“Who’s going to take my place if I’m killed?”
As a platoon leader during two tours of duty in Iraq, I ended every mission briefing with that very simple question. I’d always follow it up with “…and if the next man is killed, who will take his place?” We’d continue this drill until we went from me, the lieutenant in charge of the platoon, all the way down to the newest private.
We went through this grim exercise because the military operates under the principle that someone always has to be prepared to take charge and accomplish the mission when a leader goes down. This is how we ensure platoons can accomplish missions on the ground and how our military can fight and win wars at the highest levels.
From private to general: everyone can be replaced.
In my experience, major changes in leadership or strategy always had an impact on the psyche of rank-and-file soldiers.
On Tuesday, news broke of the upcoming Rolling Stone article that painted an unflattering picture of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and his team.
As speculation mounted about the general’s future, a theme began to emerge: should we avoid firing him given the immense challenges we’re facing in Afghanistan? Is he the only one who can lead us to victory? Was he, in a sense, too big to fail?
Less than 24 hours after the story broke, President Obama fired the general because his conduct risked undermining civilian control of the military and eroding trust within the national security team.
But we should take a moment to consider the dangers of pinning all of our hopes of success on the backs of only a few generals. One only needs to think back to a few weeks ago when our collective hearts sank as we watched General David Petraeus slump over in his seat while testifying before Congress.
He’s the man credited with turning the corner in Iraq, responsible for both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now assigned to take over General McChrystal’s duties and responsibilities.
More unsettling, the incident with McChrystal highlights some of the risks of generals learning too much from their civilian, political counterparts.
When an officer swears an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, it means they don’t get to go on PR offensives like MacArthur in Korea and McChrystal in Afghanistan, when calling for a troop surge. It means you don’t play fast and loose with sound bites or get cozy with reporters.
Generals have an obligation to provide sound advice behind closed doors based on their military experience and, when debate has ended, follow orders.
I can understand, however, why the spotlight would be alluring for a general. As a country, we’ve always had a romanticized view of military generals—from Pershing to Patton, Powell to Petraeus. Generals have always captured our attention, and probably a few too many headlines, with their larger than life personas. This has often resulted in a willingness to overlook offenses that would get a lesser man fired.
Some generals navigate this world more successfully than others. The good ones understand they wield a tremendous amount of power. Their actions and words can sway the outcome of battles over seas and elections here at home. The great ones recognize their professional obligation to stay focused on matters of military significance and leave the politics to someone else.
It’s for this reason that I applaud President Obama and his decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation. The president avoided making a political decision and instead made a military one. Military decisions are cold and measured—focused entirely on accomplishing the mission.
Keeping McChrystal and his team would make it impossible to wage the full-scale military and diplomatic offensive needed to win the war in Afghanistan. It’s one thing to hold a negative view of your diplomatic colleagues in private. When those views become public, regaining mutual trust and respect requires time that the situation in Afghanistan doesn’t allow.
If there is one area that we can take solace, it’s in the professionalism and resolve of our men and women in uniform and their ability to ignore distractions at the top of the chain of command and focus on the task at hand. That said, in my experience, major changes in leadership or strategy always had an impact on the psyche of rank-and-file soldiers.
Hopefully, with the McChrystal debacle behind us, our troops can once again turn their attention to achieving our goals in Afghanistan and bringing an end to the longest war in our nation’s history.
Woods, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was discharged from the U.S. Army in 2008 for violating the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.