“The Gap is Real”: Stan McChrystal Speaks on the Civil-Military Divide

General McChrystal leads a networking workshop with Jackson Institute students. (Photo by Jackson Institute)

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YJIA: According to the U.S. Department of Defense, only half of one percent of officers entering the military last year hailed from the top 20 U.S. colleges and universities—a percentage that is half that of just 20 years ago[I]. Does the size of ROTC programs at schools like Yale worry you?

General McChrystal: I’m not convinced the a lack of top tier university representation in the military indicates a talent recruitment problem; I think it’s more a reflection that people inclined to serve aren’t as attracted to “name” schools. Look at military representation in those same schools’ graduate programs and the military does very well. In that light, it should be as concerning to the schools as to the military. That said, I’ve seen progress at Yale. When I arrived, there was no ROTC, and yet now the growth of the program, acceptance by students, and rise of the veterans group all reflect to me a change in attitudes.

YJIA: Secretary Mattis and Kori Schake recently published a powerful book called Warriors & Citizens: American Views of our Military, a book that highlights the growing differences in experience of general society and military service members in the United States. How concerned are you about the modern civil-military gap and what it means for U.S. national security? As a career military professional, do you see that as a significant problem and, if so, how should it be addressed?

General McChrystal: The gap is real, but manifests itself in peculiar ways. Americans respect service members to an extraordinary degree, but the high regard seems to reflect more an appreciation than true understanding of who the military is, and what they do. That’s unhealthy because a nation’s military must be as true a reflection of its society as possible, or it will not reflect the society’s values. As the gap widens, the risk increases. In nations where this has happened, the military often begins to consider itself independent of society, and the only institution that can protect sacred values – a dangerous dynamic

YJIA: Several countries around the globe have some form of national service as a citizenship requirement. Some have argued that compulsory service would strengthen American government and civil society.[II] Do you think a version of that (not necessarily featuring exclusively military service) is feasible in the United States? What are the obstacles to such an endeavor?

General McChrystal: A program of national service in America is not only possible, but should be considered essential.The fragmentation of our society into groupings of race, income, religion, and other ways we identify ourselves makes the creation of programs that help create common experiences and responsibilities critical.

I chair the leadership council of the Service Year Alliance, which is working to create a broad-based national service system and see progress being made. But in an era where Americans seem to doubt our ability to take on big tasks, it is a heavy lift.

YJIA: Do you think the pattern of light-footprint warfare and increasingly heavy reliance on Special Operations Forces has worsened the civil-military divide?

General McChrystal: Maybe to a limited degree because it creates the perception that military force can be used “surgically,” or “economically.” When using military force—everything from SOF [special operations forces] to precision weapons—is less risky and less costly, it lowers the threshold for action [and] that risks making the road to conflict easier to select. Yet conflicts rarely remain surgical or economical [and] as those conflicts then spiral in costs, resentment in both the military and society arise.

YJIA: Is there any merit to the disparagement of NATO and multilateral institutions from President Trump’s rhetoric? Several years ago, former Defense Secretary Gates foreshadowed the United States’ growing weariness with the alliance.[III] Is NATO still the most relevant tool of international deterrence? Do you think that NATO member states, including the United States, would be willing to go to war with Russia over the Baltic States, for example?

General McChrystal: There is certainly some merit to criticisms of NATO and other such institutions because they are inherently imperfect in both concept and execution. That said, their faults do not reflect their importance, and disparagement risks undermining support for and commitment to them. It’s hard to guarantee that member states would go to war with Russia over the Baltic states, but I believe the calculus of each nation would be based more on their view of the importance of being a part of the Alliance than on their commitment to the Baltic states. This is key because I don’t believe Alliance members should consider each commitment strictly on its direct importance to them. If that had been the case, few NATO members would have supported [the war with] Afghanistan; most deployed forces (at great domestic political risk) because they felt their membership in NATO mattered.

YJIA: Is it a strategic error to cooperate with Russia on counterterrorism and counter-ISIL operations?[IV] Or, as President Trump implies, is terrorism a common enemy that could be a means for rapprochement between two adversarial powers? How could the United States manage the issues such a bargain proposes with regards to rules of engagement, capability disclosure, and political risk of cooperation with Putin’s regime?

General McChrystal: Cooperation with Russia on counterterrorism, or on other issues worldwide is not, in itself, the issue. But nothing happens in isolation and if the cost of such cooperation means allowing Russia to operate with greater freedom (or impunity) in areas like the Crimea, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Syria, then it will prove a strategic misstep. ISIS is a high profile and easily demonized threat, but it pales in comparison to the longer term threat of Russian maneuvers or the increasing fragility of traditional structures in the Mideast.

Engagement with Russia on CT [counter-terrorism] and other operations must for now be transactional in nature, with rigid standards for information sharing and coordination. Neither of those are likely to happen, but accepting too low a standard just to secure some level of Russian participation will likely prove counterproductive.

YJIA: In Crimea and elsewhere in Eurasia, Russia has expertly deployed hybrid war: “a mixture of propaganda, corruption, subversion, espionage, the exploitation of economic and energy dependency, diplomacy and the use of irregular military forces.”[V] Is that “fighting dirty” or simply the face of modern warfare? What lessons should the U.S. military take from Russia’s tactics and strategy?

General McChrystal: It is the face of modern warfare and must be studied with diligence. Adapting to the new and constantly evolving reality demands more than just a mental shift in military leaders. Structures, equipment, doctrine, and training must be transformed – with an eye to continuous transformation. But it is not strictly a military problem, like learning to adapt to new weapons or tactics. It means that policymakers will have to understand that the spectrum of conflict is increasingly blurred and the bright line from diplomacy to conflict has been erased.

About the Interviewee

General (Retired) Stanley A. McChrystal is the co-founder of The McChrystal Group and a Senior Fellow at Yale's Jackson Institute where he teaches a course on leadership. He is the former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces Afghanistan and the former commander of the premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He is best known for developing and implementing the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and for creating a comprehensive counter-terrorism organization that revolutionized the interagency operating culture. He is also the chair of Service Year Alliance, a project of Be The Change and the Aspen Institute, which envisions a future in which a service year is a cultural expectation and common opportunity for every young American.


[I] Barno, David, and Nora Bensahel. “Can the U.S. Military Halt Its Brain Drain?” The Atlantic. 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/us-military-tries-halt-brain-drain/413965/.

[II] Galston, William. 2017. “Compulsory National Service Would Strengthen American Citizenship”. U.S. News And World Report. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2010/10/19/compulsory-national-service-would-strengthen-american-citizenship.

[III] YGvosdev, Nikolas. 2017. “There’s More To NATO Than Article Five”. The National Interest. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/theres-more-nato-article-five-17222.

[IV] Brands, Hal, and Colin Kahl. 2017. “The Strategic Suicide Of Aligning With Russia In Syria”. Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/07/the-strategic-suicide-of-aligning-with-russia-in-syria/.

[V] http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/03/economist-explains-6


Interview by Will Wright

Edited by Rebecca TeKolste and Michael Pizzi


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