Stanley McChrystal on FTGN Podcast

A helicopter takes Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: ISAF

This is the second time I’ve written about a FTGN Podcast episode. The first was on retired General Joseph Votel. This one is their recent episode with retired General Stanley McChrystal. Retired generals do a lot of interviews, and they are (often) master communicators. It’s rare, then, that I actually find myself latching onto something that really grips me. In General Votel’s case it was his thoughts on reflecting that got me thinking.

For no other reason, you should listen to this episode because in it, McChrystal discusses how he dealt with his resignation in the wake of the infamous Rolling Stone article. This is the only time I ever really heard him talk about that. It’s a mini case-study in resiliency. And he makes an argument for narrative patience – what seems like an overwhelming avalanche today mostly dissapears by tomorrow.

Outside of that, it was three little things that caught my attention.

First, McChrystal mentioned John R. Vines as one of his significant mentors. John Vines is one of those names that you hear a lot in the Airborne/Ranger community of yore. He was the Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division when I arrived in 2001. When the GWOT started, he held roles in Afghanistan and later went on to command Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2005-2006. I’ve only interacted with him in the way that a Private normally interacts with a Division Commander – from the position of attention or parade rest, far away in a formation. What I remember, though, is he had an incredible reputation for being a paratrooper’s paratrooper. I always had the sense that he was revered as the epitome of what it meant to be an officer in the 82nd.

His name is not one you hear much about these days. He retired shortly after the GWOT began. But I suspect his leadership and mentorship had a significant hand in the careers of many of the General Officers we know today. McChrystal, Petraeus, and Votel were all Deputy Commanding Generals of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Vines’ thumbprint was (and is) deeply embedded there. I can only imagine there is still a cadre of senior officers who can point back to Vines as their chief mentor.

Second, McChrystal discusses the fact that many of the most professional, courageous, and competent special operators he knew and served with were not all that different from the adversaries he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Not that different,” in the sense that they too were wholly committed to a cause and willing to die for it. They were stoic, dedicated, and professional. It is refreshing to hear this from someone of McChrystal’s stature. Too often, our enemies or adversaries are simply dismissed as maniacal or incompetent. No one wants to give credit to an adversary, but in refusing to do that we blind oursevles to reality. McChrystal says that it is by “accident of birth” that he – and others like him – are on this side of the battle.

And finally, when asked to recommend a book, McChrystal recommended the classic Once an Eagle.

Still haven’t read it.

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Zero Dark Thirty: I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit

“What time are we going on the raid?”
“Zero Dark Thirty, bro.”
“You are such a tool.”

These are my unfair thoughts of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I have not seen. A movie I am not against. A movie I will see when I get the chance.

Zero Dark Thirty has already been the subject of skepticism and pre-emptive statements from government officials. Besides the inaccurate depictions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and their futility, there are a number of other things that worry me about Zero Dark Thirty, a tightly shot, beautifully cast, suspenseful punctuation mark to close ten-plus years of real drama, neatly packaged in an easily digestible 160 minutes.

I go to the movies almost every weekend, and I’ve seen the various trailers for Zero Dark Thirty at least a half dozen times. Like any good Hollywood customer, my body has been trained to respond to the cues I’ve been fed. The eerie music, the fading cuts, the crescendoing sounds leading to a quiet scene of night vision-fueled monochromatic green, showing what I know to be the OBL raid, what I assume to be one of the final scenes of the movie.

The trailer got me pumped up for a movie I never really wanted to see, a movie that will undoubtedly become known by the American public as the definitive story of the ‘Global War on Terror.’ A movie that was originally being written as the failure of that endeavor, and was pretty much completely re-written after the OBL raid as a thriller.

You know, to reflect victory.

I’m sure that it’s going to be a great, fun movie. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to make me anxious, and like Kathryn Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker, it will probably make me feel things that I’ve felt before. Fear, tension, frustration, anxiety, and maybe relief. I’ll probably leave the theater with my chest out, proud to be an American!

In fairness, I liked The Hurt Locker. I thought it was a film that captured the “feel” of being an American soldier on an Iraqi street better than anything else I’ve seen. The scene of the main character overwhelmed by the colors, choices, and ultimate insignificance of the cereal aisle resonated with me and many other veterans I know as a snapshot of “what it’s like” to come back from war. I forgave the movie’s caricature of American soldiers and the details of uniforms and equipment as trivial and insider knowledge that just wasn’t that important. It was a movie, after all. Not a documentary.

Over time though, my thoughts on The Hurt Locker have changed. Because of the film’s success (it won Best Picture in 2010), it became the de-facto Iraq War movie. When I was still in college, people would respond with “Oh, I’ve seen The Hurt Locker” upon meeting me and learning that I was in the Army and had deployed to Iraq. The fact that they’ve seen The Hurt Locker was their way of connecting with me, to let me know that they understood what it must have been like. And that is a little unnerving.

It’s no fault of theirs, though. As a culture, we learn from movies. Most of my imagery of the Vietnam War comes from movies; Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon. I’m sure those are gross characterizations of “what it was like.” I’ve gone further and read about the war, but the images from the movies still color what I learn.

A successful movie based somewhat on reality will become the reality for those who see it. There is already so much buzz surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, it will undoubtedly be successful. This story will become the historical record. Not just for Americans, but for people across the world who will see it and accept it as the way “it” happened.

So here’s why I’m a little concerned:

For those who don’t know, “Zero Dark Thirty” is military vernacular for extremely late at night or extremely early in the morning, a time when it will almost certainly be dark. It’s one of those military terms that is overused by gung-ho new recruits during basic training and discarded by more weathered troops because of how lame it is. Like “hooah, “squared-away,” “get some,” and “hurt locker” (a term that I never even heard until it was the title of the movie).

It means you've been fooled.
It means you’ve been fooled.

To the general public, it sounds cool and ominous. I’m sure that one of the screenwriters came across the term during time spent with US troops, and scribbled it down in a little notebook. I’d be curious to know what the original title was going to be, before the successful OBL raid, when the movie was about the failed manhunt for OBL. But this is the crux of what bothers me about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s work. They take something mysterious to the public, like a piece of jargon, and then sell it to the public to satisfy that craving for something authentic. A piece of the war that a tiny few actually experienced. The title is just the icing. The film is the cake. It feels like they are taking something inside, controversial, and complicated, producing it for general consumption with beautiful stars and effects, and packaging it as the legit, authoritative experience.

Only it’s not.

It’s exploitative, voyeuristic, and pornographic.

Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on the one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposé – and then on the other hand writes a couple of films that tell a caricatured version of war that is marketed as the authentic story. Wearing the serious journalist hat in the morning, exposing atrocities of the Army, and then wearing the Hollywood screenwriter hat in the evening, making big money telling hooah stories about war.

Of course, the filmmakers can always deflect any criticism by saying “It’s a movie, not a documentary” which is true. But that ignores the reality of how it will be consumed – how they know it will be marketed and consumed. That, to me, is irresponsible.

I’m not boycotting Zero Dark Thirty. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it and I’ll see it when I get the chance. But I won’t accept it as anything but a fantasy.

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