My Share of the Task: A Memoir
By Steven Martinovich
War, as Karl von Clausewitz once argued, was a political instrument. If true, that makes even generals mere variables for politicians to consider in the grand game. Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) learned that lesson in 2010 when he was forced to resign his command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan after appearing to obliquely criticize U.S. President Barack Obama in a Rolling Stone article. A career that was impressive by any measure was instantly ended by simply by McChrystal forgetting that he was a political instrument.
McChrystal recently broke his silence after his unceremonious end with My Share of the Task: A Memoir, a chronicle of his career which spends much of its time on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though ultimately a satisfying tour of McChrystal’s military life and the recent history he’s help make, it also frustrates because he manages to be transparent about his thinking about fighting war and the mistakes he’s made while in command but largely avoids exploring the event which prematurely ended his most prominent role on the international stage.
My Share of the Task moves fairly quickly through the early part of McChrystal’s career which included West Point and command positions with the 82nd Airborne Division, 7th Special Forces Group and the 75th Ranger Regiment, and fellowship positions with the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations. Though he writes matter-of-factly about his early career, it’s fairly obvious that McChrystal must have been recognized early on by his superiors as one of those soldiers whose mind was obviously as fit as his body.
The book moves into a higher gear with the wars in Afghanistan in Iraq. There, as field commander of Special Forces elements from several branches of the military, McChrystal recounts his efforts to make operations in those countries as efficient as possible. He manages to integrate the operations of SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets and others into a cohesive force that is capable of striking high profile targets on short notice. Operational tempo increases to the point that al-Qaida and the Taliban are reeling from the gutting of entire layers of management and operational capability. With careful diplomacy he manages to lessen resistance from the rest of the military who initially view his forces as prima donnas who monopolized valuable assets.
From there McChrystal assumes command over all forces in Afghanistan – a country that is obviously close to his heart – and brings his drive for efficiency and results to that war. As ISAF commander he is in regular contact with the governments of both Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai and the reader can detect that he is torn between the rational, though perhaps unrealistic, demands for progress coming from the White House and Karzai’s need to balance the competing demands of hundreds of tribes, growing resistance to the presence of foreign troops and a nation only in the rudimentary steps of rebuilding a civil society torn apart by three decades of inhumane war.
In most respects – at least to the extent that he is able to talk about events that are still considered sensitive – McChrystal is fairly open. He freely admits mistakes in all aspects of his life, whether in command of soldiers, errors in thinking or his personal life. It is with some surprise then that the Rolling Stone article which effectively ended his career isn’t thoroughly explored. We have the magazine’s version of events, an apology by McChrystal and a Pentagon report which disputed several of its primary assertions but McChrystal himself largely discusses the article at arm’s length. What were McChrystal’s real feelings about the way that the Obama administration was prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and was he dismissive of Joe Biden’s opinion of the war?
Indeed, it is only after the epilogue that the reader might even realize that McChrystal offers very few opinions of the political leadership in the United States and its demands in how the wars would be fought. Although we can occasionally sense his frustration with the political manoeuvring over troop levels and what the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq should be, McChrystal sticks true to the tradition of soldiers and leaves the politics to the politicians. Though somewhat understandable – Americans have perhaps had enough of retired generals with strong opinions – McChrystal’s proximity to historically important events begs for at least some editorializing about their authors.
This flaw is hardly fatal to My Share of the Task and it is a fascinating view into the career of an impressive man and the events he helped influence. War was revolutionized in Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to a confluence of high technology, transnational actors, cultural and religious factors and a military that once again needed to learn how to fight an amorphous enemy. Through leadership in both men and ideas McChrystal helped shaped modern warfare even though much of the praise seems to go to his successor in Afghanistan. The wars sparked by September 11, 2001 have prompted many books by people in uniform but few are essential as My Share of the Task.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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