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McChrystal's Infomercial

60 Minutes and the General

by BRUCE JACKSON

David Martin’s 13-minute “60 Minutes” interview with General Stanley McChrystal (September 27), the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, may have seemed like one more of those insufferable Sunday evening puff pieces, like Steve Kroft’s strokejob with Clarence Thomas in September 2007 and Morley Safer’s with Bobby Jindahl in March 2009. As in the Kroft and Safer interviews, Martin never asked a question that went faster than slowball and he spent the whole time playing hagiographer and straight-man. He never asked one significant follow-up question. If he’d been a flack for DoD editing this piece in the Pentagon studio he couldn’t have done a better job.

But the interview was more than just another “60 Minutes” puff piece. Four-star battlefront generals don’t put on dog-and-pony shows for reporters without a very good reason for doing so, and he put on a very fancy show for Martin, with stops at his room, his office, his briefing room, trips in his helicopter and SUV, and much more. It’s difficult to imagine that McChrystal’s reason was anything other than putting pressure on the Obama administration to give him the series of very large troop increases he thinks he needs to win his war.

McChrystal makes the Westmoreland argument for more American troops, and Martin doesn’t seem remember we’ve heard all this before. The words “Viet Nam” were never uttered once in the interview by either man, even though you could go through it and substitute “Viet Nam” for “Afghanistan” and again and again (if you’re old enough) you’d say, “But I heard exactly these lines before.” Yes, you did.

At 55, McChrystal is five years older than Westmoreland was when he took over as military commander in Viet Nam. He’s also better educated. If McChrystal doesn’t talk about the past it’s because he chooses to leave it where it is, not because he isn’t aware of it. He went to West Point, has an MA from the Naval War College and an MS in international relations from Salve Regina University; he spent a year at the Kennedy School of Government and another at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before his current assignment he was perhaps best known for two things: announcing at one of his regular 2003 Pentagon press briefings on the progress of the Iraq war, ‘I could anticipate that the major combat engagements are over,” and for heading the unit that found and killed Abu Musab al-Zarquai, Task Force 6-26. That unit was notorious for its frequent use of torture in interrogations. McChrystal was also involved in the cover up of the Pat Tillman friendly fire incident.

Martin addresses none of that. He mentions the killing of al-Zaquari (but not the torture), only as part of a riff on how brave a warrior McChrystal is.

Martin and McChrystal look more than a little bit alike. They both have long skinny faces. Sometimes when the camera cut back and forth from one to the other it seemed like the same actor, tricked up to look like two different people. Martin has a grey crew cut and wears glasses; McChrystal has very short combed down brown hair, no glasses except when he’s looking at a map and, maybe when no cameras are around. Martin is kind of moony and dour, while McChrystal is all quick moves, no qualifiers in his speech, a guy looks you right in the eye.

In his intro, Martin tells us that a man who must be “America’s most battle-hardened general” says “there must be a change in the way we operate.” Later he tells us that the general is intrepid (when he meets with local officials who aren’t wearing body armor he doesn’t wear body armor either), athletic, and that, “as he races against the calendar” he is a “one of a kind commander.”

“It’s hard to keep pace with McChrystal as he races through his marathon day,” gushes Martin. “He eats one meal a day. Anything more makes him feel sluggish. In another life he could have been a monk.” The general shows Martin what seems to be his living quarters: a single room, sparsely furnished.

“What you’re about to hear is as closed to an unvarnished war briefing as you’re likely to get,” Martin tells us. I think he was trying to convey the idea that the general is going to be telling it like it is, directly and with no waffling or fudging. But that’s not what a war briefing is (nor is it what the general delivers). A war briefing for the staff is the CO standing in front of the room, running the show, and letting get said only what he thinks ought to get said, while the underlings keep their place and speak when spoken to. If it’s for the press, it’s smoke and mirrors. (Remember the reports of the “Doha follies” in Gulf War I? The military would have press briefings every day, then everybody would look at Al Jazeera to find out what was really going on.) Martin doesn’t seem to remember that “war briefings” are strategic events, not teaching seminars.

McChrystal poses at his desk, flipping through pages in a red binder marked “secret.” But, Martin says, he doesn’t trust that to tell him what’s going on, so three times each week he gets on a helicopter to see for himself.”

Then he tells us, “Flying over terrain that has defeated invaders from the British to the Soviets, McChrystal knows he has to do more than just fine-tune the strategy that after eight years of war appears on the brink of failure.” Martin, who was an English major at Yale and who is CBS News’ national security correspondent, should do better than that. The Brits were newcomers to Afghanistan: they didn’t get there until 1836. Outsiders started getting whipped by the fractious Afghanistan tribes at least as early as Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The place has never been colonized and none of the great armies got to stay as long as they would have liked or went home with as many soldiers as they’d brought.

We see Martin and McChrystal side by side in a helicopter, then side by side in the back seat of a SUV. The guys in front wear helmets and body armor. McChrystal never, in the segment, wears body armor or carries a firearm. One time, in a market, he even makes the troops guarding him move back out of camera range. “The greatest risk we can accept,” McChrystal says in the SUV, “is to lose support of the people here. If the people are against us, we cannot be successful.” Conventional war, Martin says, paraphrasing McChrystal, and once again missing an opportunity to ask him about torture as a weapon of war, “can never win this war…. In other words, for much of the past eight years, the US has been sowing the seeds of its own demise.”

Sound familiar? How about LBJ forty years ago, telling us the technique we’ll use to win the war in Viet Nam: “The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who live there.”

In order to do his job, McChrystal “relentlessly pounded away at the Pentagon bureaucracy,” desk-jockeys who move too slowly and decide too late. How many times did General William Westmoreland kvetch about the desk jockeys back in D.C. and how they slowed him down?

McChrystal is not only a good commander in the field; he is also acutely tuned to image management on the base. The U.S. military HQ used to drop its flags to half-mast every time an American or soldier fighting with the Americans were killed. He stopped that. He had two reasons. One, they were having flags “at half-mast all the time, and two, it meant they were looking back rather than ahead…We’d gotten to a point where the flags were flying at half-mast all the time and I believe that a force that’s fighting a war can’t spend all its time looking back at what the costs have been, they’ve got to look ahead and they’ve got to have their confidence. And I thought it was important that the flags be up where they belong.”

If you look ahead and don’t look back, how do you learn anything? You’re doomed to make it up as you go, and to make the same mistakes every one of those generals since Alexander made. No wonder neither of these guys mentioned Viet Nam. If the mounting number of casualties in Afghanistan would be depressing and bring the costs of this sort of adventure to mind, what would remembering Viet Nam do to morale? Keep the flags at the top of the masts: it’s a piece with the Bush administration’s ukase against photographing returning U.S. war dead. If you don’t see it you won’t know it and if you don’t know it you won’t be depressed by it. (Do you hear Bob Dylan singing, “ “Shut the eyes of the dead not to embarrass anyone?”)

Then Martin delivers what for McChrystal is the money shot of the entire interview. After this unquestioning advertisement for the intrepid Spartan who doesn’t even wear eyeglasses except when he’s looking at a map, and over an image of troops in the field, Martin says, “McChrystal is hostage to geography. Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, yet he has only half as many troops. He plans to double the size of Afghan forces to 400,000, but that will take years. The only place he can get the troops he needs now is from the United States.”

More troops is what McChrystal wants, he wants them now, and this infomercial on “60 Minutes” is a key element in his campaign to get them.

On August 30, a month before the “60 Minutes” segment aired, McChrystal sent Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates a confidential 66-page report on the Afghanistan situation, “Commander’s Initial Assessment”. That report was soon leaked to the Washington Post and reported on by Bob Woodward (“McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure,” 21 September).

In it, McChrystal wrote: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) while Afghan security capacity matures risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible…. Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or ‘doubling down’ on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we thinking and operate…. Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population.”

“Resources will not win this war,” McChrystal wrote, “but under-resourcing could lose it.” Which suggests that at the key lesson he learned from Westmoreland in Vietnam was not to stay or get out of wars you can’t win, but make sure that when it’s over you can put the blame on the politicians, and to get your line out before they have a chance to get to no.

Who do you think leaked the confidential 66-page memorandum to Bob Woodward? Perhaps someone in the Obama administration, but that is not known as a leaky administration and Obama’s staff had no reason to do it and several good reasons not to, one of which is that it helps the Pentagon put additional public pressure on them at a time when they’re trying to find a way out of what is rapidly becoming a quagmire. Iraq, a war Stanley McChrystal told us was pretty much over seven years ago, is a training exercise compared to the difficulties we face in Afghanistan.

McChrystal’s confidential report went public in the Post one week before the “60 Minutes” segment.

After the report was leaked and Woodward wrote about it, Obama announced that he wants a full-scale reevaluation of the Afghanistan war. Joe Biden has been consistent in arguing for a drawdown of U.S. forces there. McChrystal was, several sources said, told not to make any requests for more troops until that reevaluation was completed.

The general must have decided that was a suggestion rather than a direct order, because last week he flew to Germany to hand-deliver to the head of the Joint Chiefs a request for 45,000 more troops, which would bring the U.S. force there to 113,000. That was two days before the “60 Minutes” segment telling us what a perfect general he is aired.

McChrystal is an impressive commander. He makes a good argument for more troops, and he works the press brilliantly. William Westmoreland was also an impressive commander. He also made a good argument for more troops. Up to a point, he got them. As it turned out, everyone would have been better off if LBJ had said no the first time the request was made.

There is a scene in the “60 Minutes” segment where we see McChrystal on his daily 5AM 60 minute jog around his compound. He wears t-shirt and shorts, and what seem to be earphones connected to an iPod. If he’s really listening to music and not battle reports, someone should program this device so it plays over and over again, at least until he stops running and says, “I get it,” four lines from the final stanza of Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues Again”:

An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

BRUCE JACKSON edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His most recent books ares The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (Temple University Press) and Cummins Wide: Photographs from the Arkansas Penitentiary (Center for Documentary Studies and Center Working Papers).