Fifth graders can be unbelievably cruel with their words. Keenly aware of this, my fifth grade teacher devised a simple demonstration to get us to see the need to be more mindful of what we said and how we said it. Calling up a volunteer, she handed the student a tube of toothpaste and asked him to squeeze some out on to a paper plate. With ease, he let loose a sizable stream of fluoride-infused paste on to the plate. Without missing a beat, the teacher handed him a plastic spoon and instructed him to now return the paste to the tube. As we giggled along, he awkwardly attempted to scoop up the paste and force it back in. Of course it didn’t go in, and that was precisely the point.
“Harsh words come out so easily,” the teacher admonished us, “but once they’ve been said, its not so easy to take them back.”
Reading the news of General Stanley McChrystal’s ouster in the wake of his explosive Rolling Stone interview, I couldn’t help but feel McChrystal was having his own awkward spoon and toothpaste moment.
A handful of critics — mainly the predictably always-anti-Obama crowd — have argued that booting McChrystal was an overreaction, and have defended the general’s critique of the president as being the sort of honest “straight talk” that we ought to applaud.
The vast majority of us, however, seem to agree that McChrystal’s comments in Rolling Stone — trash-talking key members of
the national security team, ridiculing the Vice President, and even
casting doubt on the President’s command — crossed a line.
What gives? Don’t we expect our generals to be tough-talking straight-shooters? Don’t we want them to speak their minds with brutal honesty, no matter who might get caught in the cross-hairs? (And if they need to drop a few F-bombs and crack a few off-color jokes to do it, as McChrystal and his inner circle do in the Rolling Stones piece, shouldn’t we also allow them that concession?)
Maybe. Maybe not.
We do expect our military leaders to be forthright and rugged. But we also expect them to be able to balance their straight-shooting with thoughtfulness, and show an awareness of the consequences that their words carry. We expect them to express truths, yes, even difficult ones… but we expect them to do so in a way that is constructive rather than destructive, that unifies rather than divides. We expect men entrusted to command armies to demonstrate a certain standard of command over themselves.
Thousands of years ago, on a battlefield not far from present-day
Afghanistan, Lord Krishna advised another general (the warrior Arjuna)
about this need to take command of oneself. A real leader is one who,
first and foremost, subdues the enemies within. This, Krishna teaches,
is real discipline.
Krishna’s instruction about
disciplined speech is particularly relevant here:
caiva vaan-mayam tapa ucyate
“Discipline of speech is found
in speaking words that are not disturbing to others, but that are
truthful, pleasing, and beneficial, and in words born of sacred study
and spiritual practice.”
(Bhagavad Gita, 17.15)
think that Krishna is just advising us to be diplomatic (although
diplomacy isn’t necessarily a bad thing). I think the verse is calling us to become
deeply aware that our words have far-reaching and often irreversible
consequences. Krishna is demanding that we bring our words and our
intentions into integrity, even — especially — when the call to speak
truthfully and the need to speak in a way that honors others appear to
be at odds.
To do that in a meaningful way, of course, requires
a great deal of humility, self-control, wisdom, and clear vision. These
are qualities that are admirable in every sphere of life; in the
top-down, chain-of-command culture of the military, these qualities
become down-right indispensable.
Seen through this lens, McChrystal’s interview was more than a mere
gaffe or slip-of-the-tongue. It was symptomatic of an internal struggle,
a frustration and disconnect so severe that — despite what the
general had to have known was a horrible judgment call — it came
spilling out in ugly blobs of toothpaste on to the pages of a popular
And now, relieved of his duties leading the war out there, perhaps
McChrystal will have the time and space to ponder how to go about
fighting the war raging within.