“It was supposed to be sort of a puff piece on the command team. We got that wrong. We didn’t vet the guy,” says retired four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal. “I don’t think his portrayal was accurate or fair.”
McChrystal is speaking at length about the article in Rolling Stone that ended his career in 2010, when he was the top US commander in Afghanistan.
As he was trying to sell the military effort there through the press, he allowed a reporter from the pop culture magazine to shadow him and his closest aides. The story quoted McChrystal mocking then-Vice President Joe Biden and his inner circle disparaging President Barack Obama for his lack of familiarity with the military. Obama promptly called McChrystal to Washington to procure his resignation.
This is the stuff of high profile network news interviews, but McChrystal is Skyping with two grad students for an episode of their podcast, “Thank You For Your Service.”
Thomas Krasnican, 23, and Nick Paraiso, 22, graduated from the Naval Academy just last May. They are completing master’s degrees at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy before reporting to their next assignments.
For Nick, that’s the USS Roosevelt, a destroyer.
For Thomas, that’s nuclear power school and then a submarine.
Right now, they just seem like typical grad students.
Nick is wearing a green button down shirt, Thomas is in a blue plaid shirt, and they’re Skyping with me about what was supposed to be just another extracurricular activity while they still have time for them.
We became acquainted after Thomas emailed firstname.lastname@example.org when I launched this column in early February. It was a humble plea to check out their podcast, which is available on iTunes.
I finally did listen, pulling up the first episode of “Thank You For Your Service” as I strolled around Washington trying not to wake my sleeping baby.
Then I listened to the second and third and fourth episodes, back to back.
It was a fascinating conversation between young members of the military and military leaders and experts without the pretense and lack of candor you might normally hear in an interview.
As they begin their Navy careers, Thomas and Nick have a vested interest in helping explain how Americans can better relate to, understand and — most importantly — challenge the military as part of a healthy democracy.
I’d never heard anything quite like it and I immediately wanted to share it with you.
Then I thought, maybe you already know about it. Maybe this is a podcast everyone is listening to. But when I looked up “Thank You For Your Service” on Twitter I became just their 80th follower (they have 88 as of the publishing of this column).
“As long as my mom and my girlfriend listen to it, I’m happy,” Nick tells me. But, important as the women in his life may be, this podcast’s small audience includes a growing number of some of the most influential military and civilian minds.
They include McChrystal, whose reputation has largely recovered from that 2010 fall from grace, but gaining that audience is not in itself the point of the podcast.
Bridging the gulf of understanding between the military and civilians
That dark period of relations between the civilian commander-in-chief and his most important military leader is instead a backdrop for the issue Thomas and Nick are trying to tackle: the gulf of understanding between the military and civilians, including the elected officials who determine the mission of the military.
Americans have more faith in the military than in any other government institution. 74% of those surveyed by Gallup in 2018 said they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military, down from 82% in 2009. Only 11 percent said the same thing about Congress.
Experts say it’s because the military has earned the trust of Americans by steering clear of politics.
McChrystal laments that he and the White House weren’t on the same page and that his attempts to frequently meet one-on-one with Obama were rebuffed.
“He has to understand he’s comfortable with me. He has to understand the person representing him [in Afghanistan].”
In the end, that didn’t happen, McChrystal says, concerned the general lack of cohesion between civilian and military leaders is detrimental to defense policy.
“The US government does nothing,” he says. “We take a bunch of big personalities, big egos, and throw them into an incredibly difficult situation and expect them to work like a Swiss watch.”
When he arrived at the University of Chicago from the Naval Academy, Thomas conceived of “Thank You For Your Service,” as “a hard look at civilian-military affairs,” after reading about the problems created by the American public being largely divorced from the profession he is about to enter.
He recruited Nick to co-host and they decided to take their classmates along for the ride as they educated themselves on the perils of a military operating in a silo from the society it serves.
The number of Americans serving in the military has dramatically dropped since World War II, down to just under half of 1% currently on active duty.
“When people don’t know … anybody in the military, they don’t have a vested interest in what the military does or how successful it is,” says Thomas, arguing citizens then fail to hold their elected officials responsible for military decisions.
“If elected representatives aren’t having to debate these issues in the public square, they’re certainly not going to exercise the constitutional oversight that they’re meant to.”
Using skills honed from years of using GarageBand, Thomas edited together a catchy podcast open using a rock music track and notable quotes from commanders-in-chief, including Dwight D. Eisenhower warning, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military industrial complex.”
The Navy signed off, on the condition Thomas and Nick made clear they were podcasting as academics and not speaking for the Navy.
“They were pretty low-key about it, to be honest,” Thomas says, which is noteworthy because the topics he and Nick have discussed already and plan to tackle in coming podcasts can be controversial: politicization of the military, including with figures who have arguably done the politicizing, and stereotypes about the military.
“People hear oh — to join the military means that I’m going to be deployed to Afghanistan for a year shooting people,” Thomas says.
“They’re going to be ‘American Sniper,’” Nick adds, referencing the movie about the life and heroism of a Navy SEAL sniper who served multiple deployments only to return to the US where he was shot and killed by another veteran.
“And they’re going to come back and have PTSD,” says Thomas. “Both of those stereotypes, they exist in real life but also there are tons of people who are medics or photographers or… “
“Or public affairs officers!” says Nick, referring to military publicists.
The hosts are careful to stress that even though they’re now commissioned naval officers, they’re not experts: just fledgling academics on the issues they discuss on their podcast.
Each episode features their disclaimer: “This podcast is just part of the academic discourse we’re hoping to have here in grad school and is in no way intended to reflect the official positions of the department of defense or any other military entity”
It initially seemed like a perfunctory disclosure for what they expected to be an audience of their classmates.
What Thomas and Nick didn’t anticipate was that the people who would accept their invitations to appear on the podcast would create interest beyond their graduate program, like former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired Adm. Mike Mullen.
Renowned national security scholars like Dr. Kori Schake have come on, sounding convincingly excited to have a forum of younger people who might care about their research. Schake co-edited and contributed to one of the pre-eminent books on how Americans view the military, “Warriors & Citizens,” a partnership with retired four-star Gen. James Mattis, who recently resigned as President Donald Trump’s defense secretary.
Thomas and Nick ask each guest with military ties about whether it’s appropriate for former military brass to wade into politics.
Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen tells them he’s staunchly opposed to the recent uptick in general officers taking political stances.
“I was hugely concerned about what Gen. (Michael) Flynn, who was my intel officer for over a year, and Gen. (John) Allen did by making speeches at the respective Republican and Democratic national conventions.”
He stresses that while they have the right to speak their minds once they become civilians, the general public still sees them as generals, even if they’re retired.
“I’ve been in places where the military is completely politicized. We wouldn’t want to live in any of those countries,” Mullen says.
McChrystal, who recently called Trump immoral and dishonest, said he agonized over whether to publicly criticize the president but decided to after the president visited troops in Iraq over Christmas, an appearance that evoked a political rally as the president criticized Democrats on immigration policy.
“He basically broke faith with young troops,” McChrystal tells the hosts.
“Young troops don’t know better. He’s breaking not just the norm (not to politicize the military) but he’s violating the trust that people have in that relationship,” likening Trump’s use military men and women as a political backdrop to “the sexual predator thing of superior and subordinate.”
McChrystal stressed that he purposely did not criticize any of Trump’s policies, unlike other former military brass.
“My comments, I put them in a different role. That may be me rationalizing but I feel pretty strongly about that,” McChrystal tells Thomas and Nick.
Nick asks Mullen what advice he would give the President on his recent decision to deploy active duty troops to the US-Mexico border to help enforce immigration policy.
“I’m not chairman,” Mullen replies. “Even if I were chairman, typically I wouldn’t talk about what my advice was to any president on any issue.”
Kori Schake, who has worked at the State Department, Pentagon and on the National Security Council, most prominently in George W. Bush’s administration, has no such constraints.
She tells Thomas and Nick the decision to put troops on the border is “a huge civil-military test.”
“Putting our military in a role where they have the risk of being in conflict with American citizens — protestors at the border, religious groups trying to create safe haven — there are a lot of ways this could go bad,” Schake says.
“I worry about a decision that appears to be highly political in its nature and using the military as props for a divisive social policy.”
About that title
If the podcast can make any impact on civilians, Thomas and Nick hope it makes the military and service members more approachable, which is why they settled on the title, “Thank You For Your Service,” a phrase of appreciation for troops that has also been derided as an impersonal throw-away line that squanders a chance for anything beyond a shallow interaction with a service member.
Thomas and Nick recall walking off the Naval Academy grounds, down the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, in their uniforms, a requirement for midshipmen during their freshman and sophomore years. Strangers would thank them and their classmates for their service.
“All we have done is get our food and tuition paid for by you, basically,” says Thomas, which made the thanks awkward from his vantage point. “Sometimes (we might reply) ‘oh, thanks for your support.’”
Or “thanks for your trust,” says Nick.
Some of their classmates would stop the grateful strangers.
“No, you don’t understand, I haven’t done anything,” Thomas remembers a classmate saying.
“We wish the conversation was beyond just that,” says Nick.
“‘Thank you for your service.’ ‘Thanks for your support.’ Then you just walk away.”
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