Patton, McArthur, McChrystal
I’m not a betting man, because I hate to lose. Nevertheless, on Tuesday afternoon I started to send an e-mail to UPI’s Constant Readers, offering even money that General Stan McChrystal would be fired. This impulse was prompted by the breaking news that he was being called home by the president after details of a Rolling Stone article revealed that the general is not happy with our current leadership. He is not The Lone Ranger—no pun intended—in this regard, but I digress.
I decided to wait the story out, and instead of jumping on it, I made guacamole-and-bacon sandwiches, opened a cold beer, and watched “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” instead. The conclusion of the breaking news story seemed certain at any rate, and I really like this gritty little ‘70s-flashback movie that no one has seen. No one bets with me because of my eerie prescience on current events and election outcomes, so why waste their time with a rhetorical challenge?
The McChrystal affair left me somewhat conflicted. I have a special place in my heart for Special Operations soldiers of any rank or branch. They are mavericks by nature, and independent initiative has always served them well in accomplishing missions that don’t conform to standard military doctrine. Insubordination in all walks of my working life has occasionally served me well, although there have been stare-downs and reprisals after the fact. Leaders—no matter how competent they may be—need a clown standing to one side to occasionally shout “You’re full of it!” and do something completely off the books.
In this respect, George Patton was one of those clowns. When it came to leadership, he was one of the best generals in American history when it came to winning battles. But, as Omar Bradley told him in 1944, “George, you just don’t know when to shut your mouth!” Patton was busted down repeatedly and relieved of commands; as the oldest general in the American Army in War II, he figured he had nothing to lose, and so said whatever was on his mind. He had a unique, somewhat eccentric way of looking at things, and “eerie prescience” or not, he had a way of exasperating those above him in the food chain of command.
Douglas McArthur was another top general whose leadership abilities were extraordinary. Like Patton, he was an exceptional egotist. Maybe that’s a prerequisite for top leadership command in the field. They came from the horse-soldier traditions of leading from the front. A commander on horseback directing a mass of troops was a priority target back in the day; the dark side of the leadership tradition is that they were quickly cut down. Like Patton, McArthur had a politically insubordinate manner of sounding off to his superiors when he thought they were wrong. Both men paid the price for their temerity. I think it’s still mentioned in high-school history classes that McArthur was fired by president Harry S Truman for bucking the system on the conduct of the Korean War.
(Should you care to learn the lessons of history regarding what I’m talking about here, read William Manchester’s American Caesar, an outstanding biography of McArthur, or Ladislas Farago’s Patton: Triumph and Ordeal, a biography that chronicles the flaws and gifts of George S. Patton. Both generals were also authors; Patton’s War As I Knew It and John Gardner’s On Leadership—highlighting McArthur’s principles—are excellent reads. For those challenged by the written word, there are the bio-pics, respectively titled “Patton” and “McArthur”. Hint: read the books before viewing the movies. Get some real context.)
All that being said, I have a stunning admission to make: Bobama was right, this time. He had to fire General McChrystal. There are some lines that can’t be crossed. Like it or not, a key factor that distinguishes us from Third World banana republics is our constitutional tenet that the civilian government maintains ultimate control of the military. Whether you subscribe to Benjamin Disraeli’s notion that “war is too important to be left to the generals,” or Patton’s obverse view that “war is too important to be left to the politicians,” we are, by virtue of The Founding Fathers’ design, not subject to military coups by commanders who may consider their geopolitical views to be the ultimate opinion on any given matter.
I keep flashing back to hushed conversations over pitchers of beer in NCO clubs in 1974 Germany. Watergate was at its height, and the sergeants who really ran the modern army were concerned that the Commander-in-Chief [President Nixon] might go completely off the rails, declare a delusional state of emergency, and order the armed forces into defensive—and possibly offensive—postures that would call into question the legitimacy of his orders. No soldier in the American army is required to obey what he might consider an illegal order, no matter the rank of the person who issues it. However, if called into question for disobedience, you’d better be darn well prepared to defend your perception that said order was immoral or illegal.
What we discussed in theoretical terms in 1974 bordered on mutiny or sedition. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, but as sworn defenders of our country’s values, we had to draw the line between politics and the common welfare we took an oath to defend. If Tricky Dick Nixon ordered tanks onto the White House lawn, declaring a state of national emergency because “sinister forces” were trying to remove him from rightful leadership of the country, would we obey those orders? If he ordered us across the wire into the Soviet Union—provoking a war to cement his office as a “wartime presidency”—would we gather the troops in our charge and roll?
It sounds ludicrous these days, but those were real concerns at the time. The previous year, the world had come perilously close to thermonuclear holocaust because of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Saigon had not yet fallen. Chaos and uncertainty were not concepts that were invented day before yesterday.
We had several schools of thought on the matter. Whether we came down on the side of blind obedience to orders or desertion under fire, we kept our voices down and our conversations personal. Fortunately, we were never put to the test. Watergate resolved itself on the home front, and we never had to break the chain of command.
General McChrystal broke the chain of command, as did Patton and McArthur. I can understand the reasoning in every instance, but as a former soldier, I know this is wrong.
What I don’t understand—and I am not alone in this questioning—is why in the hell General McChrystal would allow anyone from Rolling Stone magazine within a hundred yards of himself.
I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone. To my great chagrin, my mother-in-law used priceless first editions of the magazine to light fires in a wood-burning stove. Rolling Stone was my cultural touchstone, keeping me current on entertainment trends, musical milestones, and cultural values. I learned my skepticism of social mores from Hunter S. Thompson’s observations, and cultivated what I consider a healthy sense of anarchy from the general tone and reportage of the magazine.
Rolling Stone also confirmed what I had learned from my own early forays into journalism: the power of the written word, whether true or false, is a far more powerful concept than many of its practitioners realize. Celestine Sibley, an old-school journalist from the 1940s through the 1980s, once told me at a seminar that I could judge the efficacy of my writing by the volume of the hate mail I received in response. “They may say they hate you, but the fact that they responded at all means you reached them on some level, and that’s what matters.”
General McChrystal is about my age, give or take a few years. That means he is old enough to remember the lesson that was hammered home about the same time Ms. Sibley gave me a life lesson. Wikipedia—the dubious online encyclopedia—has a version of the incident that is at variation with my own spotty memory, so I’ll try to recite what happened according to the faintly firing synapses of what’s left of my memory.
Richard Nixon had a Secretary of Agriculture named Earl Butz. Flying back from some political event that required his presence, Mr. Butz found himself in the company of singer Pat Boone, and John Dean, the Nixon staffer who later gave a lot up to the Watergate committee. My memory has it that a Rolling Stone reporter was also present.
The gist of the conversation is uncertain, but thinking they were “off the record,” Mr. Butz made an infamous comment. Asked something about black people, Butz replied: “The only thing the coloreds [sic] care about is loose shoes, tight pussy, and a warm place to shit.”
Sorry, kids. That’s verbatim, and the kind of remark that sticks for a lifetime. It found its way into the mainstream media, with a lot of euphemisms for “good sex” and “a warm bathroom.” Within 48 hours, Earl Butz was out of a job. Whether he believed what he said, or thought he was making an off-color joke, or wanted to shock Pat Boone, he was a public figure, a person of responsibility, and directly associated with the presidency. In his own way, he broke the chain of command.
When the McChrystal story broke, I thought immediately of the Butz scandal of so many years ago. It was one of those “What was he thinking?” moments. He’s old enough to remember what Rolling Stone did to Earl Butz. He’s certainly old enough to remember Rolling Stone trashing Bill O’Reilly a while back. Two years ago, the magazine was totally in the tank for Obama, publishing pictures of him on the beach in Hawaii and gushing over his bare torso like a teen magazine fawning over Justin Beaver or Leif Garrett. I led this column with a cover from the presidential campaign where [RS publisher] Jan Wenner channeled “Star Wars” with claptrap about “A New Hope.” Was all this not enough of a clue for General McChrystal that he was in the presence of the enemy? Every casual TV viewer knows the basic Miranda rights, especially the part that says “anything you say can, and will, be used against you.”
As the blame-fixing makes the inevitable rounds, I’m hearing that these importune remarks attributed to General McChrystal were actually utterances of lesser staff functionaries, delivered in the haze of a world-class drinking bout in Paris while they waited for an airline flight delayed by volcanic ash emanating from Iceland. Dissect that last sentence; does any part of it excuse the breach of protocol that occurred?
General McChrystal is a fine soldier, a hero of past endeavors who was tasked with trying to fight a war in a country where wars cannot be won, with one hand tied behind him. His frustrations are obvious. No matter what branch of government service we may be engaged in, we can think what we want about those who hold higher offices. To a degree, we may remark upon the incompetence of our nominal leaders to those peers we trust and confide in. If we have perfected the art of sarcasm and tacit insubordination, we may speak truth to power in rare moments of ethical conflict and moral certainty. However, you can’t badmouth the boss to his face and not brace for retribution.
General McChrystal was relieved of duty as theater commander, and consequently has resigned from the Army. He did not have the resilience of George Patton when it comes to demotions. Few modern commanders possess that tenacity. On Tuesday, when I considered offering my wager, I thought that The Red Herring would replace McChrystal with some incompetent political hack. (Assertions to the contrary, there is no shortage of these critters in the officer corps of all service branches.) Instead, Bobama has made what I consider to be only the second truly presidential decision since taking office: he appointed General David Petraeus as General McChrystal’s replacement. General Petraeus is largely responsible for turning the war in Iraq into a nominal victory, and is the sort of skilled ground commander we’ll need to affect some sort of stable solution to our announced withdrawal from Afghanistan.
I can say what I like about the bumbling, cynical egomaniac who occupies the White House, at least until he orders Cass Sunstein to shut down the Internet and throttle free speech. I don’t represent anyone except the millions of possums hanging outside bedroom windows worldwide, and we’re not beholden to politicians. I refused OCS [Officer Candidate School] twice, preferring to be a gentleman by nature of my upbringing, and screw the “ossifer” part.
General McChrystal chose his path, and walked it with dignity and courage. I hope that Stanley McChrystal, the civilian, will become a voice for reason and positive change in the uncertain days to come. His future is not denied or uncertain; he has only to master the virtue of what Bradley said to Patton: “You can’t keep your mouth shut!”
Keep talking, Stan!