General Stan McChrystal addressed more than 700 people at Westmont’s 12th annual President’s Breakfast in the Fess Parker Grand Ballroom on March 3. Later that morning, he fielded questions from four Westmont students during convocation on campus, speaking to about a thousand people. At both events, he discussed challenges presented by the rapid pace of technology, globalization and our increasingly complex society.
At the breakfast, McChrystal said the students in the Westmont Choir reminded him of young soldiers about to go on a mission, who will sacrifice to do what they’ve been ordered to do. “It really puts the responsibility back on us to do it right,” he said. “If there is any responsibility we have now, it is to think for ourselves, not to watch TV to think for whatever our favorite channel is, not to read and say, ‘Yep that’s what I should think,’ but to reconsider, to empathize and to think for ourselves.”
Noting, “the world is a little scary right now,” McChrystal summarized recent world history and the factors shaping our contemporary environment. “Migration and refugees are a much more permanent challenge to the world than we might think, and it something we have to deal with,” he said. “The U.S. exists in its current state because people migrated, which is a good thing.”
Technology has brought great change. “Most of what all of us do is going to be pushed aside or changed by technology,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we will be out of a job but it means we are going to have to change with it.
With the democratization of technology, we have to consider threats from groups or individuals, not just from countries such as Russia and China. “Now we have people groups or individuals who can threaten things like aircraft carriers and secure facilities,” he said.
McChrystal said that we’ve grown up in a complicated environment and trained for that, but the world has become so complex our response has to change; we can’t keep going back to familiar ways of solving problems. “Before we can be successful, we have to go into something that feels a little more disorienting. You have to have a foundation to share common purpose. You are sharing information and pushing it down to the lowest levels of the organization. . . technology lets you do that now. Before you had to be centralized. . . it is so powerful to do it, and it makes you so much faster and so less hierarchical. We can’t forget to think for ourselves.”
The Westmont Foundation and local businesses sponsor the President’s Breakfast to promote discussion of significant issues in the community. This year’s lead sponsor was Union Bank. Bank of the West received special thanks for their support. Gold sponsors include: Canterbury Consulting, Davies, Hub International, La Arcada, Carl and Jo Lindros/Santa Barbara Securities, MATT Construction, Lindsay and Laurie Parton, Santa Barbara Capital/David and Anna Grotenhuis, and Peter and Monique Thorrington, and V3.
At Westmont, moderator Russell Howell, professor of mathematics and Kathleen Smith professor of the natural and behavioral sciences, introduced the four student panelists: Kelly Collins ’17, (English major with a philosophy minor from Pleasant Hill, Calif.); Chris Eckert ’17, (history major in the credential program from Buellton, Calif.); Samuel Muthiah ’18 (mathematics and English double major from Altadena, Calif.); and Rebekah Wong ’18 (communication studies major from Singapore).
Howell also honored two veteran students and one veteran professor. Junior psychology major David Hall is a Marine Corps. veteran who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and survived a roadside bombing in Afghanistan in October 2009. Senior kinesiology major Bradley Mora is an Army veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as part of the 173 Airborne Division. Donald Patterson, Westmont associate professor of computer science, served as a naval operations officer for four years in Japan and Sardinia. Howell is also a veteran, having served as an Army captain stationed in South Korea.
McChrystal expanded on the challenges of technology in answering questions from students. “With artificial intelligence and robotics, you’re going to very soon have robots make decisions on whether or not to strike and surround systems with the ability to shoot and a machine will be given enough to make a decision,” he said. “I am very uncomfortable with that.
“All of us would like not to have complete access to everything we are doing all the time, at the same time, for our own personal security, we are reassured that when someone commits a crime we can quickly track them down, so what is that balance? It is going to be a question of controlling that data from that technology that is going to be a key point as we go forward. It is not a future problem. It is a problem today.”
McChrystal advocates extreme transparency and disseminating information broadly. In the past, soldiers did their work independently without understanding how it contributed to the overall goal. Only the people on the top knew that. “You lost context, you lost speed,” he said. “We changed out the system so that everybody saw the whole.” In Afghanistan, McChrystal said 1,700 non-governmental organizations wanted to help while remaining independent. “We’re going to have to take a ‘Team of Teams’ approach, so that the thing that matters is nobody’s batting average,” he says. “Nobody’s individual contribution really makes the difference. It is only the outcome as a group.”
McChrystal chairs the Franklin Project, which promotes a voluntary year of paid national service for every young person. “It has to be paid because you want people of every economic status to be able to do it,” he said. “After that experience, you are invested in our society in a different way. Statistically, if you do a year of service like that, you vote at three times the national rate. Right now, America votes at a rate less than the percentage of that in Afghanistan.”
A failure to understand history will doom us to wander in utter ignorance. He said the U.S.’s understanding of history in Iraq and Afghanistan was so thin that if the country were a business, it would have been taken to court for not doing its due diligence.
“When you get there and you don’t know what the people think or more importantly why they think it, there is no way you can predict what they are going to do,” he said. “The most important part of it was who can learn fastest and apply those lessons. It doesn’t happen on an individual level. It must happen on an organizational level. If you look at the casualties in American ground forces entering Iraq, they were highest in the first several weeks and then they went down dramatically because after several weeks the organization began to learn, adapt and do better. History teaches you that there is not a right answer, there is only a right answer in context of that organization.”
McChrystal ended with an emphasis on empathy, “the ability to get on their side of the table and understand that their fears are not irrational given their backgrounds and experiences. It’s the willingness to be open minded enough to consider different ideas. I think education is at the heart of that.”