Celebrity Generals

Let’s consider for a moment the fates of two men who took unique paths in military life and whose careers were once intertwined: Gen. David Petraeus, now our Afghan War commander, and his former subordinate, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our former Afghan War commander before he became the first general since Douglas MacArthur to be axed by a president – in his case, for a Rolling Stone version of “loose lips sink ships” (or administrations). Petraeus, the most political U.S. general in memory, dusted off the failed counterinsurgency doctrine of the Vietnam era, made it bright and shiny again, built fabulous relationships in Congress and in militarized Washington think-tanks, and then rode it all to the heights in Iraq and at U.S. Central Command. Now, in Afghanistan, without the slightest compunction, he’s left his beloved counterinsurgency doctrine in a ditch as conditions on the ground worsen. Instead, he’s called in the firepower and the propaganda, both in double measure. (Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, we’ve finally achieved glorious victory in the godforsaken village of Marjah in southern Afghanistan, where a senior Marine general recently announced that the battle against the Taliban there is “essentially over.” Huzzah!)

Thanks to such a string of dazzling “successes,” Petraeus has scaled the heights of American celebrity. Just the other day, he reached Mount-McKinley-esque elevations (with Everest still ahead) when ABC’s Barbara Walters declared him not just an “American hero” (though that, too), but the Most Fascinating Person of 2010! He topped a list which included Justin Bieber, Sarah Palin, and future British princess Kate Middleton, possibly because he has so much more bling than they do.

McChrystal might not seem such a happy story. Running teams of Special Operations assassins for years from the shadows in Iraq and Afghanistan – hardly the sort of thing likely to lead to American celebrity – he became Afghan War commander under CENTCOM commander Petraeus in 2009. The Taliban, however, seemed to surge faster than his forces did and he was even saddled with responsibility for approving Afghan peace talks with (and “goodwill payments” to) a Taliban impostor. Then, of course, he presided over a group of hard-drinking aides, deeply frustrated by the war they were so unsuccessfully fighting, who mouthed off to that Rolling Stone reporter about the Obama administration, et voilà, he was out on his ear. Open to him, then, it seemed was only the usual grim route for retired generals: a quick trip through that fast-twirling military-industrial revolving door, pension in hand, to a lobbying job at an elevated salary with a defense contractor and maybe even a “senior mentorship” at the Pentagon.

But such a man was not Stanley McChrystal. Pulling himself up by his combat boot straps, he took another path. He started by accepting a post at Yale University teaching a seminar in “leadership”; then, he signed on with a “world class” speaker’s bureau called Leading Authorities, and next thing you know he’s on the talk circuit offering “Four-Star Strategy Lessons” for a fee that can hit $60,000 a pop (plus travel expenses and lodging for three). All right, it’s not all glory like in Marjah. He does, for instance, have to grit his teeth and give the keynote address at the International Sign Association’s Expo 2011. (“While the majority of our educational and networking events are directly related to the sign industry, Gen. McChrystal will offer valuable insight into leadership during difficult times,” says ISA president Lori Anderson enthusiastically.) Nor does he always fill all the seats when he speaks, but this is what sacrifice is all about, right? And his message is surely invaluable. To wit:

“One of the things I learned about communications is you need to keep it very direct, very straightforward, simple, and you need to be repetitive with it. People need to hear a consistency in your message over time. Don’t worry about trying to say something dramatically different every time you talk to people because if they hear the same message enough times it’s actually very reassuring that you are consistent in the direction you’re trying to take the organization.”

Think of Stanley McChrystal, then, as the military version of a self-made celebrity. Next year Barbara Walters?

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.