McChrystal’s Military Memory

By Anna Meixler

On Wednesday afternoon, General (Ret.) Stan McChrystal gave a Jackson Senior Fellows Lecture in the Sterling Memorial Lecture hall. The speech, titled “History, Leadership, and Personal Experience: From the Post-Vietnam Army to Today,” was open to the public and drew students from both Yale and the US Coast Guard Academy, as well as adults affiliated with Yale and New Haven. Attendees snapped photos of McChrystal who, seeing the large crowd of students forming, invited all to join, saying that there were “more seats up here if you want to be the teacher’s pet!”

General Stanley McChrystal in the Sterling Memorial Lecture Hall.
General Stanley McChrystal in the Sterling Memorial Lecture Hall (Meixler/TYG)

Before teaching a course on leadership and a module in the “Gateway to Global Affairs” class at Yale, McChrystal was the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of United States Forces Afghanistan. Throughout his 34-year US Army career, McChrystal directed elite US military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world.

McChrystal began by detailing his early army experience and showing a photograph of himself from the USMA, which he entered in 1972, inspired by the many soldiers among his family. Though McChrystal joined the military at a time when its integrity and professionalism were badly damaged post-Vietnam War, he found an inspirational leader in his battalion commander. He realized that the most influential of leaders could also be the least conventional. Though his commander defied notions of traditional leadership, he knew how to make his organization work and demonstrably cared about his men. “The standard you demand, the standard you accept, is the standard you’ll get,” he told a young McChrystal.

McChrystal reflected upon his military career chronologically. He spoke of the Gulf War, then about the difficulties in executing counter-terrorist operations in Iraq. When McChrystal took over command in the fall of 2003 against al-Qaeda, he had already become an authoritative leader who didn’t want to change his tactics. But given the opposition under direction of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he was forced to lead with greater flexibility. McChrystal stressed the importance of not seeing one’s enemies as two-dimensional figures, saying that al-Zarqawi possessed manipulative strategies shared by American corporate and political leaders in engendering support. Armed with a nuanced understanding of his adversary, McChrystal and his forces successfully assassinated al-Zarqawi, a man responsible for rampant sectarian violence.

McChrystal was again challenged to adapt his leadership approach in Afghanistan. He worked to expand his Special Units Forces, decentralizing the organization and giving greater decision-making power to his subordinates. “You have to step away from your ego a little bit,” he said. “I did. I didn’t direct things so much as I encouraged things.”

McChrystal spoke of the great responsibility in “partaking in what you read about. You’re never going to feel completely prepared, but you’ll suddenly be there. The things that no one can push are your values; they won’t desert you. They’re the most important things you can leave Yale with.”


The lecture then opened to audience questions. McChrystal articulated his thoughts on the future of the Middle East, US political leadership, women in the military, and his plans to continue teaching at Yale. He compared the military post-Vietnam and in Afghanistan, stressing the need for the public to support its troops. He offered advice to the younger members of his talk, urging students to commit to national service and young officers to listen to and empathize with their troops.

I had the privilege of interviewing McChrystal for The Globalist after the formal question-answer session ended. We spoke about Yale and the many, varied opportunities for leadership it offers its students. McChrystal has advice for all academics reading this. “Here, we celebrate leadership as achievement,” he said. “If you have a high GPA, win awards, and have titles in organizations, people will see you as a leader. But that’s not necessarily true. Leadership is about your relationship to a group of people, and whether or not the group is better because of your work.”

Anna Meixler is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at