What the McChrystal incident tells us about US

What was McChrystal guilty of? Insubordination?

June 29, 2010 00:44
4 minute read.
Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen

stanley mcchrystal 311. (photo credit: AP)


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It seems I’m one of the few Americans appalled at the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal last week. In a rare moment of unity, pundits on both the Left and Right supported President Barack Obama’s relieving him of his command. The arguments were uniform (no pun intended): If the president hadn’t fired McChrystal, it would have eroded civilian authority over the military....

McChrystal’s comments showed a lack of professionalism and conduct unbecoming an officer.... He insulted our allies, etc, etc.

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But put aside the hysteria and think soberly for a moment. What was McChrystal guilty of? Insubordination? This wasn’t Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who publicly criticized president Harry Truman’s preparedness to accept a partitioned Korea, and was a public advocate for war with China. McChrystal was the architect of a policy wholly endorsed by Obama, and never once challenged the orders of his commander-in-chief, either in public or in the Rolling Stone article.

But wasn’t he guilty of stupidity for allowing his staff to mouth off in front of a journalist? Perhaps. But how media-savvy do you expect a general to be who for years has been running the blackest of black ops? We train these men to hunt down the most dangerous murderers in the world, not to be PR pouffes.

Guys like McChrystal deal with a level of pressure that we civilians, surrounded by our plasma TV screens in our air-conditioned homes, can scarcely understand. Of necessity they’re going to be the kind of people who buck authority just a little.

McChrystal’s error was to blow off steam and allow his subordinates to grumble about their civilian overlords – which one assumes is pretty standard fare in military circles – in the presence of a journalist. But anyone who has been the subject of a lengthy magazine profile knows how easy it is to simply forget that off-the-cuff remarks are on the record, especially when you have a million more important things to worry about.

Vice President Joe Biden is known to be gaffe-prone, and recently dropped the f-bomb into a live microphone at Obama’s signing of the health-care bill. Politicians are human. So are generals, as are their staffs. You don’t destroy the career and reputation of a heroic officer who has served his country valiantly for three decades because a journalist decides to publish private banter.

BUT IT’S not the general that is mostly on my mind, it’s American values. Obama said he had to fire the general to bolster civilian control over the military, which conjured up images of McChrystal poised to “cross the Rubicon” and storm Washington. But the president could better have used the incident to teach the American people about the importance of gratitude – a value sorely lacking in our democracy. He could have told the country that McChrystal screwed up; a general has to be measured and in control. But given the fact that this was just a silly magazine article and the country owes McChrystal a tremendous debt for three decades of service – especially as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, which captured Saddam Hussein and killed al-Qaida Iraq head Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – he was going to overlook the incident and accept the general’s public apology.

Greedy Wall Street bankers who may never have sacrificed anything for their country were given multibillion-dollar bailouts when they messed up. But McChrystal, who will make a fraction in his entire career of what a Wall Street investment banker makes in a year, was thrown to the wolves for saying things like he didn’t want to read Richard Holbrooke’s e-mails.

Oh, the war is bigger than any one individual, the president says. True. But so are American values.

We continue to live free only because of our brave military, yet most Americans offer our troops empty words of support, words rarely backed by tangible action. This is a shame, given how much criticism they receive because when fighting terrorists who use kindergartens and hospitals as bases of operation, civilian casualties are unavoidable.

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman came close to a blood libel when he wrote of the “brutality of Israel’s retaliations” against Hizbullah and Hamas, and how Israel “chose to go after them without being deterred by the prospect of civilian casualties.”

Irresponsible words like these betray a contempt for the challenges commanders of Western armies face when fighting terrorists – who murder innocent civilians in cold blood and also use them as human shields.

But it’s not just in military situations where gratitude is lacking.

Gratitude is an increasingly rare commodity in the parent-child bond, with more youth feeling a sense of entitlement and more parents feeling like glorified cash machines. Neither do employees feel appreciated as they are laid off by companies that put higher profits before happier people.

Gratitude is also lacking in today’s media, which is often prepared to exploit human error to bolster circulation. Michael Hastings could have showed some gratitude toward a general who took him into his confidence and gave him unique access to his challenges fighting the murderous Taliban in Afghanistan. Instead, his revelations will ensure that public officials trust journalists even less than they do already, making our newspapers and magazines even blander and more colorless.

The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network and host of “The Shmuley Show” on WABC 77AM in New York City. His new book is Renewal: Living the Values-Filled Life (Basic Books).

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