There are three issues at play in the storm swirling around Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which was spawned by the recent article in Rolling Stone.
The first issue is the content of what McChrystal said—and what it says about the mission in Afghanistan.
Among other things, McChrystal belittled Vice President Joe Biden. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” the magazine quotes McChrystal saying with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
These remarks about Biden, as the magazine recalls, come on the heels of McChrystal’s dismissive response to Biden’s 2009 proposals for Afghanistan. After he called Biden’s plan “shortsighted,” the article reminds readers, McChrystal received “a smack-down from the president himself.”
McChrystal is depicted as having little more than contempt for Richard Holbrooke, a special envoy for the Afghan theater. He swats at Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s leaked memos, which, in McChrystal’s view, cover the ambassador’s “flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’”
One of McChrystal’s aides is quoted as calling National Security Advisor James Jones a “clown…stuck in 1985.” Other aides criticize “politicians like McCain and Kerry” for what amounts to drive-by foreign policy.
At one point, McChrystal concedes, “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem.”
Indeed, that is the problem. The general is a human being under enormous stress, and he said things and implied things that he simply shouldn’t have said or implied. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a right to think them, but he definitely shouldn’t say them, especially not in the presence of the press. He’s a smart man, and he knows that Adm. Fox Fallon was felled by an article not unlike this one—an article that captured the admiral speaking his mind in a way that would be embarrassing to his bosses and to him.
Most of us are guilty of this very same thing: blowing off steam about our coworkers or clients or customers or bosses. The difference is Gen. McChrystal’s boss is the commander-in-chief. His coworkers are ambassadors and presidential advisors. And he wasn’t caught whispering near the water cooler. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, the general “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.”
Whether that warrants him being relieved of command—and whether that’s in the best interests of the mission—is another matter. (At press time, McChrystal had reportedly offered his resignation to President Obama, which the president had not yet accepted.) To be sure, this is not on par with MacArthur’s direct challenge to Truman’s authority and, arguably, to the entire system of civilian control over the military.
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.