word for Obama or other rivals.
Instead McChrystal devotes his memoir to telling the story of an often-secret war against al Qaeda and other terrorists. He tells the story with surprising flair. The general provides visceral details, such as his description of how the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, bled from his nose and ears after a 500-pound bomb exploded the house where he was staying. In other parts of the book, McChrystal explains the origins of the CIA’s post-9/11 relationship with Special Operations Forces.
It turns out that McChrystal actually encountered al Qaeda very early in his career, but he did not quite know it at the time. The year was 1987, and McChrystal was working for a Ranger battalion as part of the once-every-two-year joint military exercise known as Exercise Bright Star with Egypt. As part of the preparations, McChrystal worked with Ali Abdelsoud Mohammed, a special-operations command sergeant who served as an interpreter. “Ali Mohammed was effective, but the atmosphere with the Egyptians was uncomfortably cool, and it was difficult to determine why,” McChrystal wrote. On their walk back to their tent that evening, the Egyptian-born sergeant explained that he had been a major in the Egyptian commandos. Then the next day he was gone. “I never saw him after that,” McChrystal wrote. “Only years later did I hear of his membership in al Qaeda, his September 1998 arrest in Egypt after being subpoenaed in conjunction with the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, and his public discussions about al Qaeda as an organization.”
Much of McChrystal’s book is devoted to his hunt for Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist who lead al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq. McChrystal discloses in the book that the Joint Special Operations Command almost captured Iraqi master terrorist Zarqawi in February 2004, more than two years before McChrystal’s team did finally find and kill him. A team of Delta Force soldiers had a tip that Zarqawi was visiting a townhouse in the Askari neighborhood of Fallujah that evening. But by the time the Special Operations team got to the townhouse, Zarqawi had already escaped. McChrystal speculates that he may have leapt from a two-story building. McChrystal writes, “On that dusty night in February 2004, while we were disappointed to have missed him, the bloody consequences of our failure were not immediately apparent. On that night, he was not yet Iraq’s bane.”
In the next two years Zarqawi became something of an obsession for McChrystal, who mastered the details of his biography. When he was a young boy, he was the captain of his soccer team. On the streets of Zarqa, the dusty sister city to Amman, Zarqawi was sometimes known as the “green man” because of the tint his tattoos gave his skin. One of his earliest religious mentors developed a theory that said participation in democracy was its own kind of heresy, an interpretation Zarqawi would later use to justify attacks on polling stations as Iraqis participated in their first national elections.
In one revealing passage, McChrystal says he briefed President Bush and the national-security cabinet on the hunt for Zarqawi. Bush asked why he would not just want to kill him. McChrystal responded that Zarqawi could tell him many things he wanted to know if he was alive.
In 2009 McChrystal was given command of the war in Afghanistan by President Obama. When McChrystal was chosen, he was promised a surge in troops and a strategy aimed at earning the trust of the population and isolating the insurgency. But within weeks of arriving in Afghanistan in June of that year, McChrystal was already beginning to suspect he would not be given the troops and resources he believed he would need to run a full counterinsurgency strategy.
“In retrospect, I should not have been surprised,” he writes. “President Obama had voiced strong support for the effort in Afghanistan during his campaign, pledging to add two brigades, which he did. But since the inauguration ... the administration had signaled that the U.S. commitment needed careful assessment, and we needed to recalibrate the strategy and objectives.” Those signals included leaks of proposed strategies for Afghanistan and candid conversations with Obama-administration officials like then–national security adviser James Jones. Nonetheless, McChrystal never threatened to resign command, as some reports suggested, if he did not get the resources he thought he needed to execute the president’s strategy.
When McChrystal gets around to discussing the Rolling Stone article that led to his resignation, he does not have particularly harsh words for the reporter who wrote it, Michael Hastings. “I was surprised by the tone and direction of the article,” he wrote. He says his wife, Annie, thought the famous scene captured in the article of the general and his staff relaxing in Paris ultimately was a testament to the “brotherhood” of the team. Ultimately, McChrystal said, he called no one for advice and decided on his own to resign. In the book’s epilogue he writes that an inspector-general report on the article did not find any violations of Department of Defense standards, and “not all of the events occurred as portrayed in the article.”
While McChrystal’s book does not provide any political score settling, it does give us a glimpse into the man’s home life. For example, when the general’s son was in high school and the family was living in New York for a year, he dyed his hair blue.
McChrystal also makes clear in the book he really loves his wife. He talks about how happy and important it is to see her at key moments in his life. When McChrystal resigns his command in Afghanistan, he describes the scene when he tells Annie “that our life in the Army was over.” He then writes of his wife’s response. “‘Good,’ she said, clear-eyed and strong. ‘We’ve always been happy, and we’ll always be happy.’ Looking into her blue yes, I knew she was right—and why.”