The media are now feasting on the General McChrystal feeding frenzy. However, the media will come to regret this meal because of the problems it will create covering the military.
There are people (like the esteemed Eliot A. Cohen in today’s Wall Street Journal) who worry about “civilian control of the military.” I’m not one of them. My modest military career and experience — including stints in Iraq and in the Pentagon — has convinced me that the principle of civilian control is so deeply engrained in our military culture that no one need worry it’ll be overturned or ignored.
But what I do worry about very much is a military leadership that communicates too infrequently and too often in a meaningless and non-substantive manner with the American people.
I also worry about a military leadership that is too reticent to think aloud and outside the proverbial box, and that’s filled with mediocre yes-men, who have learned all of the wrong lessons: to wit, that the way to advance up the military hierarchy is to say and do nothing remarkable, interesting or controversial.
And, because of these concerns, I am pained by the brouhaha surrounding General McChrystal. This incident troubles me because I recognize what it almost certainly portends for the U.S. military — namely, further bureaucratic retrenchment and isolation and more uninspiring and unoriginal thought.
After all, the lesson being taught here is that the U.S. military should refrain from engaging the media. It is that military commanders are best off not talking with reporters, because doing so can ruin their careers. If you want to survive, just clam up, shut up, and avoid the press.
But this is the wrong lesson because the press performs an indispensable role in facilitating public dialogue and debate, and in fomenting original thought. Yet, the media feeding frenzy over McChrystal will serve only to exacerbate the military’s tendency — which is already far too pronounced in my view — to shun and avoid the press and public dialogue.
That’s not good because today, more than ever, America needs a dynamic, thinking man’s military. Our servicemen and women have to be able to adjust quickly to new battlefield exigencies, and to the rapidly changing face of war. We need creative thinkers who can cope well with battlefield uncertainty, and a military that is more intellectually engaged with the outside world.
But what battlefield commander now will dare risk a stray thought or idea? What high ranking officer will dare to engage the public dialogue? Answer: none who have any aspiration to make General!
Members of the political and media class who are now in high dudgeon over General McChrystal might want to think twice about what they are sowing. Maybe they’d be happy with a military leadership that is unreflective and stupid and “knows its place.” But that’s not good for America; and it won’t help the media either.