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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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