It's the war, stupid

Following the tidal wave of media buzz over General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone, you quickly notice the story succumbing to the gravity of our media-circus culture, to the point it has become a story about celebrity and score keeping.

Would Obama fire McChrystal? How will the scandal tarnish the various individuals mentioned: US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke National Security Advisor James Jones? Who will come out on top of the heap and who will be banished into oblivion?

The real, existential questions about the war in Afghanistan that should be discussed in our highest public forums are somehow always lost in the excitement of watching careers on the high wire.

 From left, General Petraeus, Admiral Mike Mullen, Robert Gates, Joe Biden, President Obama and James JonesTeam Obama: From left, General Petraeus, Admiral Mike Mullen, Robert Gates, Joe Biden, President Obama and James Jones

All modern scandals, some renowned person has said, can be reduced to someone blurting out the truth. That describes this Olympian dust-up perfectly. But what might have been a fantastic opportunity to dig deeper into the truths revealed has apparently been lost.

Immediately after the Rose Garden announcement that McChrystal was out and Petraeus was in, NBC’s Brian Williams was grinning uncontrollably and referring to Petraeus as “a modern day Omar Bradley,” the beloved “soldiers’ general” from WWII.

Instead of fostering a discussion of a war that is bankrupting an economically strapped nation, the major media fell right in line and trumpeted what a brilliant personnel maneuver Obama had made.

It was a slam-dunk in cutting off at the pass any discussion of the war itself. “The runaway general” was sent packing and the man who wrote the book on counterinsurgency was technically demoted from his CENTCOM leadership role to command the war zone in Afghanistan, a growing black hole that supercedes even the command of the entire region.

The real tale, as Hastings concludes in Rolling Stone — that “…counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war” – was brilliantly overtaken by a new question: Can General Petraeus save the war?

The sociopath general

Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are very different animals, to borrow the metaphor McChrystal used for Richard Holbrooke, who he called a dangerous “wounded animal.” Petraeus is a military man who, in the manner of the character Peter Falk played in Colombo, comes off as a mild professor, which he is not. McChrystal is, arguably, more of a sociopath.

Of course, the obvious objections to this kind of characterization are not without merit. Who do I think I am, Sigmund Freud? Still, the article raises some interesting questions in this vein.

Writers and journalists regularly now fling around the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the context of our military and wars, so why can’t we open the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and look at the condition known as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) and consider how it might apply to the US military and its current mission in the world.

“The hero and the psychopath may be twigs of the same generic branch,” writes David Lykken in The Antisocial Personalities. He sees what he calls the “fear quotient” as critical in the formation of sociopaths. In some cases this leads to “the kind of person one would like to have on hand when stress and danger threaten.”

Lykken distinguishes between a psychopath, a condition he feels is a factor of nature and brain make-up, and a sociopath, a personality he attributes to nurture and the socialization process.

“Much of the normal socialization process depends on punishment of antisocial behavior,” he says. “…someone who is relatively fearless will be relatively harder to socialize,” leading to antisocial behavior.

According to the DSM, one can qualify as a sociopath if three of the following criteria are exhibited:

1) Aggression toward people
2) Destruction of property
3) Deceitfulness
4) Serious violations of rules

A soldier in combat, of course, has to be aggressive and has to destroy property. Again, hero and sociopath, twigs of the same branch. As for deceitfulness and an antipathy for rules, again, it often depends on whose ox is gored as to whether it is seen as good or bad behavior.

The question that interests me is: Can the US military and its unique counterinsurgency mission in 2010 be seen as a protective haven — even a nurturing culture — for people with Antisocial Personality Disorder? In other words, is the sociopathic personality inclined to rise in our military ranks at this time, given the skill set a mission like Afghanistan requires?

Specifically, given General McChrystal’s history and his risk-courting candor in the Rolling Stone article, is his rise and fall an example of this?

According to Donald Black in Bad Boys, Bad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder, for individuals raised in poverty and in relatively powerless environments, the elements of antisocial behavior generally manifest themselves as criminal behavior, thus setting an individual on a precarious life of predation and prison. This is the common view of the sociopath, an often charming criminal unburdened with a conscience — a con man or a killer.

“On the other hand,” Black writes, “an antisocial born into wealth may inherit the means to disguise his disorder.” Logically, this also would apply to individuals born into realms of power.

In McChrystal’s case, he’s the son of a major general who fought in Korea and Vietnam. He goes on to West Point himself, where he stands out as “a ringleader of campus dissidents.” He is honorifically called “the century man,” because he accumulates 100 demerits for partying and insubordination. While he is protected in the cocoon of his elite social status, he constantly pushes the envelope and is a major risk-taker. He develops an incredible personal discipline.

His whole career seems to follow this path, a sort of human dialectic, if you will, between cozy, established power and crossing the lines of decorum and political correctness, always seemingly ready to risk it all.

The McChrystal star rises

McChrystal’s first big job as a one-star was as the Pentagon spokesman for the invasion of Iraq. He did stand-up flak work for Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” line and Bush’s “mission accomplished” fiasco. He was the slick face up front making it all sound good for the press and the American people.

Certainly a streak of “deceitfulness” would pay off in such a role. It got him his second star.

General Stanley McChrystal arriving at the White HouseGeneral Stanley McChrystal arriving at the White House

He moved on to command the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), basically Dick Cheney’s “the dark side.” He was a master at keeping dirty operations secret. He flagrantly lied in the Pat Tillman affair, a football hero killed in Afghanistan either accidentally by friendly fire or murdered, as some suggest, possibly because of anti-war sentiments. Tillman’s diaries were burned.

“In our society, money and status can effectively disguise ugly and destructive behaviors,” writes Dr. Black. Sociopaths, he says, can be “adept at telling complex lies … (and) using deceit to cover up bad behavior or to gain rewards. … Many are able to craft an elaborate system of lies in pursuit of their aims or in an effort to escape responsibility.”

Thanks to his performance managing the special ops units in Iraq, he earned a third star. He had an incredible talent for secrecy and assuring unaccountability when it came to torture and killing. “JSOC was a killing machine,” is how Major General Bill Mayville described the McChrystal operation in Iraq.

Well-connected journalists like Bob Woodward kept it all under a shroud of mystery. They called it a “secret weapon.” It was also less flatteringly referred to as “the Salvadoran option” after the death squads in that Central American nation in the 1980s.

It is true there were highly publicized stories of effective and honorable interrogations under his special operations command, all of them no doubt true. No one is saying the whole enterprise and everyone in it was rotten.

What’s disturbing is the fact McChrystal bragged to his teams at Camp NAMA (Nasty Ass Military Area) that the Red Cross would never visit their compound, which it never did, despite a number of accusations of torture.

Special Ops soldiers at Camp NAMA wore civilian clothes with no rank and used assumed names, so that no one really knew who they were working with. To keep outsiders confused, the name of the task force would change arbitrarily from Task Force 45 to Task Force 112.

At one point, recounted in an Esquire article, an investigator tried to follow up on charges of torture but could get nowhere due to these subterfuges, which in a way mock the cellular structures of guerrilla operations. In this case, they are employed to avoid accountability.

General McChrystal ran what amounted to a very sophisticated, modernized Phoenix Program, the assassination program in Vietnam that has been widely discredited. This falls in with the new counterinsurgency doctrine, which Hastings points out, “bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory,” specifically the torture-friendly French war in Algeria and the US debacle in Vietnam.

Because it was deemed so successful, McChrystal was awarded his fourth star and assigned to establish a much larger operation on the Iraq JSOC model in Afghanistan — all based on the pivotal Petraeus notion of the “irreconcilable.” That is, Afghans reconciled to US and NATO intervention receive development goodies and those not reconciled are targeted for killing.

His confirmation hearing before Congress was a joke. He was whisked through it as if his plane for Kabul was warming up at Andrews AFB and there was no time for questions.

One irony about General McChrystal is that he was never awarded a Combat Infantry Badge, the coveted indicator that the bearer has been in a serious firefight somewhere. Instead he wears the Expert Infantry Badge, which is awarded based on a test of infantry skills.

From what he wears on his chest and published lists of his awards, this incredibly Spartan soldier and leader of teams of killers has apparently never actually been in combat.

The McChrystal star falls

Apparently the general assured Michael Hastings he was OK with the things Hastings was overhearing in the days the Rolling Stone writer hung out with the McChrystal entourage. In what sounds like classic sociopath style, his attitude seems to have been “fuck it!” Let’s shake things up, he reportedly told Hastings.

You have to wonder whether his frustrations as an incredibly disciplined and even ascetic warrior (he likes Bruce Lee quotes) made to operate within absurd bureaucratic rules set by civilians he clearly didn’t respect sent him to the edge.

Here’s a four-star general who Hastings reports will go out on a dangerous patrol at the request of an infantry staff sergeant who writes him to complain about rules that make our soldiers, to borrow the term from the Vietnam War, fight “with one arm tied behind their back.”

Maybe the guy was just compelled to bring it all to a head. Maybe in some strange way, he had had enough. Certainly, it’s not hard to grasp how a soldier could be exasperated with Team Obama as they establish the rules for fighting the war in Afghanistan. Whether the President’s goal of “unity” is possible among these folks over such a disastrous war is a big question.

At some point the fundamentals of the war in Afghanistan will press themselves on the minds of the American people. Avoidance by celebrity can only go so far, and as Petraeus’ fainting performance when grilled in a Senate hearing exhibited, it isn’t going to be easy.

Counterinsurgency expert William Polk’s dictum that all counterinsurgency wars must by their very nature devolve into indiscriminate killing will always haunt the Petraeus project.

Retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken West Point classmate of McChrystal, has become a major critic of counterinsurgency.

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” he says.

In a power point presentation he has given at West Point, he points out:

“The United States cannot afford to maintain general purpose forces large enough to conquer, occupy and transform other peoples’ societies into reflections of our own.”

That is the conundrum General Petraeus will wrestle with in Afghanistan and answer for once his media honeymoon is over.

Hopefully, Obama’s Rose Garden tough talk about “breaking the Taliban” and “building up Afghan capacity” was just Washington doublespeak and, in reality, Petraeus has been installed to facilitate the removal of US troops from Afghanistan.

We can still hope.