Lessons from the Fall of Stanley McChrystal

Reading Rolling Stone Magazine for its journalism is no easy task for anyone who is in the least sanguine about our most important financial and political institutions.   Its raging tirades against corporations, multinationals, Wall Street bankers, Republicans and George W. Bush are so bilious that they leave screaming provocateurs like MSNBC’s Keith Olderman in the dust.

So it is quite in keeping that the Magazine has launched its latest anti-establishment jeremiad against the Afghanistan War and  done its best to expose Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff as sneering insubordinates who have no respect for the army’s civilian commanders.

But reading the same  article that  led to the General’s downfall, the intention to destroy the general’s career, does not exactly shine through.

In fact, quite the opposite is the case.   The article is a competent examination of  army leadership during war time and a portrait of the century’s long disconnect between civilian commanders – in -chief  and generals in the field.

Stanley McChrystal was, after all, not the first military  man to express frustration with civilian leaders in Washington.

George Washington did son during the Revolutionary War;  George McClellan did so to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War;  General  ” Black Jack” Pershing criticized Woodrow Wilson in the First World War and Douglas McArthur did the same to Harry Truman in Korea.

Generals become exasperated with the failures of the civilian command to understand or appreciate military strategy and to consider diplomatic or political considerations before military ones.

We shouldn’t forget how difficult it is to convey the seriousness of any given military situation without actually seeing the situation on the ground.

For this reason Winston Churchill, who had served several periods in the army during war time, made a point of traveling regularly to the front (particularly after the invasion of Normandy), in order to confer directly with his generals about the war’s progress.  Adolf Hitler  spent most of the Second World War in a bunker complex on the Eastern Front,  so determined was he to remain close to the action.

In Stanley McChrytal’s case, it was only a few words – references to the incompetence of the civilian command in the persons of the Ambassador to Afghanistan, the Vice President and the President – but those same impressions are almost certainly on the mind of most of the American servicemen in that country.   This should be no wonder  since they are repeatedly told that that they can not undertake such and such an action, lest it bring about severe political consequences.

This  is made no clearer than in the The Last 600 Meters – a documentary AFA screened last Sunday.  In its portrayal of the Battles for Fallujah and Najaf in 2004, the two deadliest battles of the Iraqi War, soldiers who fought in the battles, report themselves as mystified by the decisions of the civilian commanders to shackle them and forbid advances which could have eliminated significant strategic threats to the stability of Iraq.  In one instance,  the Mahdi Militia is cornered and about to be annihilated, ( removing a significant threat to American and Iraqi lives), when an order emerges from Washington, via Paul Bremer, to withdraw.

The soldiers are shown to be completely exasperated by the order and it is only explained to them well after the fact that the damage to Iraqi infrastructure and the loss of civilian life in the towns has forced upon the politicians a reconsidered approach.

Since the far off  days of Julius Caesar, civilian commanders have been wary of the runaway general in the field, who arrogates to himself all decision making.  The fear of  a general drunk on power, without sufficient restraints and respect for his own commanders, is an abiding concern of all democracies.

But we should not forget that while a professional army in a republic such as ours  works for us and is there to do our bidding, a commander-in-chief such as Barack Obama, who comes to the job  with less experience than any President in history, should learn better when to defer to his men in the field, invest a measure of faith in their experience and acumen and treat their military decisions with respect.

No, they should not have to tolerate open insubordination or publicly expressed contempt.  But at the same time they should have the humility to understand that the vital success of a military mission rests on the clear eyed vision of men in the field and there will never be a substitute for that bird’s eye view.


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