Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's retirement ceremony marked by laughter and regret

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal ended his 34-year career as an Army officer in an emotional retirement ceremony, marking the last chapter of his swift and stunning fall from grace.
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's farewell to the Army began Friday evening with a confession.

"This has the potential to be an awkward, even sad, occasion," he said.

A month earlier, McChrystal resigned from his command in Afghanistan after a Rolling Stone magazine article quoted him and his aides making derogatory remarks about senior Obama administration officials. The sunset ceremony, held at Fort McNair on the Anacostia River, marked McChrystal's retirement from the military after 34 years.

"With my resignation, I . . . left unfulfilled commitments I made to many comrades in the fight, commitments I hold sacred," McChrystal said. "My service did not end as I would have wished."

The general used his goodbye to thank Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Obama, who forced him to leave the military and his command in Afghanistan. With those brief remarks, McChrystal seemed to go out of his way to reaffirm the principle of civilian control over the military.

Mostly, though, McChrystal's speech -- which was disarmingly funny, personal and often wistful -- poked fun at himself, paid homage to the troops who fought for him and offered thanks to his wife.

He began with a warning to the audience not to contradict his romanticized memories. "I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter," he said, drawing guffaws from the audience of about 300.

In the past, McChrystal has often expressed unease with the pomp and circumstance of the institutional Army, and he tried to avoid a big parade-ground send-off in favor of something quieter and low-key.

Since his forced resignation, he has spent little time in Washington. Instead he visited his ailing father in Tennessee and helped his son move. On the morning of his retirement, in one of his last acts as a general, he oversaw the promotion of an officer who had served under him in the Ranger regiment.

In recent weeks, several of McChrystal's fellow officers and close aides pressed him to reconsider his objections to a big military ceremony. Somewhat grudgingly, McChrystal relented.

On the Fort McNair parade ground, the general, who often seems most comfortable on austere battlefields, was surrounded by drum majors, ceremonial cannons, battle streamers, a marching band and a platoon's worth of generals, admirals and Washington dignitaries.

The general was able to extract one concession from the Army. In a departure from tradition, the troops in attendance wore battlefield camouflage instead of more formal uniforms. Gates, who presided over the ceremony, praised McChrystal as "one of America's greatest warriors."

"We say goodbye to Stan McChrystal with pride and sadness," the defense secretary said. "No single American has inflicted more fear or more loss of life on our country's most vicious and violent enemies."

McChrystal will be remembered inside the military for the secret effort he led in Iraq to destroy the network of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists, which were driving the insurgency in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. "Stan has done more to carry the fight to al-Qaeda than anyone else in the Defense Department and probably the nation," said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff.

The evening, however, was dominated by McChrystal's address, which closed a career that began when his father commissioned him as an infantry second lieutenant.

McChrystal made fun of his legendary work ethic, noting that he had exercised his prerogative as a general to issue guidance to his family after his return from Afghanistan. "It is reasonable guidance: one meal a day and early morning PT [physical training]," he said. "The basics of a good family life." He joked that his wife was fomenting her own, one-woman insurgency.

Much of McChrystal's address was wistful.

McChrystal, speaking to an audience full of Special Forces soldiers, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, offered thanks to the warriors who had served under him. "Some of you are deployed and in the fight," he said. "Others rest across the river in Arlington. Most of the credit I have received actually belongs to you."

Almost half of McChrystal's speech focused on his wife, Annie, and his fond remembrances of Army life, which included constant shuffling between military bases and post-midnight platoon parties that he organized for his troops decades ago in his tiny Fort Bragg apartment.

Under McChrystal's leadership in Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces dramatically cut the number of civilian casualties. His command in Afghanistan also drew praise from embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

But McChrystal left Afghanistan as fatalities among U.S. and NATO troops, who were executing his new counterinsurgency strategy, were rising to record highs. He also struggled with the demands of running a huge military organization that had to focus on reconstruction, diplomacy and Afghan tribal politics. The success of the U.S. campaign remains very much in doubt, ahead of a review of the Obama administration's strategy that will begin in December.

Accustomed to working with little public scrutiny, McChrystal often had a difficult time explaining his strategy in Afghanistan to an increasingly skeptical public back home. He closed by urging his fellow officers to believe that success in today's wars is possible.

"Caution and cynicism are safe, but soldiers don't want to follow cautious cynics," he said, his voice catching briefly. "They follow leaders who believe enough to risk failure and disappointment for a worthy cause."

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