Home » The Illusion of Being Connected: Gen. McChrystal at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

The Illusion of Being Connected: Gen. McChrystal at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Gen. McChrystal – TRANSCRIPT

Thanks. The reality is we’re in a country and a society where you tend to want more. You want more money, you want more friends, you want more shoes, in case of my wife, I think that’s not possible. But if you have soaring ambitions, what you really want is you want to have more of something than everybody else.

And in 2006, commanding a task force in Iraq, I had more connectivity than any military commander in history. More full motion video, more computer linkages, more radio linkages, I could talk to more places, more people than Napoleon, than Alexander, than Wellington, than Robert E. Lee.

Now, I didn’t say I was a better general than them, but I had more connectivity. I could reach prime ministers and presidents, sergeants and privates. I was really connected. But I couldn’t reach this guy. Now, this is not one of my special operations commanders. He looks like one. But in reality, this is Rooster. He is my daughter-in-law’s cat. He lives in the DC area, he’s a little overweight. He doesn’t do anything. He’s thinking about running for Congress where I told him he’d fit in.

But the thing about Rooster is, I send him email, I sent him chats, I call him now and again, I don’t hear a word. But I go over to their house and I rub his belly, and I think we are connected. Because where I grew up, if somebody rubs your belly, you are connected.

Now I’m gonna ask you as leaders, and you are all leaders, not just generals, commanders in the Army, CEOs at corporations, but also nurses in operating rooms and teachers in classrooms, and parents and families. You are all leaders. So the question to ask yourself: are you connected? And typically if I ask you that, you reach down to see if you got your cellphone and how many bars you got. Or do you have Wi-Fi for your iPad. And if you are really an important person, you don’t carry those things, but you look over to your right or left and your assistant is burdened down with all that stuff, and your assistant goes, “Roger, I got it.” And you are reassured that you have connectivity.

But the question to ask ourselves is: do you have real connections? Because I believe that connectivity in today’s world doesn’t guarantee that you have the connections that matter. Connectivity has always been the Holy Grail. How we could talk better. If you look at the march of technology, particularly for military forces, every leader wanted to be connected to more people in real time than ever before.

And you go back in history, at the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington used flags, but he also rolled up little pieces of paper and put them in the button holes of his waistcoat, and when he wanted to communicate with somebody, he’d write a real quick message, he’d give it to the messenger, they’d ride it over. That was connectivity for him.

General Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union commander, was linked by telegraph to Washington DC, which I am not sure he was happy about, but he used flags, bugles, and runners on the battlefield to be connected, to have connectivity with his commanders.

During the First World War, General Pershing who commanded American forces, had a huge wire system where they would run telephone wires from the very fore trenches all the way back to the headquarters, and it allowed him to speak to all parts of the forces at the same time.

But because the wires couldn’t be moved very easily, it also stuck him in that location, because as soon as he moved away from where all the wires connected, he moved away from his connectivity. Suddenly he lost the ability to have that what he had wanted so much. And for those of you who are familiar with the war in the Vietnam, we had radios by that point, but we also had helicopters. Commanders would sometimes fly over a unit on the ground and they’d talk by radio to them and they’d watch them. And they had a sense that “I am connected to the people on the ground”.

Well, all that paled in comparison to what we had in Iraq. In my situational awareness room our operation center, we had banks of big flat-screen TVs where we’d get predator downlink, what we called full motion video. You could watch all of our operations in real time. You could listen because we pumped it through our secured Internet. You could listen to every radio conversation from the senior people down to the lowest team leader of every fire fight, not just in Iraq, but in the other countries we were operating in, all simultaneously.

Sitting right at that one place, I could call, watch, video teleconference, I could do all of those things with this extraordinary range of people and places for the first time ever. When you brought people in, particularly outside visitors, they would just be amazed and they’d say, “You know everything.” And there’s a temptation and I found it myself, I would sit there and I would say, “I know everything.”

And what really happened was, the technology that was so good, had first enamored me, and then it had seduced me, and then I was bound by it. Those which we think are our servants become our masters. Connectivity, which we’ve always wanted in particularity great amounts, gives us the illusion of knowing. What I mean is, if you see what happens outside a window, people on a street, and you see them talking, you start to say, “I know what’s happening.” If they look like they are arguing, you have a sense, “I know there’s an argument going on.”

But in reality, and particularly in combat, with the ability to see and listen to radio calls, you start to develop this illusion that you have what we call situational awareness, an understanding, an appreciation, an empathy for what is happening to the people on the ground. But in reality, you don’t. You don’t feel the cold wind. You don’t hear the dogs barking. You don’t hear the peculiar crack that a bullet round makes when it goes near you. You don’t feel the grip of fear. You are not there.

And if you think that because you’ve got certain senses fed by these connections, and that you understand, you can deceive yourself. I think that happens in our life times now as well. Because we have a connection, the connectivity with someone, we tend to think we are connected. I have four brothers to whom I am very close, and we all carry cellphones. And I can call any one of my brothers at any moment, but I don’t. And I think I don’t because we all have cellphones and I go, “Well, I can call any moment I need to, so I just won’t do it this moment.”

And in reality, we don’t talk very much. And I think that’s because we have this illusion that we are connected, just because the physical connectivity exists, it makes us feel comfortable. Real connections are a bit different. Real connections come when people engage. When there is eye contact. When there is a hand on the shoulder. When there is conversation that is not one way.

At the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, on the third day, as Pickett’s famous charge, General Winfield Scott Hancock had already arrayed his forces. He’d done all the things a general can do to get ready for a fight. And then he, at the height of the battle, he rode his horse out to the top of Cemetery Ridge, and rode parallel to the enemy attack, which was literally suicide, because he needed his forces to see him. He needed to connect with them in a way. He’d already given them all the orders he was going to give. He wasn’t going to make any difference except he was going to connect with them in a way that is more human and more deep than sometimes we pretend we achieve in other ways.

My high school baseball coach, and I went to high school near here, he used to, when he was unhappy with what you did, he’d come to you and he’d grab you by your sideburns, and he’d lift you up until you were on your toes. That hurt a lot, but he connected with me. I got it! So how did you get those connections? You know, they’re built over time. They don’t suddenly happen. You don’t send somebody an email and have that kind of connection. Usually it’s built through something you go through: very difficult school, some experience.

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