Risk: A User’s Guide 
by Stanley McChrystal and Anna Butrico.
Penguin, 343 pp., £20, October 2021, 978 0 241 48192 9
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The origin myth of today’s US special forces is the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. A group of college students had seized the US embassy in Tehran, demanding the extradition of the shah to stand trial in Iran. In an attempt to rescue the 52 US diplomats and military officers in the building, the Pentagon flew Delta Force troops in a C-130 transport aircraft from an island off Oman to the Great Salt Desert near the town of Tabas, where they were to meet helicopters launched from the USS Nimitz in the Arabian Sea. Massive sandstorms incapacitated some of the helicopters and caused one to slam into the C-130 full of soldiers and fuel, destroying both aircraft and killing eight special operators. The mission was aborted.

You might think this a classic instance of imperial overreach. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that the problem had been a lack of co-ordination between the branches of the military. So in 1987 the special operations units of the army, navy and air force were brought together under a unified Special Operations Command. Numbers and budgets soared. And the most elite of the elite – Delta Force, SEAL Team Six – were placed under the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. JSOC operators provided cover for oil tankers operated by US allies in the Gulf and for US installations in Lebanon, sabotaged petroleum facilities in Iran, invaded Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Afghanistan, and were the ‘tip of the spear’ in successive US punishments of Iraq. JSOC has classified budget line items, collects its own intelligence, collaborates closely with CIA paramilitaries, and bypasses Congress and sometimes even the Joint Chiefs when launching operations.

The exact number of US special forces is classified, but there are more today than ever before, and they are deployed in almost every country in the world. The point of covert action, of course, is that we’re supposed to know very little about it. But here the system falls down, since even secret operatives can’t help the occasional boast. After every famous mission – an assassination, a ‘rescue’, a counterinsurgency strike – former special forces members and their ghostwriters unleash floods of torrid prose. The assassination of Osama bin Laden in particular made celebrities of a number of ex-SEALs, including two who claimed to have fired the last bullet into the US’s arch-nemesis. Books like No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL (2012) and Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior (2013) are shot through with anti-establishment ressentiment, bitterness and boatloads of swagger. A special operative can find himself being played by Mark Wahlberg in a big budget movie, as Marcus Luttrell did in the 2013 adaptation of his memoir, Lone Survivor, so secret military actions aren’t something you want to keep quiet about. As one serving SEAL told the Washington Post in 2011, neatly encapsulating the contradiction, ‘we’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen.’

Some special forces memoirs have been so popular they have led to pulp franchises. Richard Marcinko, the first commander of SEAL Team Six, later convicted of defrauding the US government, published his bestselling memoir, Rogue Warrior, in 1992 and followed it with more than a dozen thrillers fictionalising various SEAL missions. Eric Haney’s memoir, Inside Delta Force (2002), which described operations in Iran, Panama and Nicaragua, was heavily criticised by his former comrades for what they said were fabrications – but that didn’t get in the way of his subsequent career as a novelist, screenwriter and TV host, or his cameo in Iron Man 2.

Recently, however, a wave of newly retired special operators from the War on Terror years have specialised in a different genre: the business self-help manual. These former military officers feel that a career spent planning deadly missions and leading men into messy wars makes them uniquely qualified to offer ‘Battle-Tested Strategies for Creating Successful Organisations and Inspiring Extraordinary Results’, as the subtitle of one such manual puts it. Arguably the most successful current practitioner of the genre is the retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal, who has never been shy about using his own achievements to show how a leader gets things done.

McChrystal, who comes from a military family, attended West Point in the 1970s, where he was by all accounts a troublemaker and a roisterer. In interviews and in his writings, he frequently emphasises the role of the failed hostage rescue in Iran in shaping his views on military action. He argues in several of his books that, even though the operation ‘called for a string of miracles’, it should never have been aborted, no matter the possible outcome (probably a bloodbath in Tehran). I was a child at the time, living in Mashhad, three hundred miles north of Tabas. The Islamic Republic broadcast images of the incinerated wreckage of the aircraft on TV and invoked the Elephant (Al-Fil) chapter of the Quran to explain the ‘miraculous’ US defeat. In Al-Fil, an Abyssinian king rides an army of elephants through the desert to conquer Mecca but is defeated when God sends vast flights of swallows to rain pebbles on the elephants.

Galvanised by the spectacle of the Delta Force failure, and with experience as a Green Beret, paratrooper and mechanised commander, McChrystal rose quickly through the ranks. He was deployed for a few months to Afghanistan in 2002 before returning to serve in the office of the Joint Chiefs as the Pentagon’s debriefer to Congress and the press. He went on to command JSOC in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was tasked with the capture first of Saddam Hussein and later of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaida in Iraq. In his time at JSOC, McChrystal brought its fractious army and navy components closer together, better aligned it with the CIA and NSA, and introduced modern methods and information technology into a world that prized what the Bush-era euphemism called ‘kinetic military action’ – i.e. killing – over language skills, local intelligence and analytic capabilities. Whether any actual change resulted from McChrystal’s efforts is doubtful, however, given the number of civilians killed by JSOC and the vast number of Iraqis who turned against the invading forces.

In 2009, by now a general, McChrystal was put in command of Nato forces in Afghanistan. He was soon calling for an increase in US troop numbers to ‘defeat’ the Taliban. A year later, Obama asked him to resign. It didn’t help that McChrystal and his staff – including Mike Flynn, who went on to be Trump’s national security adviser – had made indiscreet comments to a Rolling Stone reporter about the inadequacies of Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke and Obama himself. Despite Flynn’s later contempt for Hillary Clinton – he led the chants of ‘lock her up’ at the Republican National Convention – she was well liked by McChrystal’s aides because she ‘had Stan’s back’. Many in JSOC never forgave the Obama administration for this slight against a commander they adored. McChrystal’s self-mythologising – ten-mile daily runs, single daily meal, beer and bonding sessions with his subordinates – was admired by those in special operations, who had little respect for lesser mortals with four stars on their epaulettes. The regular military, however, did not worship McChrystal, or the rules of engagement he applied in Afghanistan. His preference for deploying small covert teams away from prying eyes clashed with the expansive boots-on-the-ground counterinsurgency operations that could be scrutinised by reporters, Pentagon higher-ups, politicians and Nato allies. McChrystal’s methods weren’t popular with the people of Afghanistan either: civilians were captured and killed, villages and livelihoods destroyed, and the US pursued close relationships with the kleptocrats and warlords who had milked the country dry.

After resigning and retiring from the army, McChrystal was very briefly at a loss. His friend Dave Silverman, one of the aides who had got him in trouble with Obama, suggested that if he wanted to make ‘a boatload of money’ he should ‘go into defence contracting’. Instead they set up McChrystal Group, a management consultancy. In 2013, as the firm was establishing itself, McChrystal published a memoir, My Share of the Task, at once a mea culpa for his political indiscretions and a celebration of what he sees as his transformation of JSOC. Not much in the memoir, which was closely vetted by the Pentagon, would surprise anyone who has followed the work of the many investigative journalists who have succeeded in bringing JSOC’s malfeasances to light. But one detail was new to me: I had heard that there were screenings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon and US overseas bases in 2003, a time when the US military was desperate to learn lessons from past counterinsurgencies, even if they came from a film made by an anticolonial communist. I hadn’t known that this was McChrystal’s idea. He also told his officers to read Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare, a French counterinsurgency handbook designed for use in Algeria and famous for its advocacy of torture.

McChrystal followed his memoir with three business self-help manuals, published at three-year intervals and copyrighted to the firm rather than McChrystal himself – logical enough, since they also function as marketing brochures for the business. The first, Team of Teams (2015), co-authored with Silverman and two other retired SEALs, outlines the reorganisation of JSOC under McChrystal’s command. Since McChrystal and his colleagues believe that ‘business is exactly like war,’ the JSOC experience is presented as a model for corporate restructuring. Presumably because leadership is partly about setting an example, McChrystal’s seminars about his organisational philosophy were said to begin with gruelling calisthenics and CrossFit sessions before dawn for tech industry clients who would later be regaled with stories of the JSOC days.

The next book, Leaders (2018), was co-authored with Jeff Eggers, another former SEAL and a special assistant for national security at the Obama White House. It had a foreword by Walter Isaacson, then head of the Aspen Institute, which receives substantial funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and has been described by the Economist as ‘a cross between a think tank, a celebrity summer camp and a liberal arts college’. Every summer it holds a festival of ideas where the great and the good from governments, universities, corporations and foundations, as well as Hollywood celebrities with intellectual pretensions, come to play. This is the sort of audience Leaders has in mind. The book includes superficial references to Greek and Latin classics and – naturally – to Sparta. Its catalogue of model leaders begins with the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, long idolised by McChrystal as a flawed but brilliant military commander, and moves on through a baffling assortment of characters ranging from Walt Disney and Coco Chanel (‘Founders’) to Martin Luther and Martin Luther King (‘Reformers’) with detours via the exploits of Robespierre and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (‘Zealots’), and Boss Tweed and Margaret Thatcher (‘Power Brokers’).

In 2020 McChrystal Group took aim at an area of business at least as lucrative as defence contracting: public health. The WHO estimated global healthcare spending in 2018 at $8.3 trillion annually, or 10 per cent of global GDP, and Covid has increased the amount significantly. A substantial portion of this is spent in the United States, where per capita health expenditures are the highest in the world. Risk: A User’s Manual is the calling card for McChrystal Group’s attempts to win Covid contracts with municipal and state governments. It begins by trying to account for the federal government’s failure to deal with the pandemic, without ever naming Trump or the Republican politicians who turned it into an anti-Chinese hatefest. It also namechecks ‘a brilliant Yale immunologist’ called Kristina Talbert-Slagle, in fact not an immunologist but a professor of public health, who some years ago co-presented a session with McChrystal at the Brookings Institution on the similarities between counterinsurgencies and immunological responses.

Like his earlier books, Risk stitches together a patchwork of personal vignettes, anecdotes about famous figures and business case studies (some of which are cited in all his books). Some of the juxtapositions between ‘case studies’ are nauseating. In a chapter on ‘diversity’, the Selma civil rights march immediately precedes a celebratory account of the world’s impending annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Martin Luther King’s stern admonishment of the white moderate in his letter from Birmingham jail is sandwiched between the story of Blockbuster losing out to Netflix and an account of deadly night raids into Afghan civilians’ homes in a chapter called ‘Action’.

The US corporate world has long adored ‘how to succeed’ manuals. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People – whose Persian translation I read as a teenager baffled by its universal pretensions – was an advertisement for his corporate training and public speaking business. The wildly successful 1980s autobiography of the automotive executive Lee Iacocca was followed by his business manual, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, which wove together hackneyed advice about the ten ‘C’s that characterise a good leader (one of them – surprise – is ‘common sense’).

But even more enticing than the life lessons of corporate executives are war manuals redeployed as business handbooks. For a time, Sun Tzu’s Art of War was required reading on MBA programmes. But even better than a millennia-old war manual is the wisdom of a charismatic four-star who can quote Marcus Aurelius, spout corporate diversity bromides better than Robin DiAngelo, and tell stories of hunting al-Qaida operatives with some of the toughest motherfuckers on earth. As an unnamed Deutsche Bank executive told the Washington Post, ‘senior management is much more likely to listen to military commanders because they’re cool and they’ve killed people than to a McKinsey guy in a pinstripe suit.’

The business world’s ardour for the generals translates into five-figure speaking fees and lucrative positions on corporate advisory boards. According to the same Washington Post article, McChrystal has made millions from sitting on corporate boards, including that of an engine manufacturer which defrauded the US Marine Corps by selling them armoured vehicles at an inflated price. McChrystal was also invited by General Doug Brown, as the head of Special Operations Command his boss between 2003 and 2007, to join the board of a Virginia-based company called Knowledge International. KI’s uninformative website doesn’t mention that it’s the US arm of a UAE-based firm set up by a former Emirati special operator with close connections to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. The firm exports ‘defence products and services’ to the UAE – one of the services being training by former US military officers. One of them is Stephen Toumajan, who served as a night stalker or special operations pilot under McChrystal in Iraq and headed the Emirates’ Joint Aviation Command when the country was still in coalition with Saudi Arabia, bombarding Yemeni cities.

In Risk, McChrystal writes about his time on the board of the US division of Deutsche Bank: ‘I was able to offer a very different, albeit less experienced, point of view. Although I often felt self-conscious asking “stupid questions”, upon leaving, my fellow board members would send me off saying they valued those very queries.’ While McChrystal’s macho style and stupid questions may have had a certain appeal, it’s possible that he was valued more for his military connections. It’s hard not to be reminded of the fraudulent blood-testing corporation Theranos, whose board included Sam Nunn, a former head of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, the former secretary of state George Schultz, the former secretaries of defence Bill Perry and Jim Mattis, and even Henry Kissinger, none of whom had any knowledge of haematology or phlebotomy, but all of whom could provide a gateway to lucrative Pentagon contracts. Theranos’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, even courted Special Operations Command, but this potential liaison was thwarted by the US Food and Drug Administration, which didn’t think much of her blood-testing machine.

In an acute diagnosis of the power elite in the mid-20th century, the sociologist C. Wright Mills described US military men as ‘the warlords [who] along with fellow travellers and spokesmen, are attempting to plant their metaphysics firmly among the population at large’. Military men and diplomats now serve on the boards of companies whose business they know nothing about, and are given direct access to the training grounds of the captains of industry and politics. The first position McChrystal was offered when his military service ended was at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs at Yale University, where he taught a course on leadership. Yale was a springboard for an executive leadership programme which he offered to businesspeople at a cost of $15,000 for five days, calisthenics included.

Retired military officers and national security officials often find hospitable homes in elite public policy institutions such as Yale’s Jackson Institute, Harvard’s Belfer Centre and Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Junior and mid-career military officers benefit from these institutions too, thanks to generous endowments by captains of industry. Take, for example, the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation fellowship for intelligence officers at Harvard, or the Petraeus-Kaplan-Recanati fellowship for special operators at Yale. They are both endowed by Thomas Kaplan and his wife, Dafna Recanati, and were designed with input from General David Petraeus, the disgraced former head of the CIA. Kaplan made his billions investing in Bolivian silver mines, African gold and platinum and US natural gas. He is the head of Tigris Financial Group and Electrum Group, in which the Emirati and other Gulf sovereign wealth funds have a substantial share. Kaplan and Recanati have a lavish collection of Vermeers, Rembrandts and other Dutch masters, and have funded a nature conservancy research centre at Oxford. At Yale, their fellowship programme now falls under the auspices of the Inter-national Leadership Centre at the Jackson Institute, which was founded by Emma Sky, who served as political adviser to the commanding general of US forces in Iraq, the late Ray Odierno.

In the aftermath of each US imperial war, without even a minimal reckoning like the Church Committee after the Vietnam War, the very people responsible for the wreckage of countries and the killing of millions swan on to the next lucrative assignment. In Iraq and Afghanistan – and Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and Syria and Mali and Niger and many other places – McChrystal’s men were given licence to commit atrocities. They blew down doors and burst into civilians’ houses. They destroyed farms and crops and wells and flattened towns and cities. They shot innocent passers-by, suspicious-looking shepherds, speeding drivers, motorcyclists riding ‘in formation’, journalists carrying cameras that looked like weapons. Their snipers took out random men and women and children. They killed prisoners and amputated their limbs to take as trophies. In search of real and imagined bad guys, the special operators took families hostage and tortured detainees in Camp Nama and Bagram Airbase – anywhere inaccessible to reporters and the Red Cross. Military whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning languished in prison, or died in abjection in care homes, devastated and demeaned like Ian Fishback. And the men who led them went on to be feted in classrooms and boardrooms, to preside over universities, publish bestsellers, collect starry-eyed puff pieces in the business sections of newspapers and star as the dark and brooding heroes of motivational war fiction.

Listen to Laleh Khalili discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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