Friday, May 20, 2011

General Stanley McChrystal

It's not often that I get the chance to have a casual conversation with a four-star general, but it happened to me last night.

I have been attending the Global Transportation Conference here in Boston put together by Merrill Lynch's excellent transportation analyst Ken Hoexter for the last couple of days.

The conference featured presentations by a number of leading transportation (railroad, air freight, etc.) companies. It's a great way for me to get the chance to hear a number of leading companies in a fairly efficient fashion.

As part of the conference, Merrill hosted a dinner last night that featured General Stanley McChrystal as the after-dinner speaker.

You might remember General McChrystal: he was head of the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan until about a year ago.

Then, last April, he made some ill-considered remarks about several senior people in the Obama administration in a magazine article. In the ensuing uproar, the General was recalled to Washington and then tendered his resignation.

It was a fairly inglorious end to a spectacular career in the military. General McChrystal played a lead role in numerous military conflicts over the past three decades, and also was an important part of the fight against terrorism. By all accounts, he is a very smart man.

Since he left the military he has been teaching a course at Yale. He also has started a consulting company featuring other retired military commanders which works with businesses large and small in addressing management issues.

He also is on the board of several corporations, including the airline jetBlue, which is why he was at the conference last night.

Now to my brush with fame.

Before the dinner started Merrill had a small cocktail hour for the participants at the conference. I really didn't know too many other people, so I was introducing myself to another attendee when I turned around and found myself face-to-face with General McChrystal.

Contrary to his reputation, the General could not have been nicer and more gracious. Since he had just arrived, I had the chance to talk to him for a few minutes.

(To say that others were envious would be an understatement.)

One of the most interesting comments he made concerned the types of meetings he had when he was head of US operations in Afghanistan.

Unlike what I imagined, the General said the meetings were very open, and no one felt constrained to offer their opinion even to the point of being argumentative.

Oh, really, I said? Even to a four-star General?

With a smile, General McChrystal said "Especially to a general!"

He went on to explain.

Today's US military is made of professional soldiers. Not only have they been involved in numerous deployments in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but they also have spent a good part of their adult lives learning and training about how to battle the enemy throughout the world.

Moreover, unlike in previous generations, most of our military are older, and many have families in the United States. It's one thing, the General explained, to order an 18 year-old recruit to execute an order to attack. It's another to tell a 38 year-old soldier who might have a family stateside to put themselves in harm's way just because an officer thinks it's good idea.

General McChrystal cited the recent incredible raid by Navy SEALS to finally execute Bin Laden.

"I'll bet you anything," the General said, "that every one of those SEALS helped plan that raid. It was too risky, and they're too highly trained, not to get those men involved. And given that the success of the mission depended on their execution, you have to know that they were involved almost from the beginning."

I came away from our discussion not only impressed with General McChrystal but also with a much greater awareness of how much changes in society have influenced virtually every part of American society, including the military.

As he noted, General Eisenhower could simply tell his subordinates to execute his orders, and get on with his day. Today's military commanders have to constantly work at communication, and in making sure that everyone in his command is "on board" with the decisions that are being made.

I should add that his after-dinner remarks were excellent, and well worth a listen.