There’s one moment in the Rolling Stone article that led to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal on Thursday that truly concerned me — and it’s not one of the reproachful comments about administration officials that have been clucked over by pundits and politicians. No, what stood out for me was the scene in which General McChrystal points to the members of his staff and says: “All these men, I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.”
General McChrystal got it entirely backward: generals definitely don’t die for their soldiers, and soldiers don’t die for generals. They die because generals order them into battle to accomplish a mission, and some are killed carrying out those orders. General McChrystal’s statement is that of a man who is sentimental about his job, and who has confused sentimentality with command.
For too long, the Army has been led by sentimental men, by peacocks in starched fatigues and strutting ascetics surrounded by public relations teams. But the Army doesn’t need sentimental generals; it needs generals who can give the kind of difficult and deadly orders that win wars.
I’ll tell you how I know this. In 1967, when I was a cadet at West Point, I met entirely by chance the journalist Will Lang, who had written a Life magazine cover story about my grandfather, Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr., during World War II. Grandpa didn’t like having a gaggle of correspondents following him around, because you had to feed them and house them and otherwise take care of their needs, including giving them interviews, and that took away from the mission, which he described in his memoirs as killing German soldiers. But the Army wanted him on the cover of Life, so he allowed Will Lang to follow him around while he commanded the VI Corps in its invasion of southeastern France in 1944.
After more than a few drinks that night, Will Lang told me a story. Grandpa had once allowed him to attend his early morning meeting with his division commanders; Lang watched, a little bewildered, as Grandpa moved pins on a map and ordered his commanders to advance up this road or take this town or destroy that German brigade. When the commanders eventually left, Lang and Grandpa sat down to breakfast at a field table just outside his command trailer. Lang proceeded to ask Grandpa a series of questions about what, precisely, had gone on in that meeting.
Grandpa apparently grew frustrated with these questions, so he grabbed Lang by the arm and hauled him back into the trailer. He pointed to a pin on the map and asked Lang if he knew what it meant when he moved that pin an inch or two forward. Lang admitted that he didn’t. “It means by nine o’clock, 25 of my men will be dead, and a few hours later, 25 more of them will die, and more of them will die until that unit accomplishes the mission I gave them,” Grandpa said. “That’s what it means.”
Then Grandpa led Lang back to the table and they finished their breakfast.
After more than 30 years of nearly continuous war, every Afghan — whether Taliban or friendly — knows the lesson that Grandpa taught Lang that day. Unless we put generals in command who aren’t sentimental, generals who are willing and able to give the deadly serious orders to accomplish the mission they are given, who know that men die for a cause and not for them, we will get no respect from friend or foe in Afghanistan, and we may as well pack up our stuff and go home.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a journalist and the author of Dress Gray.