Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired general, teaching a course at Yale. Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb of Britain,
right, was a guest
On a recent evening in a classroom at Yale, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal held forth for two animated hours on the conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa, with bits of his own history as the former top commander in Afghanistan thrown in. In earlier classes he covered the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam and, as his students tell it, recounted in mesmerizing detail the events in “The Runaway General,” the Rolling Stone article that cost him his job.
General McChrystal’s seminar on leadership is nearly as hard to get into as Yale itself: this past semester some 200 students applied for a coveted 20 spots.
“The first day I came here, they were expecting a demonstration,” General McChrystal, who is retired from the military, said in an interview after class, shortly before heading out to a New Haven bar for beers with his students. “And I was mad because there were only nine people” protesting his appointment.
Far from reacting with disdain or indifference, the Yale community has largely embraced him — just as the other Ivy League schools have started to open their doors to his peers.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will teach a class on diplomacy and military affairs at Princeton this fall. Adm. Eric T. Olson, the former head of the military’s Special Operations Command, is offering a course on military strategy at Columbia starting in September.
Harvard regularly invites four-stars for speeches and lectures, among them David H. Petraeus, the retired general who is director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was on campus last month.
To the generation that was in college during the Vietnam War, it is unfathomable that Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American troops at the height of the Vietnam War, would have been welcomed in an Ivy League classroom. But since Vietnam and the end of the draft in 1972 — longer ago for today’s freshmen than World War II was for college students in the 1960s — the military has changed from a demoralized army into an all-volunteer force far better regarded because of the wars of the last decade.
In the last year, Harvard, Yale and Columbia have invited R.O.T.C. back to campus after banning the program during Vietnam, citing the end of the military’s ban on openly gay troops as the reason. The hiring of retired military officers as teachers in the Ivy League is part of the same evolution.
At Yale the military is, for most students, a great unknown, and many in General McChrystal’s class say they signed up out of curiosity. “I would never have imagined myself three years ago in a course taught by a general,” said Erik Heinonen, one of General McChrystal’s students and a former Peace Corps volunteer.
Some faculty members at Yale remain opposed to a retired celebrity general who does not hold their union card, a Ph.D., teaching at a civilian university, and say they are uncomfortable with his history of driving the secret commando raids that killed so many people in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also point out that the wars of the last decade have been unpopular on campus.
Stanley A. McChrystal with Kyle Cazzetta, a Yale football player. Gen. McChrystal invites students on
jogs and overnight trips
But faculty members who support General McChrystal say that students distinguish between the warriors and the wars, and that Yale should include an option to learn firsthand about the military as part of a college education.
“There is almost no antimilitary bias among students,” said John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale history professor and the recipient of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for biography, who has welcomed General McChrystal to Yale. “I wouldn’t say it’s true among the faculty.”
Ivy Leagues, he said, still shy from teaching military history, although that is changing. (The Yale historian Paul Kennedy is developing a course on the military history of the West for undergraduates and Air Force R.O.T.C. students at Yale this fall.)
Peter Mansoor, a military historian at Ohio State University and retired colonel who was the executive officer to General Petraeus in Iraq, said, “In the wake of the Iraq and Afghan wars, academia realizes that warfare is not going to go away, and it’s better to understand than ignore it.”
Not that General McChrystal or Admirals Mullen and Olson are teaching military history. In General McChrystal’s recent seminar, open to both undergraduates and graduates, two hours was spent discussing how leadership was important to solving problems like apartheid. Like all his sessions, it was off the record — students are not supposed to talk about it outside class — because General McChrystal wanders into anecdotes about sensitive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His teaching style is loose: he wears khakis and open-necked shirts, insists that the students call him Stan, prods quiet students into talking and invites them all for runs with him and on overnight field trips to Gettysburg.
The theme in his case studies in leadership is that personal relationships matter — a view he set forth in another recent class about the 2010 Rolling Stone article, required reading, which quoted him and his staff as making dismissive comments about White House officials. Within days, President Obama fired him.
“That was a situation where it was completely unexpected, completely disorienting,” General McChrystal said in the interview. “Because you could have told me I was going to be killed by stampeding giraffes and I would have considered that more likely than I would have been accused of something like that,” he said, referring to the report that he had been disrespectful to the White House.
He took two leadership lessons from the experience, he said he had told his students: first, his relationships saved him — “I had this network of friends that reached out to me” — and second, it was better for the country that he step down without disputing the article. “I didn’t try to fight it,” he said, adding that he knew “by the time an investigation could be done that we would have created so much scar tissue.”
In the interview, General McChrystal declined to comment on the article’s accuracy, as he always has. (Last year, a Defense Department investigation found no proof of wrongdoing by General McChrystal or his aides; Rolling Stone questioned the methods of the investigators and stood by the article.)
General McChrystal said it was painful to relive the episode in class, but he saw it as his obligation. “The only reason I’m here to teach” compared with “somebody who’s got a Ph.D., is because I’ve been through it,” he said, speaking of the Rolling Stone episode as well as his military career. “So I think I owe them that.”
Admiral Mullen said that at Princeton, he, too, would draw on his decades in the military, particularly the debates over the escalations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which spanned his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In speaking at campuses around the country, he said, he has found “a thirst and an intellectual curiosity” about the military, but also a lot of stereotyping.
“I think there’s a great deal of work to be done to talk to students about who we are,” he said.
Admiral Olson, a former member of the Navy SEALs who as head of Special Operations Command had a central role in planning the raid last year that killed Osama bin Laden, said the military had a lot to learn, too. His class at Columbia is to focus on irregular warfare, but he said he was most looking forward to “ideas and conversations that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to have.” In short, he said, “it’s an entry into a different world.”