war on the rocks

Military Command in the 21st Century Through the Eyes of Two Generals

January 22, 2015

David Richards, Taking Command (Headline, 2014)

Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (Penguin, 2013)


David Richards and Stanley McChrystal, who both commanded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, are among the most celebrated living army generals of their respective countries, Britain and America. They also led parallel lives. Both were born in the early 1950s. The sons of Army colonels, they joined up in the early 1970s and served in elite forces: Richards with the Commandos, McChrystal with the Rangers. They retired in 2013 and 2010 respectively, although McChrystal left the Army under controversial circumstances.

Their memoirs provide some useful insights into the post-1970s evolution of the British and American armed forces during and after the Cold War, the professional life of an officer, and the 9/11 campaigns. Their main interest, however, lies in what they say about command; these twin works can be read together as a treatise on military command in the 21st century. Military command has become an emotive subject in the last decade, as British and American generals seem to have failed in their duty to advise their political masters and to plan and execute coherent campaigns. Tom Ricks has been a prominent critic here, exposing the failures of modern U.S. commanders in contrast to the putative ideal of the Second World War. In the United Kingdom, the crisis of command has engendered ferocious debate. It is widely accepted that British strategic and operational command failed in the last decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Richards and McChrystal do not seek to provide remedies to these problems. However, as experienced generals who were centrally involved in numerous post-Cold War campaigns, including Iraq and Afghanistan, they provide an insight into how military command has evolved and what skills and qualities military commanders of the 21st century have to display if they are likely to be successful. Specifically, while Richards describes how theater commanders should conceive and design their campaigns, McChrystal dissects how they should execute them.

As the title suggests, command is the central theme of Richards’ book, but the issue (and Richards’ politico-military adeptness) emerge obliquely, accidentally and ultimately quite comically. Richards was always a talented officer and, as his descriptions of Cold War exercises on the north German plain in the 1980s demonstrate, he thoroughly grasped the conventional principles of war. Yet, early in his career, something more was at work. He began to show an ability to manipulate the command hierarchy, exploiting oversights, gaps and ambiguities by and between his superiors in which he could maneuver.

In the late 1980s, Richards was appointed as the brigade major (chief of staff) of the British Brigade in Berlin. His duties involved overseeing the custody of Rudolf Hess who was to die during his tour. However, the most instructive event was apparently the most trivial. The English actress Joan Collins, at the height of her fame, was visiting Berlin. Richards volunteered the freelance services of himself and some colleagues as bodyguards. The discovery of his ruse caused a major argument between his brigade commander and the British commander in Berlin, Major General Patrick Powell, who was furious about the subvention of military protocol. Richards was only able to escape sanction because, in a moment of genius, he had already offered to donate his team’s substantial bodyguarding fee to an army welfare fund, organized by his brigadier. His brigade commander summarized the event: “Ummm, yes…sailing close to the wind, David, but it’s a very good cause.” The judgment might be an epitaph to Richards’ entire career.

In every subsequent command, the pattern was repeated. Richards had an unerring instinct for what should and could be done – whether it was escorting celebrities or, more often, something more consequential to his country’s interests. He would then use his charm and political guile to outmaneuver his opponents and to ensure he had just enough resources and legitimacy to achieve his aims. In 1999-2000 in Sierre Leone, under the excuse of a non-combatant evacuation operation, he defeated the Revolutionary United Front and stabilized the Kabbah Regime: “It has been said that my decision to ignore my orders from London and intervene militarily in the civil war – which is what happened over the next days and weeks – was cavalier. It wasn’t. It was the result of hard-nosed analysis”

Most famously, as ISAF commander from 2006 to 2007, he was accused of grossly exceeding his formal authority as a NATO tactical commander. He orchestrated governmental reform with his creation of the Policy Action Group (PAG), a civil-military executive nominally under the authority of President Hamid Karzai, while engaging in diplomatic activities which were ultimately under ambassadorial jurisdiction. Reflecting Richards’ political influence the acronym PAG was changed among staff officers to mean ”please ask the general,” and Richards incurred the ire of many of his superiors; “It is quite clear that people are increasingly aware of my influence over K (Karzai) and are intrigued by it. I need to keep a low profile or all the usual rivalries will kick in to undermine my aims.” On his handover, the Italian ambassador summarized his performance, pondering whether Richards was “a hugely talented politician masquerading as a soldier,” or “a hugely talented soldier masquerading as a politician.” Whatever the case, his innovations responded to a clear operational need and contributed to the development of the campaign. It is possible to argue that the desuetude of the Policy Action Group after Richards’ departure explains many of the operational and strategic disappointments which have beset this sad campaign.

It is interesting to note that Richards’ successes always relied on a highly competent and fiercely loyal staff, which was able to realize Richards’’ political ambitions. In Sierra Leone, for instance, his planners reminded him that “we did not have orders for what I was proposing.” Nevertheless, despite the risks to their careers, they were willing to support Richards: “Their loyalty was vital to the success of what we did, and stiffened my resolve.” The same was true in Afghanistan.

In personality terms, Stanley McChrystal is a quite different character to David Richards; a difference which is communicated clearly even in the titles of two books. McChrystal is less flamboyant and extroverted. He is humble and modest, qualities which were decisive to his success as a commander.

McChrystal was, of course, at the very heart of this process – appointed to command Joint Special Operations Command in 2003 and eventually leaving his post after the end of the campaign in 2008. He explicitly stated that his participation in the campaign would end only when the mission was complete. His dedication contrasts quite notably with other NATO commanders apparently also committed to the same campaigns, including one British general who took a ski vacation while commanding his forces . McChrystal was different: “We’re not here to fight; we’re here to win.”

When McChrystal took command of this nascent headquarters, he confronted two fundamental challenges. Firstly, the intelligence cycle was too slow. Information gleaned from tactical operations could not be harvested and analyzed quickly enough by the headquarters to target Al Qaeda fighters; the intelligence was out of date before missions could be executed. Secondly, in order for the Special Forces to be effective in their counter-terrorist mission they required the cooperation and assistance of a multiplicity of other agencies. This challenged the institutional culture of special operations forces. U.S. special operations forces, and above all Delta Force, at the center of the fight in Iraq, operated on the basis of secrecy and independence. Yet, in Iraq, McChrystal recognized “the secrecy and compartmentalized traditions of special operations forces, particularly TF 714 (a U.S. Special Operations Forces Unit, mainly consisting of Delta Force), would doom us.” Confronting Zarqawi’s network, and invoking the decentralized traditions of Nelson, McChrystal sought to build his own network: “I saw no other organization weaving the kind of web that was needed.”

In order to spin this web, McChrystal instituted two changes. He reformed the structure of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) headquarters to maximize the “flow of people and information.” He explains, “Rather than divide the interior into a honeycomb of offices, we congregated all of TF16 (the higher-level U.S. special operations task force) in the middle of the hangar.” He continues, “Everything could be discussed on the open floor, so secrecy was no excuse for not co-operating with the rest of the team.” Decisive here was the re-organization of the Situational Awareness Room (SAR). McChrystal organized himself and his staff around two concentric horseshoes facing the operating screens, but the open layout allowed for people to come in and out of the room: “The SAR reflected how my command style and command team were evolving. As I stressed transparency and inclusion, I shared everything with the team sitting around the horseshoe and beyond.” McChrystal has since replicated the SAR in his new headquarters, McChrystal Group, a leadership and management firm he runs in Alexandria, Virginia.

Yet, McChrystal realized that his special operations network relied finally on neither technology nor geography, but on the human factor. Slow intelligence cycles were the product of a “lack of trust among participants.” He writes, “The greatest chance for improvement lay in how people felt about their involvement. Everyone needed to trust their counterparts.” JSOC’s tactical success relied on the creation of an operational community of disparate actors and agencies.

As the commander, McChrystal, like Richards, played a critical role here:

Much of my and my command team’s time was spent solidifying partnerships with the half dozen agencies involved in a single cycle of F3EA (Find-fix-finish-exploit-analyze).

In order to achieve this McChrystal developed a distinctive command style. At the very beginning of the book, McChrystal documents the inspiration which famous American generals, like Samuel Grant or Matt Ridgway, had provided him. Yet, his style of leadership assumed a quite different form from the self-promotional bombast which typified many of America’s most successful generals, especially in the Second World War. McChrystal recognized that self-presentation was essential. Because of the multiplicity of agencies with which he was working and their geographical distribution, the video-teleconference became a central apparatus of command. In stark contrast to the histrionic leadership sometimes favored in the 20th century by generals like Patton or Montgomery who affected exotic warrior attire like ivory-handed pistols or bomber jackets, McChrystal sought to encourage by a calm and clinical approach. The very fact that McChrystal had never been in Delta Force may have assisted him here: He did not have any of the arrogance and aloofness sometimes attributed to this elite force’s operators. He recognized he had to earn his credibility as a leader, never assuming it. He was careful to visit his forces, especially when they had suffered losses, to explain his strategy in order to alleviate their pain. He would finish every conference with the words: “Do your job. People’s lives are on the line. Thanks, as always, for all you are doing.”

Richards and McChrystal lay out a manifesto of what military command in the 21st century looks like and should be. In the 21st century, generals will rarely enjoy the luxury of being given clear political guidance. Commanders on the ground must begin to develop strategies which are achievable and broadly reflect policy, but which are likely to be retrospectively confirmed by political masters. In order to prosecute campaigns successfully, commanders then have to persuade, negotiate and cajole; they have to build and coordinate a civil-military network. The modern general is not so much a warrior, as a politico-military bricoleur, orchestrator and facilitator. McChrystal and Richards are very different characters, reflected in the tone and style of their books, but they provide an insight into the changing nature of military command in the 21st century. They are the true heirs of their illustrious predecessors like Matt Ridgway or Bernard Montgomery, precisely because they are nothing like them. War has changed, so have generals – or at least successful ones.


Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. His most recent publications are The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: from the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press) and The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new book, Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press) is out next year. He is currently working on the evolution of the divisional headquarters from the First World War to the present. He has been a mentor and adviser to the armed forces for a number of years, working in the Prism Cell of ISAF’s Regional Command (South) in 2009-10.


Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defense / isafmedia