Riding bus 15 to a 1 o’clock tea appointment, the mind was a whirl with possibilities. I’d been looking forward to this meeting for at least a week. And, even surpassing my expectations, it was none short of divine.
I arrived a few minutes early, and there was Tyler Bel, in a cozy corner by the window, texting, emailing, making calls. Her other appointment was running late – our meetings were going to overlap.
Not a problem. I got comfortable and ordered some lovely white rose tea. I was there to discuss my current film projects. Tyler works for Human Not Hollywood Productions, a new Portland company, “dedicated to creating life changing, fun and creative media projects for TV, Film and the Internet. At HNH [they] strive to create real world projects that focus on the Human aspects of life, rather than what Hollywood thinks we should see.”
I figure my work can be well incorporated with theirs… Tyler agrees. But before we got down to business, I ducked out to wash my hands, returning to find a big, handsome bear of a man, in Army fatigues, sitting at our table.
His name was Arnold Strong.
And he was giddy as a schoolgirl, all wound up for an evening with his all-time hero, retired 4-star General Stan McChrystal. At the Schnitz for the World Affairs Council International Speaker Series, the General was here to enlighten us with his experience in Afghanistan, as well as address some of the bigger controversies of his career.
“Sounds interesting,” I said.
He mentioned he had an extra pass to the VIP reception that would follow McChrystal’s presentation. I cut straight to the chase:
“Soooo are you here to invite Tyler to be your guest?!”
You know me – I TOTALLY wanted to impose! Practically the Queen of party crashing, I was going no matter what. I asked, “Is it open to the public?”
It sure was. After the meeting, I promptly made my way back across town, for a quick wardrobe change and got myself a ticket. The event started at 7.
At 7 sharp, I slipped in, just behind the usher for the orchestra level seating area (who was busy assisting someone else). Scanning the crowd – it was pretty packed – I looked for open seats toward the front.
“They’ll be here late,” said a lady, foiling my first attempt, about five rows back from the podium. I moved on. And that’s when I saw it.
One lonely, empty seat in the front row.
Nabbed it! Got out my notebook, the lights fell, and a woman took the stage. She introduced our speaker for the night, the son and grandson of army officers and, according to Robert Gates, “one of America’s greatest warriors,” General Stanley McChrystal.
He was tall and thin with high cheekbones, but his eyes were not fierce and piercing like the eyes I’d seen in pictures. He seemed…human.
First he thanked us, “people who will take the time to come and think about important things.” He stressed taking into consideration that each of us has a unique and valuable perspective in this world: “What you see as a podium and decorations, I see as cover and camouflage.” This guy was funny!
Having loosened the crowd, we returned to more serious territory. Using a vivid analogy to illustrate what happened when he was at the helm of US forces in Afghanistan, he asked us to imagine a plane crash site… “There are people trying to make sense of the tragedy, enormous feelings of loss and failure, unshakable knowledge that something went wrong.”
It was a case of vertigo, “where an otherwise experienced pilot, makes decisions that are inappropriate for the situation. He essentially drives the plane into the ground.”
Then McChrystal used a real-life example of how things went awry:
There were two tribes, each not far from the other, so we built them a much-needed school, halfway between. But the school was attacked by the villagers.
None of them were going to send their children to school with their enemies. The tribes hated each other! And we didn’t have a clue. This is a case, he said, “where well-intended actions by coalition forces created a new problem…by lack of understanding.” Like in vertigo, the rational actor takes irrational action.
Then, we were warned about risks of oversimplification.
“This is a complex strategic environment,” said the General. It includes “skewed perceptions… and unprecedented wealth and power [wielded by the U.S.] which allows for cultural ignorance.” We also have instantaneous, worldwide communication among groups of people once isolated by geology.
McChrystal told us another story. In August of 1983, a volcano in Krakatowa erupted, resulting in a 100′ tsunami that cost thousands of lives, sending powerful vibrations around the planet. “It circled the Earth seven times.”
Massive events events don’t come without ripples of effect, to an infinite degree. For better or worse, we are connected. Underscoring his main points, McChrystal urged that there are things we need to do to prevent more of this self-induced vertigo:
“Because without them, little is achievable.”
Understanding the environment and how others view it is extraordinarily complex, where often, “what appears irrational normally, is completely rational.”
“We don’t know the basics well enough.”
He described the Golden Age of Afghanistan, from the 50’s to the 70’s. There were even miniskirts, he explained…
Are miniskirts some universal sign of progress?
Then upheaval. There were several coups. A devastating 10-year civil war followed, killing five percent of the total population.
General McChrystal switched characters a bit, channeling some from Rambo and some from Charlie Wilson’s War. He said, “We helped them liberate their country… We could expect some gratitude.”
He said, from our perspective, the job was done. “In 1989, the last Soviet general left Afghanistan, the Berlin Wall was down, we fought and won the decisive battle of the Cold War.”
But, from their perspective, we walked away.
I always say, the brighter side of any point depends merely on the angle from which light is shined. It seems, McChrystal agrees.
“It doesn’t matter who’s right,” he says.
Regardless of which angle you happen to take, in a post 9-11 world, we’re forced to deal with uncertainty and risk rationally.
He said, “We look at track records. Unfortunately in Afghanistan, the societal memory has been damaged badly.” The US track record isn’t looking too good. It’s not that they don’t want our help, they just don’t have a whole lot of faith in our abilities.
Rational people like ourselves, they want to avoid conflict too.
In fact, McChrystal explained, “they take extraordinary measures to do so and are even more concerned about corruption than we are.”
I’ll give it to ’em there – we do tend to turn a blind eye to most of our most costly criminals.
What can we do about it?
The truth is, “most of us have a very limited understanding, yet we’re unavoidably interconnected.”
The General, now teaching at Yale, said emphatically, “We need to build relationships at the personal, regional and international level… Because people are what make things happen in the world. Good or bad, relationships define our lives.”
He described a shared expectation of peaceful change. But a “necessary confidence” on their behalf is required, “which allows us to invest in the future.”
“Counter insurgency is about confidence… The war in Afghanistan is about confidence… Hedging bets… Rational acts… Uncertainty is the tragedy.”
McChrystal continued, “Our rise in power has allowed a certain degree of arrogance…losing innovation when we lose necessity.” He informed us, “our power status was an aberration.” Extreme power provided for a dangerous delusion that we know what’s best.
“Relationships,” he said, “are insurance for when you are in a crisis… sometimes larger than politics… not just relationships between nations.” Also prominently in the mix: informal communities such as the IMF, NGOs and multinational corporations. New media sources (wikileaks, blogs) are another huge factor with, potentially, limitless influence.
“If you get the relationships right,” he said, ” you can solve anything else.”
Concluding, McChrystal repeated our need to both understand the environment and build relationships, because “you can’t do one without the other.” He lamented America’s failing education system, our waning level of competitiveness in the global community.
“The desire to remain ignorant is our biggest threat.”
In the question and answer period that followed, General McChrystal spoke on a variety of topics from Bin Laden, to the vacuum left by the death of Holbrooke, private military contractors’ “potential for mischief”, complexities of farming and the opium trade, and the tragedy of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire. He described the challenges of re-entering society after war, and addressed the most popular rumor about his famous quirks – that he rarely sleeps and eats only one meal a day.
“That’s the stuff of legend,” he said with a laugh. He blamed his wife’s cooking.
On the future, McChrystal says, “We’ve got to get the next generation into politics.” We’ve got to have a national debate on the issues, and their specifics, where even the process in and of itself is informing.
“Get involved… Engagement is the only way.”