It seems I’m one of the few Americans who was appalled at the firing of General Stanley McChrystal. In a rare moment of unity, pundits on both the left and right supported the President relieving the general of command. The arguments were uniform (no pun intended). If the President had not fired McChrystal it would have eroded civilian authority over the military. McChrystal’s comments showed a lack of professionalism and conduct unbecoming an officer. He insulted our allies, etc, etc.
But put aside the hysteria and think soberly for a moment. What was
McChrystal guilty of? Insubordination? This wasn’t General Douglas MacArthur
who publicly and willfully criticized President Truman’s preparedness to accept
a partitioned Korea. MacArthur was also a public advocate for going to war with
China. This was rank insubordination on the part of a commander who was an
American hero but who had, perhaps because he had served as viceroy of Japan
for half a decade, grown a little too big for his britches and needed to be
taught who was boss. Not so McChrystal who was the architect of a policy wholly
endorsed by President Obama and never once challenged the orders of his
Commander-in-Chief either in public or even in the Rolling Stone article.
But wasn’t he guilty of stupidity and mouthing off in front of a
Perhaps. But how media savvy do you expect a general who for years has
been running the blackest of black opps to be? We train these men to hunt down
the most dangerous murderers in the world, not to be experts in PR. Of
necessity they’re going to be the kind of people who buck authority just a
little. And if they do so in the privacy of a military bull session, who cares?
Guys like McChrystal deal with a level of pressure that we civilians,
surrounded by our plasma TV screens in our air-conditioned homes, can scarcely
McChrystal’s error was to blow off steam and allow his subordinates to
grumble about their civilians overlords – which one assumes is pretty standard
fare in military circles – in the presence of a journalist. But anyone who has
ever been the subject of a lengthy magazine profile, where a reporter follows
you around for weeks, knows how easy it is to simply forget they’re there, or
that off-the-cuff remarks are on the record, especially when you have a million
more important things to worry about.
Vice President Biden is known to be gaff-prone and recently dropped
the F-Bomb into a live microphone at Obama’s signing of the health care bill.
Politicians are human. So are Generals, as are their staff. But you don’t
destroy the career and reputation of a hero officer who has served his country
valiantly for three decades because a journalist decides to publish the private
banter of decorated soldiers who have never challenged the civilian authority
in any meaningful way.
And why should I care about McChrystal? It’s not the general that is
mostly on my mind, but American values.
President Obama said that he had to fire the general to bolster
civilian control over the military, which conjured up images of McChrystal
poised to cross the Rubicon and storm Washington in true Julius Caesar style.
But the president, who loves teachable moments, could have used the incident to
teach the American people about the importance of gratitude, a value sorely
lacking in our democracy. He could have told the country that McChrystal screwed
up. A general has to be measured and in control. But given the fact that this
was just a silly magazine article and the country owed McChrystal a tremendous
debt of gratitude for three decades of service – especially as head of the Joint Special
Operations Command, which captured Saddam Hussein and killed
Al-Qaeda Iraq head Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, he was going to overlook the incident and accept the
general’s public apology.
Wall Street bankers who may never have sacrificed anything for their
country were given multi-billion dollar bailouts by the government when they,
propelled by greed rather than patriotism, messed up. But McChrystal, who will
make a fraction in his entire career of what a Wall Street investment can make
in a year, was thrown to the wolves for saying things like he didn’t want to
read Richard Holbrooke’s emails.
Oh, but the war is bigger than any one individual, the President said.
True. But so are American values.
Gratitude is a dying virtue in American society. We continue to live
free only because of our brave military, yet most Americans offer empty words
of support to our troops that are rarely backed by tangible action. This is a
shame, given how much criticism the militaries of democracies receive because
of tragic civilian casualties that are unavoidable when fighting terrorists who
use kindergartens and hospitals as bases of operation. In this past Sunday’s
New York Times Thomas Friedman came awfully close to a blood libel when he
wrote of the “brutality of Israel’s retaliations” against Hezbollah and Hamas
and how Israel “chose to go after them without being deterred by the prospect
of civilian casualties.” Irresponsible words like these betray contempt for the
challenges commanders of Western armies face when fighting terrorists who both
murder innocent civilians and also use them as human shields.
But it’s not just in military situations where gratitude is lacking in
our culture. It is also dying in marriage, with more and more men and women
refusing to stay in relationships where they don’t feel appreciated. Gratitude
is an increasingly rare commodity in the parent-child bond with more youth
feeling a sense of entitlement and more parents feeling like they are glorified
ATM’s. Neither do employees in today’s economy feel appreciated as they are
laid off in record number by companies who often put profits before people.
But gratitude is also lacking in today’s media, which is often
prepared to exploit human error to bolster circulation and ratings. Michael
Hastings could have showed some gratitude toward a general who trusted him,
took him into his confidence, and gave him unique access to his challenges
fighting the murderous Taliban in Afghanistan, including his occasional
frustrations with his civilian superiors. Instead his revelations will ensure
that public officials trust journalists even less then they do already, making
our newspapers and magazines, which are already on life support, blander and