06.23.10

What the Military Can Learn from McChrystal

Keep your mouth shut, honor civilian control, don’t trust the press—Retired Army Col. Ken Allard offers five lessons for service members in the wake of the McChrystal affair.

What new lessons will the professional military take away from President Obama’s relief of Gen. Stanley McChrystal? Make no mistake: Those parameters will provoke lively discussions and debates from Kabul to Washington, from combat outposts to Pentagon offices, and from the military academies to the war colleges. In such places, physically and intellectually remote from mainstream America, the long and sometimes difficult history of American civil-military relations is a living thing.

George Washington’s selfless submission to the Continental Congress and Lincoln’s difficulties with a succession of weak but ambitious generals are timeless examples of why civilian control of the military is a hard but necessary discipline. Truman’s relief of Douglas MacArthur is still studied closely, but so is the record of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, notorious for firing service secretaries as well as four-star generals. Getting relieved is just one of the many occupational hazards in the profession of arms—and by no means its worst one. But after eight years of continuous war, what norms have changed and which remain the same?

Obama struck exactly the right note in praising McChrystal’s service and patriotism, while reinforcing his own prerogatives as commander in chief.

1. Civilian control is still the constitutional linchpin uniting defender and defended. Americans still dislike placing too much power in military hands. They also become extraordinarily uncomfortable with any military figure seen, rightly or wrongly, as a martinet or dismissive of the people they voted into office. Obama struck exactly the right note in praising McChrystal’s service and patriotism, while reinforcing his own prerogatives as commander in chief. He did so while specifically tying his decision to the reinforcement of civilian control.

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2. Now more than ever, words mean something. A somewhat older commander, Solomon, may have said it best: “Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut; you will stay out of trouble.” In the Pentagon of Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, memos stayed unwritten if the boss did not wish to see them published the next day in The Washington Post. Two decades later—and awash in iPods, Wi-Fi, and cell-phone cameras—unguarded comments are a long-vanished luxury. If you can’t control your mouth, then your butt is apt to get fired.

3. You are responsible for your staff, including everything they say and do. The Rolling Stone article will certainly become required reading throughout the military’s extensive professional education system. Unwitting or not, some of its most painful off-the-cuff comments were provided by staff officers who presumably thought they were doing their boss a favor. Instead, they contributed mightily to his demise. When I was a high-level aide, we had only two rules: Never wear the boss’ stars and never, ever go farther than he would. Oh, and by the way: Embarrass him and you’re toast! Look for such common-sense rules to gain new life.

4. Never, ever trust the press. If you think I’m kidding, just enter the words “Dolchstoss” into your browser and see what comes up. Call it a myth, but betrayal-by-media has a long and checkered history going back at least to the post-World War I German army. It recurred after Vietnam and has simmered ever since. Don’t think I’m neutral, either. I once made an unforgivably rookie mistake by trusting a prominent reporter who should have been investigated for plagiarism. Other friends had their careers ended after sharing confidences with a reporter—just like McChrystal. In the aftermath of this incident, the conflict between the media and the military is alive and well.

5. Us against them. Part of the media-military tension reflects the widening gap between the military and our society. Call us the not-so-great generation, but our eight-year war has been outsourced to other people’s kids, with neither a second glance nor a whisper of guilt. Laugh if you want at the Rolling Stone article’s harsh characterizations of the “Team America” surrounding McChrystal. But he is the living embodiment of Orwell’s famous line, “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Obama showed considerable class by praising the man he had just relieved, but our social gap just got a little bit wider.

The role model for the courageous and profoundly selfless service needed now and in the future American officer corps is surely Gen. David Petraeus, immediately named to head the Afghanistan mission. (Full disclosure: Petraeus and I have been friends since we taught together at West Point.) But in our nation’s capital, irony piles upon irony. The same Democrats who once dissed Petraeus now want him to perform in Afghanistan the same trick he pulled off in Iraq, despite their determined opposition.

Sometimes makes you wonder why Washington, Lincoln, and that whole crowd even bothered.

Colonel Ken Allard (US Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as Dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. He wrote the military review of the U.S. engagement in Somalia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his ten years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.