Thursday, June 24, 2010

The General McChrystal Thing

I’ll make this brief.

I would have commented on this earlier, but I’ve been out of pocket most of this afternoon taking advantage of the low low interest rates to refinance my house.  When I got home I had thirty seven emails asking my opinion on McChrystal’s removal from command of the Afghanistan campaign – and a couple of the usual all caps and misspelled slobber covered  missives that could be best summed up as AH HA! TOLD YA ASSWIPE!!!! OBAMA BAD! MAC HERO! REVOLUTION!!!!REVOLUTION!!!!! And really, thanks for that. No really.


OK, here’s the thing:

He screwed up.

It’s just that simple.

Everybody in the military knows it.

Everybody in the White House knows it.

The majority of Congress knows it (on both sides of the aisle).

And General Stanley McChrystal knows it.

The General wasn’t fired. He apologized and he tendered his resignation. The president accepted his resignation, I don’t know about the apology and don’t care. By all accounts, the general didn’t try to keep his job, he knew he’d fucked up and he took responsibility for it as a professional military officer should.

By all accounts, McCrystal is an excellent general, one of our very best military commanders – otherwise he wouldn’t have had the job in the first place.  He’s a hell of a Soldier, beloved by his troops and even some of his enemies. But he screwed up. It happens.

He allowed himself to act unprofessionally in this one regard, and his example fostered a climate among his officers that promoted disrespect towards the civilian authority, and not just towards the President, but towards what the President represents – i.e. you. This is simply unacceptable. McCrystal was the commander, this is his responsibility and his alone. Period. No excuses – and to his credit he didn’t make any. He took responsibility for the things that happened under his command and took the only action acceptable under the circumstances and the officer’s code of conduct, he offered his resignation.

President Obama also did the only thing possible given the circumstances, he did the General the courtesy of accepting that resignation. 

The President has the Constitutional responsibility to enforce civilian control over the military at all times – because he himself is responsible for its conduct, actions, and employment. Period. Something the previous occupant of the White House never seemed to grasp despite his supposed credentials. General McCrystal put his commander in a position where the President only had two options, allow the General to resign, or fire him. This is shameful, McCrystal knows it and didn’t argue the point.

This wasn’t by design, but by accident. This has nothing to with who’s in the White House. It happens. Don’t try to tell me you’ve never been frustrated with your boss – even if you like and respect him or her, and unless you’re commanding a war I doubt you have a hundred thousandth of the stress and frustration of those officers in the battlespace. Nonetheless, we military officers have a strict code of conduct. It exists for a reason, a damned good reason, one that has proven its worth time and time and time again. McCrystal allowed that code to be broken.  McCrystal as absolutely no one to blame except for himself. Period. And he knows it, understands it, and accepts it. This is what it is to be in command.

None of which makes his dismissal today any less of a tragedy.

This is a loss for the troops, for the Administration, for the war effort, for the people of Afghanistan, for America, and for McCrystal himself.  All of us lose. Nobody wins here.

Well, OK, that’s not entirely true.

The Taliban wins. The Insurgents win. The (forgive me) terrorists win.

But nobody wins more than the Rolling Stone.

Don’t get me wrong, the Stone isn’t to blame, this is what they do and McCrystal forgot that and allowed himself and his officers to behave unprofessionally in front of the embedded Rolling Stone reporter (and understand, by Military Law and custom it would have been wrong to disrespect the President and civil authority whether there was a reporter present or not).  He should have known better. He should have never allowed that climate to develop in his command. The Stone isn’t to blame for reporting the general’s comments or those of his officers.

And this story is going to sell one hell of a lot of copies of Rolling Stone.  

So the magazine wins.

But the rest of us take it right in the ass on this one.

It’s just that simple.


  1. Amen.

    I knew this would happen. You'd get a ton of emails and just as you described. And I imagined that you'd say what you did, point by point. I missed only on the Rolling Stone win thing -- too obvious I guess.

    But it needed to be said and you said it.

    Dr. Phil

  2. It's not really the point, but I just watched an interview with Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter, on the Today Show. I won't even try to paraphrase the question, but he was asked (something along the lines of), if he'd realized the article would cause the firestorm it has. He responded that he had thought McChrystal was "untouchable".

    That's about the most incredibly naive thing I've heard from a reporter...well...ever.

    P.S. Assuming McChrystal does emulate other old soldiers and "just fade away", I'll continue to agree with your assessment -- specifically the part about McChrystal knowing he has no-one to blame but himself. OTOH, if he comes out of the woodwork after retirement as some sort of political counterpoint to the administration, I'll lose whatever lingering respect I might have had for the man. If he felt that strongly, he should have retired before ever saying the first word against CINC.

  3. For me it was the appalling lack of situational awareness, which would be deadly in this war. There's a level of joking and camaraderie that goes on, a certain flavor of gallows humor, and I think most people can understand that. Also that some, when asked a question directly by their commanding officer, may make a joke, I think is understandable. What's not acceptable is that he didn't correct the behavior. Especially when someone who is "not one of us" (ie. the reporter) is in the same room with a frickin' tape recorder turned on. Yes, I think he felt himself "indispensable" and allowed what may have been "innocent joshing"/"blowing off steam" to run out of control.

    Personally, I think he handled the end (so far) fairly well (we'll see after the SUnday talking heads's shows). And so is Gen. Petraeus. There's been some comment about this being a "demotion" for him to go back into field command after CENTCOM. However, McChrystal reported to him, and now Patraeus is also stepping up to the plate for his allowing McChrystal to run wild.

  4. I wanted to hear your take on this situation. I figured you'd receive about 10,264 emails, asking for it, so I didn't bother sending one. Next time I might send one, and write it in all caps, just because I'm nice that way.

  5. Mostly, this just made me sad. A most unfortunate end to what was apparently a really stellar career.

  6. Seems pretty straight forward.... guy in charge has full responsibility of everyone under him.

  7. I'm a bit disappointed in my president on this one. Yes, perhaps he was gracious but honestly I think he should have ignored the general's resignation and kept him in there. Even though he was critical of the administration he was critical to the administration. I suspect Patreus back in the driver's seat will set things back a bit. But what do I know.

  8. [H]e had thought McChrystal was "untouchable".

    That's about the most incredibly naive thing I've heard from a reporter...well...ever.

    I don't know about that: a lot of pundits on the left and right alike seemed to think that McChrystal was essentially "too big to fail," that replacing him would be too disruptive to the war effort in Afghanistan. Which was giving me a headache insofar as it meant we were well-and-truly-fucked if the war effort was so precarious that we might be unable to replace a general who clearly has some loose cannon issues. (Look, I don't want to knock McChrystal's accomplishments, but this also looks like it was a "third-strike" sort of scenario--McChrystal has been embroiled in other controversies, including prior criticisms of the Vice-President, the leaked Afghanistan assessment in '09 and alleged involvement in the Tillman cover-up in '04; it's possible the Rolling Stone affair might have been more forgiveable with a different history.)

    A lot of people, actually, were predicting McChrystal would keep his job. Nobody predicted that Obama would ask General Petraeus to step down into General McChrystal's role, which appears to be a masterstroke in all sorts of ways.

    If Hastings was naive, pretty much the entire punditocracy was, too--well, maybe that should have gone without saying. But the point is, naive or not, Hastings wasn't alone.

  9. ...naive or not, Hastings wasn't alone.

    So, he wasn't alone. I still find it appallingly naive of anyone who expected McChrystal to come out of this with a job. I can understand the impulses that might have swayed Obama toward retaining him, but I would have been shocked if he'd gone that route. McChrystal and his staff's statements were an absolute disregard for the chain of command and retaining the General would have negated all of Obama's credibility regarding Civilian control of the Military.

    Regrettable as it may be, retaining him would have been catastrophic.

  10. Oh, I agree, Nathan. Which is why it was giving me a headache yesterday. I mean, a common take was, "Even if he ought to be removed, he can't be because blah, blah, blah," and I'm thinking, so basically he can have no respect whatsoever for civilian authority and it doesn't matter because he's the equivalent of "too big to fail"?

    Happily, it seems not to be the case.

  11. No military officer is untouchable. And none are irreplaceable.

    If an officer is irreplaceable, he's not doing his job correctly and should be immediately fired - and they often are for exactly that reason (failure to train and develop subordinates, failure to properly keep the chain of command informed, failure to provide proper and detailed passdown).

    Stanley McCrystal is a fine officer and a hell of a commander, but he is a product of US Military training - i.e. we make people like him, that's the point of a military education and career path. The general is always replaceable, so is every officer, and every NCO - because all of us are at risk in one form or another and all of us are responsible for training our replacements and making damned sure our people know what to do if we are suddenly removed from the equation. That's a fundamental part of being in the military in the first place.

    Petreus will step in for now, and will probably eventually be replaced by another 3-star.

    As to Obama retaining McCrystal, it was simply impossible. McCrystal himself knew this, just as E. J. Smith knew he was a dead man the minute he heard Titanic grinding against the ice. McCrystal arrived with resignation letter in hand. The meeting with Obama lasted fifteen minutes, if that, and was a set piece - there simply was no other outcome and both men knew. Pretreus’ appointment was announced less than fifteen minutes later – it was already a done deal before McCrystal arrived. This is how this sort of thing happens.

    Also, remember, this is McCrystal's second incident of insubordination at the presidential level. No president could have allowed this trend to continue. HOWEVER, Obama took the high road and allowed the general to resign and retain his dignity - rather than publically firing him and then humiliating and belittling the general the way, oh say, Bush did with Eric Shinseki.

  12. As always Jim, well said. As for the comments by chang3002, you might want to read Jim's post again. Gen. McChrystal's actions made that course of action impossible. If you read the Uniform Code of Military Justice, you'll find the phrase "conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline" repeated often. The UCMJ basically exists to define offenses and delineate the proper punishment for such offenses. Article 88 specifically covers "Contempt towards officials" and Article 134, known as the General article covers any offense that would be of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces. Both articles require "punishment as a court martial may direct." The choice the President faced was this: accept his resignation or relieve him of his duties (in effect, fire him) and allow the military justice system to decide his fate. Convening a court martial would have been a public spectacle, disgracing a soldier who had served honorably and with great distinction for most of his career, and distracting the country and the armed forces from the task at hand, winning the war. President Obama did exactly the right thing.

  13. Vagabond, everything you said is correct, but I'll tell you honestly - I, like Chang, wish to hell Obama had a different option available to him.

  14. For those interested, you might want to see the post and comments by former USMC officer and SF author Elizabeth Moon.

    Dr. Phil

  15. "I still find it appallingly naive of anyone who expected McChrystal to come out of this with a job."

    I don't think it was the reporter's responsibility to be concerned about McChrystal's career. The onus was on the general and his staff not to forget a reporter was embedded with them. And either they did, or they willingly continued to talk on the record. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as "off the record" anymore -- not when any schmuck with a camera phone can catch someone doing something embarrassing or wrong. (Just look at what happened to Helen Thomas and her anti-Semitic remarks.)

    The reporter was handed the story of a lifetime -- amazing access, and the commanding general in Afghanistan and his staff were disrespectful toward their commander in chief.

    Convening a court martial would have been a public spectacle, disgracing a soldier who had served honorably and with great distinction for most of his career, and distracting the country and the armed forces from the task at hand

    Not only that, but it would have given a field day to all the right-wing anti-Obama folks who would be trumpeting how the general's "freedom of speech" was trampled and everyone who speaks out against the "Dear Leader" is punished. They already call Obama a socialist commie fascist liberal.

  16. Dr. Phil, thank you for that link. Moon speaks like a true Marine, and she's absolutely correct.

    Bill, also well said and spot on. However, one thing I would point out, McCrystal shouldn't have watched his comments and those of his officers becasue of an embedded reporter - he should have done it because it was his duty to do so.

  17. Bill,

    I wasn't thinking about whether or not Hastings should or should not have reported the things he was privy to (but if asked, I' say he should). My observation was more to the point that Hastings may be a good reporter, but if he really thought McChrystal was "untouchable", it means he should only be relied on for regurgitating facts. Any conclusions he arrives at will be suspect in my mind. And if he starts writing editorials, I'll just ignore them. He doesn't seem particularly brilliant at reading tea leaves.

  18. ...McCrystal shouldn't have watched his comments and those of his officers becasue of an embedded reporter - he should have done it because it was his duty to do so.

    I struggle over this. Bitching about one's bosses and supervisors seems to be par for the course in any large hierarchical organization. And I understand the need to blow off steam by saying things that people outside of my orbit might find unacceptable (see my comment on the whistleblower post). Maybe the difference is the military code of conduct. I don't know, never having served.

    And, weirdly I like my supervisor, so I don't bad mouth her.

  19. Nick from the O.C.June 24, 2010 at 5:54 PM

    I agree with the acceptance of McCrystal's resignation -- but I'm wondering why it was President Obama who accepted it?

    I mean, isn't there a chain of command? I'm no expert, but I would think that the Chairman of the JCS, or the Army Chief of Staff, or the Secretary of the Army, or even the Secretary of Defense would be considered to be the General's superior(s), and thus should be better positioned in the CoC to accept the resignation.

    From a political POV, I would think that Mr. Obama would want the Pentagon to handle the resignation, so that he could distance himself and not be accused of letting the content of of the criticisms affect him emotionally.

    Am I missing something here?

    tenuria = length of time spent in the mines of Moria

  20. Nick,

    War Zone theater commander in a presidential appointment. The President is the General's immediate superior in this matter - Because the general was responsible for executing the President's plan in the war zone and only the President can relieve him of command. Constitutionally, this prevents the military from executing their own agenda, instead of that of the civilian leadership.

    The Iraqi and Afghan theater commanders answer to CENTCOM for routine matters, but for specific conduct of the war and its objectives he answers directly to the Commander in Chief.

  21. Never having served in the military, I offer no comment but to applaud Jim's and Elizabeth Moon's posts as reflecting what I as a civilian expect of the military.

    That said, I work with an ex-state supreme court justice, and today I was working on a project involving judicial ethics. The burdens and limitations of free speech seem rather similar for the judiciary as for the military. The relevant quote I read today that almost exactly mirrors the conflicts in this discussion:

    “Irresponsible or improper conduct by judges erodes public confidence in the judiciary. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions on the judge's conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly.”

  22. first line, previous comment:

    theater commander IS a presidential appointment.

    Bad hands. Bad.

  23. Nick from the O.C.June 24, 2010 at 9:16 PM

    Thanks for the info, Jim.

  24. Natalie, I recommend you read the E. Moon commentary that Dr. Phil linked to. That explains very well why what is allowable in civilian life is dangerous in military life.

    Ultimately it boils down to a lack of discipline. Fatal, in life and death situations.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.