Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
General Stan McChrystal is known for commanding the special operations forces during the Obama years, and this is when the special operations forces were working at maximum capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan. It created all kinds of new problems of communication and bureaucracy. And one of the many things he's known for is actually helping figure out an entirely new way in which large, sprawling organizations can keep everyone in the loop. But that's not what I wanted to talk to Stan McChrystal about. I wanted to talk to him about what it means to serve quietly in a world in which we feel the need to advertise everything we do on social media.
Stan McChrystal has led a career that very often is behind the scenes. This is a bit of optimism. Stan, thanks so much for for doing this for sure. Now you come from a line of soldiers, were you pushed to join the army or did you want to join the army where the inclination come because you had the choice, I assume, to go in one direction or another for your career?
Well, you're correct. My father was a soldier and my father's father was a soldier. My four brothers were soldiers. My sister married a soldier. I married the daughter of a soldier. Her three brothers are soldiers, her sisters, the widow of a soldier that I served with. So did anybody ever forced me? No, they didn't have to. As you've got older one, I wanted to be my dad because he was my hero. But also it's just, of course, this notion of service.
How did it show up at home? Really threw my mother. My father had been in the Korean War, but I was born then. And then when I was 10, the Vietnam War started to go. And he's got six kids and he deployed to Vietnam to command an infantry battalion. And my mother, this is not easy. And we weren't living on a military base that went to support structures around. And we take them to the airport one day in our old station wagon, dropped them off.
And then as we're driving back, I realized what my mother had to deal with now. And so I watched her kind of quietly just do what it had to do and talk to us. And she wasn't a believer in the Vietnam War. She was very much against it, but she loved my father. And so for that and then his subsequent tours. So the sense that you just bear the burden that is your share, the idea that if everybody has to do something, you should do yours and just do it quietly, stoically might be the right term.
And my mother embodied that. I remember because she went through all of that. And then just when my dad made brigadier general and theoretically life would be she died at a very young age. She just died suddenly. And it was always sad to me that people don't look harder at that demographic and say what service really is, because sometimes it's not in uniform, even associated with the military.
Yeah, we live in a world where I think this idea of service has either morphed or even, I dare I say, be forgotten. There was a time where service was the norm, like chivalry was like the norm. And all of the rules that went with chivalry and giving someone your word actually meant something.
And the stories of World War Two of young men who committed suicide because they weren't drafted, where this call to service was the thing.
And we can discuss the reasons, but we can at least say that for some reason, this idea of the draw to service and the call to service seems to have declined in this modern day.
Is that a fair assessment?
I think you're exactly correct. That sense of responsibility that I have a number of expectations to live up to has decreased. Now, in some ways you say, well, everybody's their own person now. They analyze everything and decide what to do. Well, the problem is it's hard to run a society like that. It's hard to have collective defense. It's hard to have collective care for those who can't care for themselves. It's hard to have those things which we do better jointly than we do individually.
It's hard to make that work unless people feel a responsibility for their part of the task.
Well, it seems like America has over indexed on rugged individualism. It's an important thing and it's a good thing. But there's a balance and there's a paradox to being human.
I think that every single day we're both individuals, but we're also members of groups and we have a responsibility to both, which is we have to take care of ourselves, but we have a responsibility to the group. And it's never going to be in perfect balance and it's never going to be even it. Its the seesaw that we have to play with every day, but it should be in play is the point. It shouldn't be lopsided, the rugged individualism and you can see it in the rise of our industries.
I think, you know, there's an entire section of the bookshop called self-help and there's no section in the book shop called Help Others.
So we're all trying to learn how to take care of ourselves.
But where are we learning to take care of each other, which I think is interesting.
I think that's a great point. If you think about that, you know, if I was to say, how do you want young Americans want to find just our country right now, how do you want them to process that? Let's see if they're coming of age, coming out of high school, which should be in their mind.
Well, it doesn't have to be this grand thing. It can be as simple as I have a responsibility to the fellow human being, to the left and to the right of me. And I would sacrifice my interest to make sure that they feel safe psychologically or physically.
I think that's right. That's why I'm so passionate about civilian national service for young Americans, because I think you can plant a seed through behavior, getting them to do something for a year, inspiring them.
Yeah, they won't like it every day, but they will come out of it differently and they'll come out of it more thought and to be. Clear, when you're talking about national service, we're not necessarily talking about military could be Teach for America, it could be absolutely anything that is about serving society.
It's particularly not military because reality is not everybody's rights to the military. We don't need that big a military. If we started to make military big enough just to give everybody a place, that would be a mistake. Instead, health care, the environment, education, there's so much room for people to go in for a year or two give. And then when they leave, they come out differently themselves. They're the real product. Yeah, I think we have to have a constellation of opportunities, some very local, some national and international young people can go with those and we've got to have it pay because otherwise only families who can support their kid can give the opportunity.
And we've got to make it full time. It's got to be an immersive experience. You can't be two hours every Saturday. It's got to disrupt your life a bit. The other part is recognizing the value of the experience because people come out more discipline, more experience. And so universities ought to give preferential admission to people who've done service companies need to give preferential hiring. Does it mean that, you know, you go to the front of the line everywhere, but it means you get credit for that?
It's like coming out. You're a veteran of sorts because military and civilian service ought to be two sides of the same coin.
But at the end of the day, you're getting a better human being. You're getting a better employee. I think a lot of young people, there's the sense of impatience, you know, like I got to get my career going.
I love the idea of volunteering for two years of doing something, you know, teaching in a school somewhere in America or volunteering for health care or whatever.
But I feel like I'm going to lose two years. Other people will get ahead of me in this competition if I go do that. David, Mark does some interesting work where there's this belief to change behavior. First you have to change someone's thinking and then they'll change their behavior. And we see this in companies. You give the PowerPoint, you explain what we're doing, and then you hope people will come along.
And his work has found that, no, you force a change in behavior and then people change their thinking. So mandating national service people will come along and realize how great it is.
He's exactly right. The other conversation we have to get is the one where someone wants to run for office. And so they are bright, young and charismatic and ambitious. And they get in front of a bunch of people and saying, I want to be your congressman. And someone says, OK, how did you serve me? And they look down at their shoes and they go, wow, you know, I was in this school, in law school and I didn't.
And they go, Why are you running for office? Get out of here. I think that would be very powerful. I mean, it's true.
And we see this in our politicians. Right, which is this is our complaint about politicians. Are they there to serve us? Are they there to win the game and serve themselves? I mean, where did they come from?
Yeah, it also strikes me there's plenty of shared struggle right now in the United States. How come we're not coming together the way we should be? I mean, we seem to be dividing in the struggle rather than coalescing in the struggle.
And do I have a romantic view of the way it used to be or is there actually something different now?
I have the same view as you think about it. If you had written a movie about what would unite the world, what you would do is you'd create an external threat. Typically, Martiens think of one of those movies where aliens come and the world for the first time in a long time unites and it fights off the aliens and everything's good covid-19 like that. It's something everybody could hate. Nobody's going to love a virus that kills people. And it was a great opportunity to unite us internally and externally.
You can't blame it on anybody. And yet the opposite has happened. What we've done is we've gone into smaller entities almost tribally and we've linked arms and we've done that. And as a consequence, we've done two things. One, we've been much less effective than we needed to be. And second, we've missed the opportunity to have a unifying theme that brings us together. And absent that, it's pretty easy for societies to fragment. And that's what I think is so dangerous right now.
Now, it's also an opportunity. There's a lot of people having a conversation we are right now. And so I'm hoping that because that conversation is going on, that there are people saying, OK, where we have to do it.
It raises the interesting question of sort of to use a modern term to put on it. But branding, you look at the quote unquote threats that we face and they've had really bad branding, like we call it, you know, global warming.
Well, but we had a really bad winter.
And I thought you told me it was warming or we call it climate change. But people confuse the weather and the climate. They're not the same thing. And why didn't we call it climate cancer? That sounds a lot worse to me.
We've done a terrible job at communicating this existential threat. And so we're not. Coming together as a people and you know this for military, which is there is a sense of branding the enemy to brand the enemy as this disconnected threat that they no longer human there, there are now a threat. And so I wonder if we have a responsibility. Leaders have a responsibility to better communicate the threats that we have rather than explaining them. Yeah, but it seems to me that there's been a failure of communication from our leaders to help us understand the importance of these existential threats that would make us come together as a community.
Yeah, I think that's true. If you think of the war on poverty that President Johnson pushed and that was pretty clear, you know, it was unevenly executed, but it's pretty clear. And now if we think about the push for equality in our society, it's kind of hard to be against philosophically, against the fact that everyone should have equal opportunity. Yeah, but we have not been able to explain that in a way where that's what we're forcing people to to talk about.
We're talking about other things. And what we should be talking about is the idea that every young person gets a roughly equal start, roughly equal opportunity in life and. That's never going to be perfect, but it should be our goal. You shouldn't be able to argue against that.
I think that's such an interesting point, which is to raise the conversation. We're down in the weeds and there's a bigger idea here. And Black Lives Matter has sparked something that is innate in all of us, which is we believe, in fairness, a little child, my little nephew, you know, something happens and he'll scream out to me that's unfair. Like it's innate. We have a sense of fairness in all of us. And the question is, is how do we advance this sense of to your point, everybody gets roughly the same start.
What you do with your start is is up to you, I guess.
But I don't even know if that's true. That's what Black Lives Matter is highlighted, which is OK, all fine with the good and fair start. But it's not a fair ride. It's not a fair journey. But I do really appreciate this idea of raising the conversation. But who it's a great question.
I mean, let's talk health care, for example. I think the conversation should start with every citizen is going to get health care, adequate health care for their whole life. And people say, well, wait a minute, are we talking about single payer Obamacare? Any number of permutations say, no, we're not talking about any of that. What we're talking about right now is do you agree with the idea that everybody gets health care? If they're bleeding, they get bandaged.
If they're sick, they get taken care of and all the things you need and people, again, will go, well, yeah, OK. Of course they'd be careful because when you get into how you get in the arguments. But if we could get a general agreement that says every American gets health care, not just because it's fair, but because it's smart for society, it makes us a better society, then you start to work toward it.
I think Obama made a mistake when he communicated this. I've gone back and watched. He gave a speech to a joint session of Congress, one of the first times he was making a national argument for national health care. And he made a rational argument. You know, there are 30 million uninsured Americans, you know, kind of how the speech started, which to anybody sounds big and complicated and sounds expensive as opposed to going to the foundations of the United States.
You know, he could have stood up and said, our founding fathers founding this nation on three basic principles. All men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights amongst which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Let's let's talk about one of those. Let's just talk about life. The United States is the wealthiest nation on earth. The United States has the most powerful nation on earth. Only our president is referred to as the leader of the free world.
Then how is it that America has one of the highest infant mortality rates amongst Western nations? How is it that we can claim to provide life for all of our citizens and yet we cannot even provide a doctor for every child? There are 30 million uninsured Americans. And I think that, again, goes back to a failure of communication. He did not tap into a sense of shared something or other that all Americans have, regardless of color, creed and politics.
He went straight into let me explain something to you. And I think this is where our leaders and our politicians have failed this. Everybody tried to explain things to us. I mean, you know, this war history, America is losing the psychological and social fight in Vietnam. And they're having press conferences saying how well they're doing in battle. Like the numbers don't matter. Yeah. You know, we lost 58000 men. They lost three million people.
How did we lose? Right. Because we kept talking about it rationally. It doesn't work. And I think there's a complete breakdown in this nation of how we are able to connect with people, how we explain things or inspire. Right. And so here's the challenge.
What should leaders be doing? Like how the heck are we going to inspire people to want to do something that comes at personal sacrifice?
Yeah, I think people want to be inspired. The one thing that I think is true is they desperately want to be inspired. They're just sort of waiting to be asked.
Yeah, I think Black Lives Matter is important on so many levels. There's the obvious one that we need to reconcile and hold a mirror up to ourselves as a society and and sort of admit we need to do a lot better. But I think it's provided an opportunity for people to show up.
You know, I think people forget that the Internet is not what changes. Society know Mubarak was not overthrown by Twitter.
He was overthrown by the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who showed up in Tahrir Square. It requires people to physically show up. And it's one of the things I love about this youngest generation, Gen Z is they're not online activists. They show up and they organize and they're having strikes from school to make a point. And they're building rallies themselves. They're an activist generation. And maybe this activist generation is in response. It is the pendulum to the slacktivism that has preceded them.
Yeah, so and as I said, the Black Lives Matter movement, it's been a long time since America has had a movement, you know, where people came out on the streets and protested in massive, massive numbers at personal risk, I might add.
And I agree with you on that completely. The one thing if I was advising Black Lives Matter is because I've written and studied the civil rights movement. They need to make sure they're not thinking about this, like about. It's a war, and so they have got to have enough persistent pressure on the system because we both know our country well enough that there'll be a certain response and then as soon as the pressure goes down, there will be stop progress and in fact, there will be some encroachment back.
And so they need to understand that Martin Luther King Jr. did it for 13 years till he was murdered and then other people led the movement. After that. It takes constant, inexorable pressure.
Well, it goes back to our impatience as a society with younger, impatient generations. I got to get my career started and I got to see change now. And some of that's true. But as you said, societal change, sticky societal change that can survive the machinations of a political cycle takes time.
Can you share a specific story that you went through, something we can relive with you, where you came out, a different version of yourself?
Yeah, I was a captain for about seven years, so I had about 10 years in the Army and the first time in the army. When you can be promoted early, you get an accelerated promotion is to major. And so this board was coming up and I was going to be considered, along with thousands of other captains, and I didn't think much about it. You know, I didn't really think about it, but I'd had all the right jobs.
In fact, I was already in a major job and people were telling me how cool I was and how well I was doing. And so part of me inside was going, hey, you know, I'm the kind of guy they pick early. And our day I was discount. That's where the list came out. And my battalion commander called me and he said, you're not on the majors list. And I said, OK, I can live with that.
I was hurt, but it was crushing until I saw the list and literally all my friends were on the list. Or it seemed like it seemed like every other captain that I knew really well was and I was not. And so now not being on was really noteworthy. And so it crushed me. And I remember my wife had been married for three years now. But one of the things she said, it goes, OK, you didn't make it.
So what are you going to do? You're going to get out of the army and I said no. And she says, well then you've got to get over it, because if you're not going to get out and I came away with this lifelong thing, I repeat to other people, I said, you know, every once in a while, if you get selected for promotion, you say, wow, the promotion board is really smart because they picked me.
And I started reminding myself that later when I got picked for promotions, I said the board that picked me was no smarter than the board that didn't. And so I need to take any success with the same grain of salt. I need to be as dismissive of the process as I was when I didn't get selected. It was good to happen so early in my career because it was a real slap back into humility that is so great.
And I'm realizing just, you know, when something goes our way, we think how smart those people are and how good those people are. And when it doesn't go are we think what idiots and what poor leaders they are and how they don't understand. And it's the same.
They're either idiots all the time. And they picked you for a promotion because they're idiots or they're smart. They know something that you don't know. I really like the fact that we treated equally. That's such a good one.
There's a great story that the chief of staff of the army once told, and he said every year they picked 40 colonels in the army to be brigadier generals. And that's the most difficult hurdle to get over twenty five hundred get looked at, 40 get picked. So it's really the eye of a needle. A lot of it's luck. And he said he was talking to a colonel one day and he said, well, what do you think about this boy coming up?
He said, Sir, you know, every year when the 40 person list comes out, there's always one name that everybody looks at and goes, how did that idiot get on the list? What a joke. And he said, Sir, I want to be that guy.
I love it. I love it. One of the things that I think most people misunderstand and misperceive about the military is, you know, sure, there's a lot of testosterone and it's a machismo culture, but the intensity of humanity that exists, there's handholding, there's hugging, there's crying and crying in the military is fine.
Is there someone you think of a fallen comrade or a story that you grew up with that you can't get through the story?
Is there something that has stuck with you that has become a part of who you are as Stan McChrystal? This story, this person in your life has now become a part of your the very way you show up in the world because you knew them or because of the story you lived through.
There is Christmas Eve. It's tradition for commanders to fly around and visit remote bases, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day. So I was doing the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We do more. So it was already dark and it was Afghanistan. And I'm landing at these little bases and I landed at a small little base, looked like a bow just for the Afghanistan thing, and just probably 40, 50 Americans stationed there and 70 radio Afghan forces and together there to secure this local area.
And so we land outside and we walk into the perimeter and we go into the mess hall and they've gathered most of the people there, my sergeant major, nine to three others. And we talk for a few minutes. Everybody is it's always the same. They're pretty tight at first. And then, you know, you talk informally and then the great ice, she said, is anybody want to take any pictures or do anything? And then they'll want to take pictures together and that breaks it down.
That's great. And so as I'm given my comments, I see a young private first class and I see the name. And literally I just froze because the name was back and it was a very distinct name. And there had been a Ranger Sergeant First Class that I had served with in the Ranger Regiment. I commend the regiment. And then he had gone off to Delta Force, become an operator. And then in 2005, under my command, he was killed.
I knew Steve Lambeck and his wife quite well. And I'm sitting there and I'm looking at this guy. If this name tag is distracted by my comments and we went to the pictures, I went over to him and I said. Was your father in the service? And he could figure out where I was going with this right away, and he goes, yes, or I said it was your father, Perenjori says, Yes, sir. And in that moment, what I realized is we're seeing this generational service.
His father had been killed. This kid didn't have to go in. The military could have gone and done anything. But not only gone in the military here he was in this godforsaken part of Afghanistan on Christmas. His mom is now home alone. You know, she'd been widowed at that point for four and a half years. And I just realized that he didn't come and tell me, hey, you know, my dad. He wasn't going to do that, and I just happened to see it and it reminded me what sort of quiet service is would sacrifice what his father had done, what his mother was doing, and then what he was.
And so it's one of those things that whenever I think about that, when people talk about, OK, you know, I'm doing my part, I say, OK, I'm sure you are. But I put it against that yardstick.
A lot of the stories you tell are of quiet service. You tell the story of this young man as quiet service. You tell the story of your mother, of quiet service. You distinctly pointed out the quietness of her service. You talk about humility. A lot of the stories you tell are about quiet and about being humble. It's a theme in your work. It's a theme in the stories. And maybe that's what this is all about. Which is maybe the reason we've lost the sense of sacrifice is because we're all too busy advertising ourselves now.
Maybe this has nothing to do with service. Maybe the lack of service is a symptom that we've lost our humility as individuals, as a nation.
You know, I see that in the resume building in young people where there's more resume than substance and they've been encouraged to do that. I think we've got a celebrity culture where we can confuse celebrity with competence or leadership. So I think you're probably right.
What I think is so funny about America.
We celebrate our independence on July 4th, 1776, but we fought the Revolutionary War until the Treaty of Paris on September 3rd, 1783. We actually aren't celebrating our independence. We're celebrating the day we declared our independence. Independence didn't come for another seven years before the United States was formally recognized as an independent nation. But that's a very American thing. Yeah, the declaration is enough.
And I think that, again, there's huge positives in that, you know, Europe makes fun of us because we're so optimistic as a nation. But I think the downside of that is we're sometimes so busy broadcasting that we're not spending enough time listening. We're so busy self promoting that sometimes we're forgetting the substance. And maybe this is just a point in time, an inflection point, a necessary point for correction.
And sometimes maybe. Black Lives Matter, it's that smack across the face that says, you know, maybe you should maybe should be a little more quiet and a little more humble, like you didn't get everything right. America. Yeah. You got some things wrong.
It's OK. You just got to take account.
You got to make corrections and you got to you've got to learn your lesson. You've got to learn that humility.
I think there's something really powerful about quiet service.
And for somebody like you with a storied career, you could tell me any story you wanted. You could have told me a story of heroism and machismo and somebody running to battle. And the story you chose to tell me that you carry with you as someone you want to be like. Is this private first class with quiet service, maybe we all need to just like do that go serve as opposed to broadcasting what we served or intended to do?
Yeah, Stan, I can't thank you enough and I'm not going to go into it.
People can do their own research on your career, but knowing how the circumstances under which you left the army, you are that private first class. It was quiet and you allowed history to tell the right story and to get the truth out later on.
I have great respect for just how quiet you are and just put your head down and get the job done. It's such a such an honor.
Thanks for all you do and thanks for having me today. But even more thanks for you.
Do you make people think sometimes that makes their heads hurt, but you make me think that's one of the biggest contributions you can make.
Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. Take care some. If you enjoyed this podcast and if you'd like to hear more, please subscribe wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Until then, take care of yourself. Take care of each other.