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Posted by on Oct 5, 2009 in War | 28 comments

The Military Way

It was with a good bit of disappointment that I read my friend Ed Morrissey’s take over at Hot Air on the decision by Gen McChrystal to give a speech on war strategy in London last week. Of course, to the best of my reccolection, Ed hasn’t served in uniform, so he may not be as familiar with the Military way as those of us who have been there.

McChrystal may not know the ways of Washington, but that’s not his battleground. It seems as though Obama knows Afghanistan less than McChrystal knows the Beltway, and that should be much more of a concern for the White House and its advisers than whether McChrystal is playing by Marquess de Queensbury rules while speaking publicly.

Sorry to say, Ed, but I think you’re a bit out of your league on this one. It may be fun to take a poke at Obama, but this is serious business. This has nothing to do with a general knowing anything about how the beltway works or any rules of boxing. This is the military, and this unpleasant episode takes me back for a moment to some of the more unpleasant times I spent in basic training during the closing days of the Vietnam War.

One of the frequent assignments given to our troop of merry recruits was to collect the trash cans from outside the the mess hall and the barracks of A School students who had already graduated. We would bring them back to our own barracks and empty them, wash them out and scrub the insides with some brushes which would have been inadequate for brushing teeth in any normal circumstances.

On one occasion we had finished our job and the company commander was on the spot to inspect the cans. He looked over four or five of them, barely nodding in approval at their state of cleanliness, and then picked up the last one and began shrieking about how it was a filthy mess (with lots more colorful language I won’t repeat here) and proclaimed that we were to start over from scratch on all of them and do it again. (The can was, of course, spotless, but that didn’t stop the C.C. from always finding some imagined bit of dust to complain about.) One of my unfortunate colleagues made the nearly fatal error of saying that it wouldn’t make much sense to do that, and couldn’t we just clean the offending one again?

This resulted in his being knocked flat up against the cinder block wall, (they still knocked you around a lot back in those days) all of us getting to do push ups until we dropped, an extra session of marching instead of dinner, and we still had to wash all the damned cans again from scratch. It was only later on that I learned why things happened that way in basic training. It didn’t matter what the order was at the time it was given, or if it made any sense. In order for the military to work, you followed your orders. When that basic tenet broke down, the entire military ceases to function. I understand how this can make no sense to civilians, but if you’ve lived the life, you learn why it is so.

When things were going badly (at their worst) in Iraq, the blame was rightly laid at the feet of George W. Bush. (And, to a certain extent, Rumsfeld.) When the strategy was changed and the surge put in place, General David Petraeous was given credit for it. And that’s the way it works. When you’re the one in charge at the very top, you take responsibility for any failures, just as Obama will have to do if things go totally pear shaped in Afghanistan. And you credit your field commanders when things go well. It’s just how it works. But there’s another side to that equation which is equally important.

Good military leaders listen to and take feedback from those below them, and this is particularly true when you’re talking about your generals in the field giving feedback to the top echelons. But there are channels to do this through. One thing you do not do is go on television or some speaking engagement and question the chain of command in public. That damages the entire order of the military structure. Obama was allegedly enraged at McChrystal after the speech and called him in for a dressing down on Air Force One. And well he should.

I don’t care how good of a job McChrystal has done in his career and his current position. He should be fired immediately to send a message up and down the chain. Of course, I don’t think Obama will have the brass cojones to do that, and the GOP would tear him apart if he did, since nothing he could ever do would satisfy them. But it would be the right thing to do. McChrystal can send his feedback up the chain whenever he likes without having a face to face meeting with the Commander in Chief. Whether such a meeting ever takes place is at the President’s pleasure, and only the President will have to live with the burden of the results if things go badly as a result. McChrystal was so far out of line that his career should be forfeit at this point.

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  • You’re right on the money Jazz. It was insubordination and calling it anything else is just partisan fodder. I didn’t hear Ed screaming bloody murder when Bush and Cheney started forcing Generals out until they could find some who told them what they wanted to hear.

  • shannonlee

    I was wondering when somone was going to write about this. I can’t believe McChrystal made those statements. It makes me wonder what was going on in his head and it makes me question my defense of his past behavior in regards to “leaked” information regarding his position or even if he wanted it known in the media that he would resign if he didn’t receive the troops he wanted. At this point it appears that he has been trying to manipulate Obama’s policy through the media.

    At this time it appears to me that I misread his actions and that he is truly trying to push Obama into the decision he wants. That is not how the military works. That is not how an acting General should behave. And that is why agree that he should be removed.

  • Cindy Whitehair

    And how does any of this differ from the Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and his open criticism of President Bush’s Iraq plans?


    • shannonlee

      Are you talking about his congressional testimony?

      • Cindy Whitehair

        His Congressional testimony AND his interviews on all of the Sunday shows and with anyone who would talk to him about it….

        When he openly disagreed with the policy set in place by higher ups he was lauded as a whistleblower and a true patriot. Now…..


        • shannonlee

          Well, it is kinda sorta illegal to lie to congress. As far as Sunday shows, I don’t recall him doing interviews attacking Bush while he was CSA. I know he did after he was forced out for his congressional testimony, but not before. If he did, he was wrong…and it would explain why Rummie forced him out.

        • rudi

          Please supply links to the Sunday morning shows. Fallows at the Atlantic says he remain quiet after his Congressional testimony.

    • The only difference so far is that Shinseki lost his job – McCrystal still has his.

      • CStanley

        Shinseki didn’t ‘lose his job’ over his testimony or other comments. His retirement had been announced a year prior to those incidents.

        • shannonlee

          That is true, he replacement was named 14 months before his term was to end. So Rummie cut his legs out from underneath him long before the congressional testimony…odds are for voicing the same opinion.

      • Cindy Whitehair

        And that was ultimately where I was going Ron (how are you BTW?). A lot of the same folks (not Jazz mind you) that were screaming bloody murder about how unfair it was for President Bush to fire Shinseki then are screaming for McChrystal’s dismissal now. I agree with Jazz that this NOT appropriate behavior in the military – ESPECIALLY for a general. Imagine if some Sargent Major had done this same thing to General McChrystal…how fast can you say “Article 15”?

        I don’t agree with the President on his handling of military matters, as you well know, but I do agree with Jazz. If it was a breach of military discipline for Shinseki (and it was) then it is a breach of military discipline NOW and this President needs to do what his predecessor did with Shinseki.


        • GeorgeSorwell

          Lady Logician–

          Can you name the people who are being two-faced about Shinseki/McChrystal?

          As has already been noted, Shinseki was required to testify truthfully before Congress while in office. But which Sunday morning show was Shinseki on before he retired, and what exactly did he say?

          Links in support?

    • Father_Time

      Dear seeker of knowledge, Shinseki’s testimony was Congress ordering him to “testifiy” to their questions with information and/or opinion. A speech is a volunteering of information and/or opinion to the public.

      In other words, a member of the military may indeed have differing opinions to his/her superiors, but expressing them publicly, and, in uniform is forbidden, unless ordered to do so by his/her superiors, the duly elected United States Government.

      THAT is the difference. Big differance huh.

  • Father_Time

    Oh I most emphatically agree with you Mr. Shaw, but it’s worse than that.

    As you indirectly stated, the “military way” is nonsensical and thereby , (IMO), irrelevant to our citizens, their elected government, and, their President. We are free, not regimented. The regimentation of the military is required for having an effective military, but it is contrary to the very idea of freedom.

    did not merely offend his superior, he offended his supreme superior, the will of the American people, vested in the President of the United States by Constitutionally mandated election.

    It may or may not have been McChrystal’s intent, but what he did suggests that the military has a political opinion in defiance of the people’s elected government. It appears that McChrystal, a four star general, does not understand the basis for a representative democracy nor the Constitution for which he has sworn to defend.

    Oh but it was only a speech and possibly an error in judgment. The military complies with national policy, they do NOT make it.

    McChrystal needs to resign in honor and respect for the Office of President of the United States and our duly elected sovereign government that is Of By and For the PEOPLE, of the United States.

    • JeffersonDavis

      Incorrect logic as usual.

      You are correct about the “congress and government…not regimented” and outside of the “military way”.
      But the President is The Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He is smack dab in the middle of the military way. If he does not know how that works, then he probably shouldn’t have run for that particular office. Even Hillary Clinton knew the military way, more so than her husband at times.

      The fact is that the military runs as it does within a conscripted service to maintain discipline and order. When it is broken by subverting the chain-of-command, by dishonoring your men, or ignoring those that break the rules; the system breaks down. McChrystal should be fired immediately for subverting the chain-of-command. And if Obama does not do the right thing in Afghanistan, then he too should be fired for dishonoring his men.

  • HemmD

    I know it doesn’t fit the military change of command, but McChrystal should submit his resignation and Obama should then refuse it and keep him on. McChrystal’s analysis of the Pakistan/Afghan situation appears fairly accurate. What he did was wrong, but I still believe his motive was to save lives, not start a political career. The resignation/rejection would have the same effect on the military, and we wouldn’t have to wait for another general to get up to speed.

    • CStanley

      I know it doesn’t fit the military change of command, but McChrystal should submit his resignation and Obama should then refuse it and keep him on.

      I’m in rare agreement with you, Hemm. No one would be well served by another change in command in Afghanistan at this point, yet McChrystal should symbolically offer a resignation since this is a serious breach. Obama then refusing the resignation would indicate a seriousness in addressing the actual policy issues which his administration has been (unforgivably, in my estimation) dragging its heels on.

      And Jazz is correct- these leaks and public dissent by military leaders were wrong under Bush, and wrong now. I think in all cases though they’re reflective of major tensions and dissarray in the Pentagon, and between our political and military leaders (IOW, I see virtually all of the military commanders, under Bush and now, resorting to this sort of thing out of genuine frustration, not a desire to cause political embarrassment to their civilian leaders.)

  • Father_Time

    Uh folks. It was a speech given in Briton, not a testimony to congress.

    [decision by Gen McChrystal to give a speech on war strategy in London last week.]

  • LL, it was the same under Bush. What so many fail to realize is that the military depends on speaking to the force in one voice. When they did it to Bush it was just as bad. You don’t raise fights over the orders, the strategy… ANYTHING to put doubt in the mind of the troops. Ever. The military is not a democratic organization for debate and opinions. It walks on one set of feet and it listens to one voice. It’s the only way it works. McChrystal broke that one voice at the highest level.

  • Only last week the US Army’s former Director of Operations, General Gregory Newbold, came out asking for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. And this week, US Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, former commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, joined a growing number of US Generals who have either called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or have voiced serious differences with President Bush’s US War Plans. The current list of top US Generals opposing President Bush’s plans appears sufficient to staff a mini-Pentagon: did this undermine army authority? Please give me a break.

    • Cindy Whitehair

      Richard – the difference with your example and what we are talking about here can be summed up in one single word…they were all FORMER military when they raised their concerns. Generals Shinseki and McChrystal were both CURRENT when they raised their objections….


      • LadyLogician draws the single appropriate distinction. Once you leave the military (as I did) you are just a voter and welcome to voice your opinion wherever you can pitch your soap box.

      • i fully understand that a retired general has the right and in some instances the duty as a private citizen to speak out. I misconstrued some of what i read as to mean thatit was a combination of former and active generals who spoke out. I stand corrected.

  • Davebo

    Attackerman strongly argues that no rift exists and that this is all a product of the media.

    • I think there is a lot of truth to what Ackerman says but it’s also the new media – partisan hacks like Ed Morrissey for example. The reality is we, including me, don’t know what is going on behind the scenes and selective quotes from the media and the new media need to be taken with a grain of salt.

      • I’ve served 16 years in the military and personally, I’ve never much liked General officers. However, in this case I think it would be wrong to fire someone for one mistake. If he repeats the mistake, then fine. Our military already has a problematic “zero defect mentality.” Firing McChrystal would definitely send a message, but I think it would be a different message than what you might believe.

  • JeffersonDavis

    Outstanding article, Jazz.

  • Leonidas

    I don’t care how good of a job McChrystal has done in his career and his current position. He should be fired immediately to send a message up and down the chain.

    Sorry but don’t agree, you don’t take your best general off the battlefield because a politician gets his panties in a bunch and can’t make up his mind. The general didn’t say anything we didn’t already know, or that had not already been said by Petraeus.

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