President Obama has cashiered General Stanley McChrystal because of comments made by him and his staff while Michael Hastings was “embedded” with them for a Rolling Stone store run in the 8 July 2010 issue: The Runaway General. Obama blew it.
The story is a detailed account of the operation of McChrystal’s command but focuses on their personalities and styles. Hastings would certainly not have been allowed to print a story detailing battle plans, and this glimpse into the characters that are leading the war in Afghanistan is rather more helpful to the American polity anyway. These men are tough, experienced fighters, trained to kill and inured to the risk of being killed, and they sound very real. At the same time they clearly accept the mission that has been handed to them by their civilian leaders, they just don’t always admire the individuals involved.
I had a lot of problems with that growing up. I felt respect was something that was earned, my mother insisted that it was something that was owed to people based on their position and age. In this era of transparency, it should come as no surprise that working soldiers don’t treat with respect those that haven’t earned their respect, even in a culture where crisp salutes for superiors is the normal rule. In barracks, or in a bar, soldiers respect the leaders that lead well. Period. Welcome to the meritocracy of today’s Army.
Tom Lehrer introduced one of his great songs with this: “One of the many fine things one has to admire is the way the Army has carried the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion, in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, and color, but also on the grounds of ability.” That seems to have changed. Even in this testosterone-laden environment, McChrystal’s staff respects a woman as Secretary of State, appreciates the contributions of the pencil-necked geek sitting in a corner in front of a dozen screens, and has no use at all for Karl Eikenberry, a former general that used to be McChrystal’s boss and apparently can’t deal with his erstwhile subordinate’s rise. This team judges the players based on whether or not they are contributing to the common goal, and apparently a good number of the civilians involved aren’t.
I assume that McChrystal can live comfortably on his pension, although I worry a little that someone that operates at his level of energy is going to have serious issues adjusting to the pace of retired civilian life. I’m not convinced that Obama’s course in Afghanistan is the right one. However, if this is the path that Obama and Congress want to follow, it’s hard to imagine a better leader on the ground to implement it.
The problem lies in the conflicting and conflicted civilian management. Yes, McChrystal has said things in public that might seem to undermine some of the players, but Eikenberry’s critical memo, attacking McChrystal’s strategy and Afghan president Karzai, shouldn’t have been leaked to the press if Eikenberry wants all this to be kept under wraps. McChrystal, his staff, and the president seem to be in synch, it’s the rest of the civilian team that needs work. Joe Biden’s a big boy, he can get over the occasional barb. Eikenberry, apparently, can’t.
This is not Big Mac refusing to accept Truman’s strategy in Korea, this is a strong military leader doing exactly what he has been instructed to do, loyally doing the right thing if occasionally grumbling about the details. If I Were King, I’d stick with McChrystal and find a civilian team worthy of the roles they have to play.