Rolling Stan

President Barack Obama meets with General Stanley McChrystal aboard Air Force One.

I’ve refrained from commenting on the McChrystal piece in Rolling Stone, mostly because I think the entire affair is somewhat overwrought, but also because I see both sides as being wrong in a way.

Most importantly, of course, is the need to preserve a proper respect for the Office of the President and the civilians who control the military, but it remains to be seen whether that can occur even if the kind of banter thrown around by General McChrystal’s staff remained off-the-record. People say stupid things, but usually they remain unknown. That’s really where McChrystal and Duncan Boothby went wrong. MacArthur he ain’t, but neither is he some kind of modern-day Eisenhower.

Then again, can you show this kind of disrespect for your civilian leadership and still effectively prosecute the war? I don’t know (though it seems doubtful), and apparently President Obama thinks not – hence the abrupt end to McChrystal’s command and his replacement by General David Petraeus, who seems a rather inspired choice in lieu of General James Mattis. It ensures that some form of COIN will remain the dominant strategy, but also allows for a significant shakeup in staff (and paves the way for someone else to take over for Petraeus relatively soon). Still, another summer with yet another commander could even jeopardize the entire effort in Afghanistan.

If you care to look, though, there were signs of McChrystal’s casual attitude towards civil-military relations. Tom Scocca has pointed out an excellent, if subtle example, McChrystal’s use of the ACU in formal contexts (and actual military types, let me know if this is wildly off the mark). It may be emblematic of his other flaws:

McChrystal is dressed down to the level of the troops, to distance himself from the commander in chief. He is a warrior, doing things civilians don’t understand.

It’s not a fake pose. The Rolling Stone piece describes how McChrystal goes out on “dozens of nighttime raids” himself, going bravely into danger with the men he commands.

But it’s the wrong pose to take. America is nearly 40 years into a bad and corrupting arrangement, in which ordinary citizens—including me—don’t have to be responsible for fighting wars, and Congress doesn’t have to be responsible for starting wars, and the military is a professional caste apart. McChrystal is a product of this era of eroding authority. Nobody knows more than the Army knows about the Army’s business.

Bidding farewell to Stan McChrystal is probably the right thing to do here. And hopefully this culture of disrespect hasn’t extended itself too deeply yet.

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