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I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today on this bonus episode of Burn the Boats, I’m talking to General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan and the former leader of the Joint Special Operations Command. A year and a half ago, Gen. McChrystal wrote an op-ed in the Atlantic titled “At 63, I Threw Away My Prized Portrait of Robert E. Lee.”
In this national moment when so many Confederate symbols and statues of slaveholders and racists are rightfully coming down, I wanted to hear Gen. McChrystal’s perspective. He starts by telling me the story of this prized painting of Robert E Lee, originally gifted to him by his wife Annie.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal: Essentially what happened in the spring of 2017, I had a picture in my study at my office at home in Alexandria, Virginia of Robert E. Lee. Now it was an inexpensive picture, it was really a print of a famous painting of Robert E. Lee then painted over with clear acrylic to look like a painting and then it was in a frame and Annie had bought it for me 40 years before when I was a Second Lieutenant because she knew I admired Robert E. Lee.
And for all of those years in every military quarters we ever lived in places, it always hung in a place of pride. And I loved it because I admired Robert E. Lee. And I also liked when people came to the house and they saw the picture because I thought it communicated, this was the kind of values of someone that I admire. And then in the spring of 2017 Annie came to me and she goes, "I think you ought to take down the picture of Robert E. Lee." My first response was "I can't take it down, honey, you gave it to me and it's got this deep sentimental meaning to me." And she says, "I give you approval to take it down." And I said, "Why?" And she says, "Because for many people it will symbolize racist ideas that you don't have." She says, "I know you, but when people come to our home and they see that, they may think that you are signaling that you believe in things that you don't believe in."
And to be honest, I said, "No, honey, he was just a leader, he was a West Pointer." I mean, and the reality is Robert E. Lee and I go way back. I grew up pretty close to where he did. I now live about 75 feet from his boyhood home, I went to Washington and Lee High School, my brother went to Washington and Lee University. When I went to college, I went to the same place where Robert E. Lee did, took the same oath that he did on the plane at West Point. Served in the army, the same army he did for 32 years. Lived in Lee Barracks. And the entire time I was there, I admired him, I admired other leaders, but Lee was special. And so for me, he had this separate place of almost sacred level of leadership. But I went through about a month of wrestling with what Annie had said. And then finally on a Sunday morning, I got up one day, came into my office, took the painting down, took it out to our backyard, threw it in the garbage and they took it away the next day.
KH: You have written that, mythology overpowers reason. And if you'll indulge me, I want to read an entire paragraph from the op-ed in which you describe the decision and what led up to it to throw away this portrait.
"A mythology grew around Lee and the cause he served. For many, Lee’s qualities and accomplishments already impressive gained god-like proportions. This was the Lee I first came to know, a leader whose flaws and failures were sanded off. The very human figure recast as a two dimensional hero whose shadow had eclipsed the man from whom it came.”
I think this applies to a lot of the statutes that are being fought over today. They were erected as political statements, in some cases many decades after the conflict itself with not necessarily benign intentions. How did this mythology evolve? I'm asking you not just the General who threw away the picture of Robert E. Lee, but as a Virginian. And now as a fellow at Yale Law School, someone with a real appreciation of the depth of feeling this history holds.
SM: Yeah. With the loss of the Civil War, the South had to come to grips with it. John Morgan Bright, my great-great-grandfather, a Confederate Brigadier General, was elected back into Congress and did a lot of speaking and things for the rest of his life. To include opposing the Ku Klux Klan, but the reality was they created a mythology, which is now known as The Lost Cause. And what that came to represent was the narrative said that the war was not about slavery, the war was actually about a way of life and state's rights, it was about freedom, independence. And that the reason the South lost the war is because they were outnumbered and they were out-industrialized and these heroic leaders went and fought the bravest fight you could and just got overwhelmed by the North. And so that really made the South feel better about - the white South - feel better on a couple of ways.
It says first, "We weren't bad, we weren't really fighting for slavery, we were fighting for the idea of freedom." And it also said, "We're not losers because we couldn't win because we got overwhelmed." Well, the reality was they were fighting for slavery and they did lose. Now they got overwhelmed to a degree, but even many of the military bases that we named for Southern generals many years after the Civil War, were Southern generals who didn't have a very good won-loss record. So they weren't big military heroes, but they were members of this cause and nobody was exalted higher than Robert E. Lee. You have Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stewart and others who were put right up there. And the fact that they were killed in combat probably helped their mythology, but nobody was put as high on the pedestal as Robert E. Lee. And he became a symbol for everything the South wanted to be true and unfortunately, Robert E. Lee gets used in that way.
In my own personal estimation, everybody kind of comes to grips with this, is Robert E. Lee wasn't that, he certainly wasn't this mythological superman and he wasn't an icon of perfect values, because he fought to destroy the United States. He committed treason and he did it to maintain slavery. There's no way I can forgive that, but I can understand that if you are part of that society and you feel absolutely committed to your state, and then when the Confederacy is formed to sort of your part of the country, how it would be pretty hard not to support what everybody else is and what your kind are doing. And so I don't give them a bye on it, but I understand it, I believe I understand it.
I think he was a good man. I think he thought he was a good man. I think till the day he died, he believed that he'd followed values and honor that he had been raised to believe deeply in. But I also believe he got it wrong. I believe he got his Plutarchian moment to go one way or go another way and he got it wrong. And what we have to do now is come to grips with the fact that not everybody who fought for the South were bad people, not everybody who fought for the South were just desperate to keep African Americans in slavery. Many of them hadn't thought about it that much. But they were still wrong and so we've got to be very careful, we can't celebrate the cause because then we risk celebrating that which they fought for. And that's where I think we've got to be very careful about, that's what we've got to understand. At the same time, we got to understand that they were people, they made mistakes, just like you and I, we all make mistakes. If we're waiting around for the perfect person, we're going to keep waiting for a while. And so I think we shouldn't be so self-righteously judgmental about their personal failing as we should about the idea that saying, we know what right and wrong is, and we've got to try to reflect that in our society.
KH: And I take it that certain depictions of these men - and they're all men at this point - do equate to celebrating the cause when you have a statue in a place of honor or a military base named after an avowed traitor, that that needs to be addressed.
SM: Yeah, I mean, how do we not? You just have to step back and say, "No, wait a minute, they were fighting against the United States of America." And so I think it's difficult to name a United States Army or Navy or Air Force base after them. I think that was done to assuage Southern feelings at the time when we were establishing a lot of bases after really were about the time of the First World War. And I don't think people thought that much about it, to be honest. But clearly I think it's overdue time to change.
KH: You have addressed the internal conflict you imagine Robert E. Lee wrestled with, and he openly wrote about it. In your piece, you talked about the dilemma he must have faced upon deciding which way to go and that his, and I'll quote here, "His immediate challenge was to lead and to carefully manage a mass of officers and soldiers who are individually challenged to choose between loyalty to their state, their nation, and the new Confederacy that might arise. Outside events threatened to rupture long-held loyalties."
I'd like to inject that observation into the current moment. Do you think we are seeing even an inkling of that in our modern military, this conflict of loyalties? When you look at that march through Lafayette Square, to the steps of St. John's Episcopal Church with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in battle dress uniform, when you read the subsequent letter that had to be sent to every combatant commander and service chief, reminding them of where their loyalty should lie. Are you connecting a thread between these two experiences?
SM: Yeah, It's a great question, Ken. I am, but I don't want to over-correct it yet. I think generally the military is pretty clear on where their loyalty lies. I do think that in today's environment, there is more politicization of individuals, meaning more people think about politics and they think about whether they are a conservative or a liberal or however they paint themselves.
When I was in the service, I never knew whether my peers were Democrats, Republicans. We never talked about it, it just was not considered appropriate, so we didn't. I think now there's more tribalism that's arisen, part of that is we've got a new media environment. There's an awful lot of this constant chatter, particularly on social media. So the danger is people who happen to be in the military are also self-identifying in one or other or any number of the spectrum of causes. I think that's bad. Because if you think about militaries that try to bring together multiple tribes, you go to nations which have a number of different ethnic groups and they try to form really effective militaries, they often struggle. We've got to think about that, if our groups, politically charged groups, start to identify tribally with those, and then they start to bring that identity and they say, "Yes, I'm a US army soldier, but I'm a US army soldier from X tribe politically, that's very dangerous and would work against us in a very dangerous way. I think the leadership has got to think about that. I think we've got to push back on any politicization from any leaders, political leaders in the US, I think we've got to be disciplined. And that means be disciplined not to have opinions, we have to have opinions and I think every service member should vote, but we need to do it in a way that says our role as servants of the nation is apolitical. And we will absolutely stay that way and protect that.
KH: Thank you, Stan, an honor having you on the show.
Thanks again to General Stan McChrystal for joining me on this bonus episode of Burn the Boats. Tune in again next week to hear my conversation with Andrew Towne, endurance athlete and adventurer, about his experiences climbing Mount Everest and rowing the Drake Passage.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.