Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Gen. Stanley McChrystal Affair: A Civilian-Military Disconnect?

The recent cashiering of General Stanley McChrystal,
Allied Forces commander in Afghanistan, was neither
unprecedented nor uncalled for.

After a devastating cover piece in Rolling Stone detailing
the deeply-felt contempt felt by Gen. McChrystal and his
staff for the civilian leadership of the Allied military and
diplomatic effort in Afghanistan, President Obama had
no choice but to fire him.

You can read the original article here.

If I were President, and one of my military leaders was as
openly contemptuous of the civilian leadership as
McChrystal, that man would be immediately gone - and
immediately replaced. And I wouldn't have been as
considerate as Obama. Rather, Obama should have
ordered Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to replace him
with his second-in-command immediately, pending a
thorough housecleaning and further strategy review.

This would have accomplished several things - first of all,
it would have reinforced the notion of Chain of Command -
from general in the field, through the Secretary of Defense,
to the President. Second, it would have taken a lot of the
heat off the White House and placed it on the Pentagon,
where it belonged. Third, it would have bought time for
a necessary review, the end result of which should be a
recognition that Afghanistan is a failed venture,
to be terminated as soon as practicable.

But, as the Rolling Stone story makes clear, the Afghan
venture is rapidly becoming a Vietnam-style quagmire.
Incredibly, Stanley McChrystal appears to understand this,
but the civilians don't, including U.S. Ambassador Karl
Eichenberry, a retired three-star who at one time was
McChrystal's immediate superior. And according to
Michael Hastings, the author of the piece, the one
thing there's no shortage of in McChrystal's war is
bureaucratic infighting and one-upmanship.

Not that there aren't always powerful rivalries when
leaders with large egos are given charge of a war effort.
Even in World War II, leaders like FDR, Churchill,
Marshall and Eisenhower were often having to
intervene in squabbles between different generals,
admirals, and field marshals on matters of strategy,
tactics, and logistic support.

But the blame can't solely be placed on the generals
themselves. Anyone with "flag" or "star" rank knows
only too well that in wartime, he faces two enemies;
the enemy he's fighting, and the other generals or
commanders with whom he must compete for the
always-too-scarce resources provided to the forces
afield. It is sad but true that the most successful
commanders are almost always those who can
most successfully persuade their superiors that their
theater deserves the lion's share of the men and
materials available.

An astute general knows that failure to win the
bureaucratic war now often means defeat in the
field later. And when one's bureaucratic rivals are
civilians or politicians with little or no military,
diplomatic, or national security experience, a general
must press his case very carefully - and that includes
keeping very tight control of the "message" one brings
to one's superiors.

Which is why, for the life of me, I can't understand how
a leader as obviously intelligent and dedicated as McChrystal
could wind up as the object of a hatchet job, as the song
goes, " On the Cover of A-Rolling Stone".

Just who did he think he was talking to? Army Times?
Stars and Stripes? As almost anyone under the age of
50 knows, Rolling Stone is well- known for covering
the ins and outs of the music business, including irreverent
exposes of artists such as Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus and Lady GaGa.

But lately, Rolling Stone has taken a serious tone in reporting
matters that serious folks at the top would have preferred
be left uncovered. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi blew the
whistle on the machinations of Goldman Sachs and the
government in his piece "The Great American Bubble
Machine" , which gave Goldman its everlasting moniker
of "The Great Vampire Squid". Rolling Stone was among the
first to report the rampant prescription drug abuse behind
the untimely death of King of Pop Michael Jackson last year.

And when handed the opportunity to affect the course of
an unpopular, poorly-justified foreign war by a journalist
reporting on events and conversations that were clearly
"off-the record", the elite, Ivy-educated 20-and 30-something
brass at Rolling Stone said "F@#k It. Publish and
let the chips fall where they may."

In such journalistic company, both McChrystal and his
staff should have kept their mouths shut, and strictly
controlled reporter Hasting's access to sensitive information.

That they apparently did neither, I feel, speaks less to their
judgment and more to their "apartness" from civilian society
than anything else. For if today's military is anything, it is
truly A Society Apart - one far less representative of America
than almost any other public institution.

Drawing its recruits principally from the working and
middle classes, its commissioned and non-commissioned
career leadership is now almost exclusively 2nd, 3rd and 4th
generation military. While it is rare for the sons or daughters
of the "elite" to serve, it is not at all unusual to see a career
military man, enlisted or officer, with one or more children
serving. And this is especially reflected in the Service
Academies, where 80% of the class of 2012 (the last year
for which statistics are available), at Annapolis and West
Point comes from career military families.

Given this self-selected isolation, and subject to a civilian
leadership to whom concepts such as Duty, Honor, and Country
seem both quaint and naive, it's not hard to understand some
friction and resentment on the part of those who serve. And
for the most part, the vast majority of serving men and women
honorably keep their resentments, if any, to themselves.

But sooner or later, the "Civilian-Military Disconnect" is going
to blow up in the faces of a dissipated and self-absorbed civilian
leadership more interested in personal financial advancement
than the welfare of the country they serve.

And if and when that should happen, the results will
not be pretty. We will have more to say on this issue in a
future piece.

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