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That leads us to a second but related issue. The general and his men are obviously frustrated with the civilians in the Obama administration. That’s fairly common in representative democracies like ours. Generals drift between frustration over their men being misused and wasted at one extreme and being constrained and underutilized at the other. They often complain about vacillation and uncertainty among the civilian leadership. McChrystal is no different.
The Rolling Stone story notes that President Barack Obama “didn’t seem very engaged” during one of his early meetings with McChrystal. The general was frustrated by Obama’s slow-motion review and re-review of the administration’s own stated policy of an Afghan surge. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal told Rolling Stone’s correspondent, Michael Hastings.
It pays to recall that Obama entered office—and the war room—by firing McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, ostensibly to shake things up and goad the military into action in Afghanistan. But when McChrystal, following Obama’s lead, asked for the resources necessary to win what Obama called a “war of necessity”—including up to 40,000 additional troops—the president blinked and balked. For months, the White House reflected and ruminated and reviewed.
One could almost hear McChrystal during those months quoting the words of U.S. Grant:
“In war, anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong, we shall soon find it out and can do the other thing. But not to decide…may ruin everything.”
That leads us to a third issue highlighted by the Rolling Stone controversy: the vast difference between McChrystal’s warrior ethos and Washington’s civilian ethos.
The article notes that McChrystal’s father was a two-star general who fought in Korea and Vietnam. McChrystal’s brothers all served in the military. McChrsytal went to West Point during the Vietnam War. He opted for Special Forces because he wanted to be in the fight. As a general, he led patrols and manhunts in Iraq. “The…lads love Stan McChrystal,” the article quotes a British officer as saying.
The task of hunting down our enemies, of defending the weak, of liberating the oppressed, of winning wars falls to “men whose values are not those of politicians or diplomats,” as military historian John Keegan has observed—men who are willing to do more than simply write or talk about freedom and sacrifice; men like McChrystal.
According to Keegan, “All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior.” And more than that, all civilizations owe their continued existence to the warrior. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, we expect them to do their necessary but awful work—but silently.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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