America’s war and its illusive heroes

The Russian mystic, Gurdjieff, is said to have advised that if a spiritual seeker wants to guard his faith, he should avoid getting too close to a saint. Perfection can rarely withstand close scrutiny.

The same can be said of war heroes.

The legend of General Stanley McChrystal has been years in the making, but even now, at a moment when he has in his own words “compromised the mission,” there are aspects of his character that for the very same reasons that they cause him trouble also burnish his image as an American hero — the kind captured in the US Army’s ridiculous (and short-lived) slogan “Army of One.”

In a passage of his Rolling Stone profile, Michael Hastings recounts a scene where McChrystal and his badboy comrades let it all hang out during a fraternity-style rebellion. They are up against the stiff cultural challenges presented by Paris nightlife with its “Gucci” restaurants — “Gucci” in McChrystal’s mind is apparently an all-purpose metaphor for what to his eye are Europe’s aristocratic affectations.

The night after his speech in Paris, McChrystal and his staff head to Kitty O’Shea’s, an Irish pub catering to tourists, around the corner from the hotel. His wife, Annie, has joined him for a rare visit: Since the Iraq War began in 2003, she has seen her husband less than 30 days a year. Though it is his and Annie’s 33rd wedding anniversary, McChrystal has invited his inner circle along for dinner and drinks at the “least Gucci” place his staff could find. His wife isn’t surprised. “He once took me to a Jack in the Box when I was dressed in formalwear,” she says with a laugh.

The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. They jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority. After arriving in Kabul last summer, Team America set about changing the culture of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led mission is known. (U.S. soldiers had taken to deriding ISAF as short for “I Suck at Fighting” or “In Sandals and Flip-Flops.”) McChrystal banned alcohol on base, kicked out Burger King and other symbols of American excess, expanded the morning briefing to include thousands of officers and refashioned the command center into a Situational Awareness Room, a free-flowing information hub modeled after Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s offices in New York. He also set a manic pace for his staff, becoming legendary for sleeping four hours a night, running seven miles each morning, and eating one meal a day. (In the month I spend around the general, I witness him eating only once.) It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.

By midnight at Kitty O’Shea’s, much of Team America is completely shitfaced. Two officers do an Irish jig mixed with steps from a traditional Afghan wedding dance, while McChrystal’s top advisers lock arms and sing a slurred song of their own invention. “Afghanistan!” they bellow. “Afghanistan!” They call it their Afghanistan song.

McChrystal steps away from the circle, observing his team. “All these men,” he tells me. “I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.”

Bands of brothers always impress each other with their willingness to engage in seemingly heroic acts of self-sacrifice. They also often allow the power of solidarity to dissolve the strength of individual judgement.

McChrystal may well suffer the affliction of every cult leader: that the mutual psychological reinforcement provided by a closed social system inside which one individual becomes idealized, is that the guru becomes blind to his own failings. In turn these failings become amplified because they engender no social penalty among a circle of uncritical admirers.

President Obama now has a problem. Interestingly, the most useful lifeline he’s been presented comes from the Afghan government which sees McChrystal as an ally. President Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omer says that at this critical juncture “we hope that there is not a change of leadership in the international forces here in Afghanistan.”

If Obama wants to creatively change the subject then he could turn it into an opportunity to implement not merely a structural or strategic adjustment to a war that’s going nowhere. He could initiate a paradigm shift.

Just suppose the war in Afghanistan was approached from a radically new perspective: as though Afghanistan and its people matter.

It’s Afghanistan, stupid — not the war.

Change the subject from the war to Afghanistan and McChrystal is no longer this gigantic figure.

The central issue should be: what will best serve the interests of Afghanistan?

Any American who asks that question should in the very asking, have the humility and intelligence to recognize that, by definition, this is not a question an American can answer. What we can reasonably hope is that if we are ultimately seen as having served this troubled nation’s greater interests, this will also serve our own interests. The key, though, is to abandon the missionary’s conceit: that we know better.

The lesson of a decade of war should be that when it comes to Afghanistan we have learned next to nothing.

As Winston Churchill said: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

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