Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
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General Stanley McChrystal: “It Could Happen Here”
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General Stanley McChrystal is a retired four-star general and former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who led counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this episode, General McChrystal discusses the weaknesses in American democracy, and how insurgents within our country are using them to erode democracy. He also warns against dismissing these threats:
“There is an idea that it can't happen here, that our society can't break down, that we can't have an autocratic dictator. We sure could. And we'd have a lot of Americans who would fall behind that and do things that we've criticized other countries for, we've been shocked by. It could happen here. We could have a civil war. We could break down and kill our neighbors. We say we couldn't, but everywhere around the world that we see, the Balkans, you know, now Ukraine and Russia, just almost everywhere you go where you think it's unthinkable. It's thinkable. It's possible. It can happen, and it can happen here. Because while we think we're exceptional, we're not enough different that we're not subject to the same weaknesses that can happen elsewhere. And if we stare into the abyss and we say, ‘Wow, that could actually occur.’ Then we've got to step back and say, ‘That's why the founding fathers spent so much time and effort to try to create a republic that could survive the wins. It could survive the ups and downs. It could survive internal discord, but it wouldn't lose sight of the fact there are things we have to hold on to.’ And that's what I would tell people.”
This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Give online therapy a try at betterhelp.com/BOATS and get on your way to being your best self.
We're in a unique situation here from my standpoint in the United States now, and as you point out, there's no overriding any single political issue that you think could be the driving force that would cause people to coalesce into these two groups. Instead, we're drifting into this concept that it's us and them, and we're not even sure who us are or them are.
I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
My guest today is General Stanley McChrystal, who led joint Special Operations Command and fought insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I've brought him on today to talk about the threats that American democracy faces right now.
General McChrystal, welcome to Burn the Boats.
Well, Ken, thanks, and call me Stan, Ken.
If we apply the CIA's counterinsurgency manual to the U.S. today, it would suggest that what we are now experiencing is an incipient insurgency. There's a dramatic rise in the number of Americans who believe that political violence might be necessary.
There's a growing extremist movement capable of carrying out that violence and not to mention, levels of polarization we haven't seen since the Civil War. From your experience, running counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, how would you react to that assessment?
I don't think it's wrong, Ken. Let me go back and talk just a little bit about insurgencies though. Insurgencies start with something a group of people want, they want an outcome. Sometimes they want to cause the government to fall. Sometimes it's the government to change policies.
Typically, what an insurgency will do is establish a case for what it wants, and then it will mobilize actions to get things to happen, and they will try to influence parts of the population. Often the parts that are easier, who have some reason to be aligned with the insurgency. And then of course, they'll try to pressure the middle.
And in doing so, what they'll often do is pressure the government or security forces in the hopes that the government will overreact i.e., the government will set up checkpoints and do searches and do things which irritates the rest of the population, and it pushes that population towards the insurgence.
And at the same time, what it can do is it can de-legitimize the government overall, particularly if the government does things that are wrong. On the other hand, if the government does nothing, what the insurgency will do is paint the government as weak and feckless.
And so, the government is always in this difficult position. They need to react, but they need not to overreact. They also need to understand what it is the insurgency's really about. Is there a set or are there a set of underlying reasons or objectives that they're going after that are very, very legitimate?
Or in some cases, is it political opportunism by someone like a Nazi party in post-World War I Germany that was really looking to take political power.
One of the other elements of an insurgency that you've addressed and where the government also plays a role, is the attempt to co-opt certain levers of power within government to insert elements within security services, within the military.
And the very MO of the Three Percenters of the Oath Keepers, is that appeal to those who have sworn that oath to the Constitution. How does that dynamic play out in the U.S. in a way that you probably didn't see in Iraq and Afghanistan where you have this appeal to patriotism coming from groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters?
So, there's clearly a move to try to get people who sympathize with what more radical groups want into positions of power, whether it's positions in law enforcement or maybe in legal positions, different places where two things can occur.
First, they can act in concert or in support of what the insurgents actually want. And second, they create doubt in the government overall. You start to wonder who's on this side and who's on that side.
And so, when we have that kind of doubt and loyalty question, then we start to wonder do we have a shared commitment to any established line of belief in what the United States is about, the existence of a body of laws and our functioning as a republic.
It's the undermining of that shared commitment that I find most menacing, even more than the proliferation of guns or the flood of misinformation. It's this idea that we're not all on the same team anymore.
Can you speak to the dramatic increase in polarization? And I'm asking you as a southerner, as a student of history, what should we be thinking about?
The first thing is we all have experiences. I had experiences that were very memorable in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what a lot of people don't realize, although Iraq had Shia, Sunni and Kurds before our invasion, it was really not until about 2005 or 2006 when those groups became so polarized that they broke into Civil War.
And what I mean by that is before the American invasion in 2003, Shia and Sunni typically lived in the same neighborhoods. They interoperated, their life was pretty straightforward. And when violence was put upon society, some of it brought about by the Sunni, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, what he did was he attacked the Shia to try to create polarization, and he succeeded in doing that.
And as soon as people felt under pressure, as violence went up, as mistrust occurred, people go back to their almost tribal groupings. And then you have the ability to have much increased level of violence.
We see the very beginnings of that in the United States. We see people starting to create what really are not policy differences as much as tribal differences, they're cultural differences. And we see certain opportunistic politicians playing to that, and saying, those people hate you or they don't respect you, or they're going to take away something you've got.
What this occurs in all of us is a natural reaction. We start to go back to the people we trust at the end of the day. And of course, once you get to that, once the opposing group is not a political opponent, but it becomes a more visceral cultural divide, then you can dehumanize them in your own mind, and then violence is acceptable.
And so, we start down a slippery slope where we could never have imagined that people with what we thought were political differences, now, have a position where they are so in opposition to each other culturally that they could see doing violence to the other group.
These tribal and cultural differences that are growing in America today, they don't break down on clean geographic lines. The question I'm about to ask is about what the coming Civil War, if the worst-case scenario presents itself might look like because it's not going to be like anything we've experienced.
It might not be like any civil war in the history of the world, in just how integrated our communities are, but how these tribal pockets exist everywhere. There isn't going to be a clean schism.
If the potential for widespread violence is there, it's going to be atomized, it's going to be everywhere. As a master of counterinsurgency operations, how do you think about something like that? How do you face that kind of distributed violence and resentment if you can't wall it off?
Well, I try to think back to historical examples and I go back to 1994 Rwanda, and you had the Hutus in the Tutsis, and they largely lived together. There was a certain amount of inner marriage and society worked.
And then through some political maneuvering, those tribal differences were exacerbated and there was this terrific genocide, and we step back and we say, how could that possibly happen? The people who lived right on the street next to me show up with machetes one day and start killing me and my neighbors. So, we know that can happen.
And we go back to America's own history. Before the United States Civil War, there were differences, but it was largely economic and policy-driven around the question of slavery. So, there were two different economic models, one in the north and the south.
And then as we got to about 1850, that started to morph into cultural divisions as well. So, by the time we got to 1861, there was not only a deep divide politically and economically, there was also this idea that people from the north are bad people or people from the south or bad people. And the idea of a war became more acceptable to people.
We're in a unique situation here from my standpoint in the United States now, and as you point out, there's no overriding economic issue. There's no overriding racial issue, there's no overriding any single political issue that you think could be the driving force that would cause people to coalesce to these two groups.
Instead, we're drifting into this concept that it's us and them, and we're not even sure who us are or them are. We just know that they are different, although they don't have a different color skin. In many cases, they might even be in the same profession that I am.
They might live in the same zip code I do. They might even have the same parents I do. But instead, we are self-identifying. And I think this is exacerbated by information technology and social media and the ability to people be in echo chambers.
But at the end of the day, we can't deny the strength of it. We can't deny that political conversations now have a sharper edge. When I see a slogan that is absolutely hateful being put on t-shirts and people wearing them out in public, and the idea that that would be fighting words in many other times, now we start to just grit our teeth because it's one of those people and slide away.
We just spoke to a transactivist in our earlier interview who reiterated the point and I think it's just so important to keep in mind that when the authoritarian tells you what they intend to do, you need to listen to them. And this is a lesson that you have imparted from your experience in Iraq and from what the extremists there said they were going to do. Can you share that lesson?
Yeah. And we see this over and over again. Adolf Hitler said what he was going to do in Germany. When Osama Bin Laden wrote his documents in the 1990s, he said what his strategy was for dealing with the West, particularly the United States. And then he followed it very closely.
When you see what leaders in areas like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said, “My goal is to create a Civil War. I will create the Sunni and Shia killing each other. The westerners are a problem but they're really a distraction.” And so, if we don't pay attention to people's intentions, stated intentions, and of course, the track record of their behavior before, we kid ourselves.
We get into this idea that well, once they get in power they will moderate themselves because responsibility will make people be more moderate. I don't see that in historical example, and I don't see it likely in the American political spectra.
So, if we elect or if we support a group that we think is pretty radical, they're not likely to get less radical the more power they have. In fact they're likely to get more radical.
So, what should our reaction be when a leading contender for the nomination of a major American political party says that he is going to destroy leftism or wage war on wokeism? Or when a keynote speaker at a conservative conference said that his goal is to eliminate transgenderism from public life?
That's the kind of rhetoric following your rule that we need to take seriously. And it's reminiscent of the lead up to authoritarian takeovers in places like Germany and Iraq with the rise of extremism there; how should we react as citizens, as voters?
Yeah, we should take people at their word. And if we look on either side, if people on the left say we are going to defund the police, we should hold them into account, we say that's ridiculous.
If someone on the right says we are going to make transgenderism illegal or we are going to do any number of stamp out wokeism, we need to hold them to account for what they say because traditionally or historically, that's what they in fact try to do.
And so, if we discount any of their verbiage as hyperbole just to work up the crowd to be a populist in the moment, I think that we're making a grave mistake. And if we don't hold them accountable in that instant, what happens is it gets normalized.
We get used to someone saying these ridiculous and inflammatory things over and over, and then pretty soon someone says, “Well, that's just that person. They just talk like that. They don't really do that stuff.” Well, they do. They do what they think they have to do to amass the power that they seek. And that's what we should fear.
That normalization of political violence in particular has reached the point where the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination, President Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have said they would pardon some of the protestors if not all of them from the January 6th riots.
Has the window shifted so far that there's no coming back? How worried are you about continued examples of violence, and as we know, the best predictor of a successful coup is an unsuccessful one?
Yeah, I don't know if the window shifted so far that we can't retrieve it. I don't believe that it is, but I can't be sure. What I do know is we have a legal system, and the legal system is the thing that binds us together. We believe that as long as we follow the laws, we are not going to be unfairly incarcerated.
We also believe that other people will be held to check in their behavior so that we'll be protected. Once we start to doubt that, then we will arm ourselves because we will say that if the legal system doesn't work and that includes the law enforcement system doesn't work, I will have to provide my own protection.
If the legal system in the courts doesn't work, I have to provide my own legal system like courts. And this is one of the places where the Taliban so successfully leveraged the weakness of the government of Afghanistan, because they came in and they provided an alternative legal system.
So, if we de-legitimize those things that our society is built on, that holds it together, suddenly what we do is we don't just allow alternative solutions, we encourage and we require them. Then we're going to have private armies, we're going to have private courts, we're going to have all the things which will make us … I mean, you could envision us moving to a warlord-like society and I've seen that and it's ugly, and it's not what people want, but they don't know that yet.
Well, we have those who aspire to a world in which private armies can call the shots. The former president told the Proud Boys to stand by. We know now with the convictions of Stewart Rhodes from the Oath Keepers and Enrique Tarrio, that there were weapons caches ready to be deployed on January 6th.
But to your point, the legal system went into high gear. The Justice Department has secured convictions that should give us some relief. But how comforted are you looking at the fact that people like Stewart Rhodes and Enrique Tarrio are in jail when some of the provocateur are still out there, not just running free but continuing to provoke from the sidelines from their political positions?
Where would you place people like Stewart Rhodes in that hierarchy and how much comfort should we draw from the fact that they're in jail?
Yeah, I worry that people who were involved directly in inciting and in some cases, participating in something as dangerous as the January 6th insurrection are out there or that the potential that people who are actually convicted in courts would be pardoned and let out.
Now, I can't judge everybody's conviction and I'm sure there may be legal aspects on some, but the general principle is if you did what you shouldn't have done, and if you were convicted in the legal system, then I'm uncomfortable having that serendipitously overturned.
I think that if you take this a step further, as soon as we allow the idea that if we disagree with something, that doing something as violent as attempting to overthrow the government is extraordinarily dangerous. Now, you can step back and say, I think it was Thomas Jefferson that the tree of liberty has to be watered with the blood of patriots every so often.
And I get the idea that the people have got to hold the government to account, but that's to hold the government to account to protect liberties, not to protect a single angle from an additional group. One of the things that that saddens me most is I think many of the people who went to the Capitol on January 6th thought they were doing the right thing.
The danger there is that you don't need a big group of bad people to have a bad outcome. You need a small group of bad people who can influence a big group of good people who aren't necessarily as completely informed about something and can be misled.
And that's the leverage that I think that certain people have amassed at times and historically, we see that all the time, but we can't allow it because it can cause so much damage done by people who otherwise believe that they're acting in a responsible way.
If we are indeed experiencing an incipient insurgency, what lessons can we draw from the early days of the Iraq insurgency? You shared with me once that it got hard after the first few months because we realized that the smart ones were sitting back, they were biting their time, they were learning from our tactics.
Where are we now in this U.S. experience of incipient insurgency?
Yeah, I'm not sure if we know where we are, but I would say where I'm guessing where we are. We have a group of people who have watched the actions of the last few years and they've learned that if they are very loud and very focused at certain things that they want that they have a likelihood of getting the outcome that they want.
They've learned that they can get certain politicians to be mouthpieces for them, to give them a positive front or at least a semi legitimate front, then they get disproportionate influence. And so, as those people navigate this, they navigate those key points and then they figure out how to leverage influence with populations.
And of course, that's always been where populous and insurgents go to incite the people and they do it with information and they do it with misinformation. They do it by leveraging some frustrations in the population.
And nowadays, with information technology, it is so much easier. It is so much faster. It is so much more focused than it has ever been before. And so, we've got the ability for people who are going to take a certain line of information and just beat that, sharpen it like a sword, and beat it and then constantly push it in the right direction. They can have disproportionate effect.
Now, our society being pluralistic as it is isn't set up to stop that. Our society is set up to allow different viewpoints and interactions. But the very focused, I'll call them fanatics — but very focused group that is disciplined in its efforts can always have disproportionate effect on the outcome.
We've always seen it on narrow political actions. We've saw it in our own civil rights movement that a disciplined movement focused in an area that I think was correct can have long-term effect, but it works just as well for a negative group as it does for a positive one.
If that openness is one of the things that is providing an entree for these extremist groups, are there other inherent weaknesses in our society? And I should put weaknesses in air quotes because I don't think of the first amendment as a weakness, but it is something that can be exploited.
Are there other things inherent to American society that these groups are able to take advantage of that we need to be on guard against?
Yeah, I think so, and it starts with our political processes at the local level and then the state level and whatnot. And what we can see is very focused efforts can produce good outcomes in certain areas, gerrymandering and other activities at the local level, which snowball into disproportionate political influence at the national level.
So, we step back and we say, okay, 330 million Americans, the reality is most of them will be fairly centrist, most of them will be fairly reasonable. But the reality is you can get control of levers of power, political power and economic power in some cases, with much smaller groups than that.
And so, the reality is if you look at our electoral college system, which was designed with good intentions, you can win the presidency with significantly less than a majority of the popular vote. And on the one hand, there's a reason for that.
On the other hand, that shows that a discipline focused effort by a minority can have a really good outcome. The same way with getting control of the courts and the same way with getting control of things like law enforcement or the military.
This is why civilian control of the military and an apolitical military and apolitical police establishment is so important for a couple reasons.
One, you don't want them supporting a single side and pushing things a certain way. But also, if either of those entities become political, the political masters will find that they're riding the tiger.
They will find, as you see in many third world countries, if they don't please the army, then they won't stay in power. And so, what that produces of course is who's really in power then? Really the army or the police is in power. And now, you've given power to the people with guns and it's no longer the kind of democracy that we have in our mind.
Well, if we learned anything during the presidential transition from Trump to Biden, it was that civilian control of our security institutions in the military was far less secure than we thought. It is not about creating a critical mass of lieutenants and captains — in some cases, it's about replacing one or two people at the top of the hierarchy.
How worried are you, should there be I'll say a return to authoritarianism, but you know what I mean? That the organizations with guns will have placed their loyalists who aren't there to support and defend the constitution, but to answer to an authoritarian president.
Yeah. And the answer is we've always thought that that was unthinkable. There was a great book in the early 1960s called Seven Days in May, and it postulated a takeover of the U.S. government by senior military because they disagreed with actions the president was taking.
And you say, well, that couldn't happen. But the reality is you don't need all the military to do anything. Coups are not typically done that way. They are a small part of the military leverages part of the power and the rest of the military is just going about its daily business unaware in most cases. I don't think we are at that point.
But it is important to understand that our system of command and control for our military forces, the ethos within particularly senior leaders in the military forces is so incredibly important because we don't want a miscalculation nor do we want even a misperception of the reliability of U.S. military forces, because once people don't have confidence that they're apolitical, then in fact, a certain group acts as though they are political.
So, I think we shouldn't be sanguine and saying, well, we've never really had a big problem with that and kid ourselves into saying we couldn't have a problem with that. We're an exceptional nation we say, but the reality is we are human beings and anything that happens bad in other nations in the world can happen to us.
It's only our self-discipline and our value that stops us from being what other countries in many cases have experienced.
The military ethos you refer to was such a powerful experience for me in my time in uniform. It was formative, but it is also a point of entry for those groups that we are concerned about. For the Three Percenters, for the Oath Keepers, why are veterans drawn to those organizations? What is it about the experience of being in uniform that translates to being in a group like that?
I think any military group, and I think this applies to many police as well, you enter this tribal-like society where there's deep camaraderie and ties, and we also talk a lot about our service to the nation. Thank you for your service.
And it's very easy for the military to start to feel self-righteous that we are the people who protect the nation and therefore, we are the people who are the guardians of the nation's values, of the nation's democracy.
If you see Pakistan for example, they've had a history of military takeover since its establishment as a nation in 1947. And every time the military does that, they come in saying, “We are protecting the nation because we know best.” And so, the first thing is you start this mindset that can convince the military that we are somehow on a higher plane.
The real value that people need to internalize when they enter the military is that we work for other Americans. We are guardians because we have weaponry and training and capability, but we're guardians of the sacred ideas of the republic; civilian control of the military, our adherence to law.
All of the things that represent what the nation has decided we will be, the military must implement and protect. We can't be the people who decide. And so, I think that the military on the one hand brings in people who like a certain thing, and yet we have got to be trained and disciplined to be that very carefully self-controlled entity that guards the nation.
What would you say to our fellow vets who are on the other side of the proverbial barricades or in the case of January 6th, literally on the other side who claim that they're the ones defending the oath, that there is something so catastrophically wrong with our form of government that they must resort to violence.
I'm not talking about the Stewart Rhodes’s or even the Josh Hawleys who encourage them. I'm talking about the ones who have been caught up in all this, who actually believe in what they're doing. How do you reach them?
I would tell them that, and I believe most are well-intentioned; I disagree. They can disagree with me. And on this issue I have a different view than they do. And on many policy things, we may have the same view, on many other things we may be in in great disagreement, but what we have to think is sacred is this idea of protecting the republic.
If we go back to the beginning of the American Civil War, one of the things that Abraham Lincoln talked about so much was at the end of the day, we must save the union. We must find those lowest common denominator things that we think are absolutely sacred to all of us.
And I think that is the idea of union. I would argue it's the idea of democracy. It's the idea of a republic. It's the idea that everyone is protected by the law and everyone must protect the law.
And so, if we start on that foundation, every place we go beyond that and we disagree on policy this or policy Y or political leader X or political leader Y, if we remember, we can't step away from that idea that our legal system must work, we must protect the rights of others.
We must hold the outcome of elections to be absolutely respected. And so, if we can hold onto those, everything else is sort of noise, and we can deal with. Once we step away from those, then I would argue then the very foundations of the American Republic are at risk.
We've talked a lot about the weaknesses that can be exploited. What are some of the strengths that we need to rely on? Can you tell me a little bit about Team Democracy and the Safe and Fair Election pledge?
Yeah, Americans are a bunch of hardheads. I'm one, you’re one, most of the people we know are hardheads, and that ain't a bad thing. And I say it's not a bad thing because America was founded on the idea that a group of colonies initially would come together and create a nation.
And it was a covenant, it was a deal between those groups that said we're better off together than we are separately. That has grown of course, into a much bigger entity now, but I think we still believe that the United States is an idea that's important to us.
Most people get frustrated with our country, but we don't want to be somewhere else. We get sometimes irritated with other Americans, but we don't want to be somebody else. And that hardheaded approach that says, “This is my country, I got to get it right, I got to get it the way I want it,” that's an inherent strength.
Now, what I think we need to do is say we're part of it, it's worth fighting for. It's worth fighting for in every possible way. It's worth going to war for. It's worth protecting around the world. It's worth standing in picket lines for. It's worth voting for. It's worth protecting the rights of someone else even when I disagree because I know they will protect mine.
And so, the fact that we're hardheaded is not a bad thing. I think it could be a good thing, but we've got to step back and remind ourselves what are those moorings that we have to stay attached to? What are those things we cannot walk away from, no matter how much else we want to argue about because they, at the end of the day, are who we are.
As they always say, you argue with everybody else until you're pressured from outside and then you band together. We need to band together now on those things about America that are just non-negotiable for us, that are part of who we are.
If we fail to do that, if we forget those essential features of what makes us a nation, what is the worst that can happen? What's your worst-case scenario?
There's an idea that it can't happen here, that our society can't break down, that we can't have an autocratic dictator. We sure could, and we'd have a lot of Americans who would fall behind that and do things that we've criticized other countries for, we've been shocked by. It could happen here.
We could have a Civil War, we could break down and kill our neighbors. We say we couldn't. But everywhere around the world that we see, the Balkans, now Ukraine and Russia, just almost everywhere you go where you think it's unthinkable, it's thinkable.
It's possible, it can happen, and it can happen here because why we think we're exceptional — we're not enough different, that we're not subject to the same weaknesses that can happen elsewhere. And if we stare into the abyss and we say, “Wow, that could actually occur,” then we've got to step back and say, “That's why the founding fathers spent so much time and effort to try to create a republic that could survive the winds. It could survive the ups and downs, it could survive internal discord, but it wouldn't lose sight of the fact there are things we have to hold onto.” And that's what I would tell people.
Well, thank you Stan. I think that's a great note to end on. Really appreciate you coming on.
My honor. Thanks, Ken.
Thanks again to Stan for joining me. You can take Team Democracy’s Safe and Fair Elections pledge via the link in the show description.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia and David Moss.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.