ARTICLE: WANDERINGS | Brasch | Lady Gaga, Rolling Stone, and Gen. McChrystal

WANDERINGS, with Walter Brasch
week of June 27, 2010

The Civilian and the General:
The Reality Behind the McChrystal Interview Fall-Out

by Walter Brasch
            For a few days last week, the harpies of the extreme right
assaulted the president of the United States for first considering,
and then firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of allied forces in
            In a 10-day interview with Michael Hastings of RollingStone, McChrystal and his senior aides poked fun or criticized almost every civilian in the highest levels of the chain of command, including the President, Vice-President, and National Security Advisor
James L. Jones, former Marine Corps commandant who, an aide told the
magazine, was a "clown." Another aide told Hastings that Sens. John
Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) "turn up, have a meeting
with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, criticize him at the airport
press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly,
it's not very helpful."
            Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and almost the entire tea bag
movement supported McChrystal. They screeched that it was not
McChrystal who should be fired but Obama for his war strategy. That
would be the same strategy that was designed and executed by—Gen.
            This wasn't the first time McChrystal was out of line.
Previously, he tried to box in Obama. His tactic was not to be a part
of a vigorous discussion with other military leaders and the
Commander-in-Chief about the strategy in Afghanistan. He decided to
just go to the media and "tell all," essentially begging the President
to significantly increase troop presence in Afghanistan and widen the
war, which has now lasted more than eight years. This is also the same
general who we now know was one of the major players in covering up
the cause of the death of former NFL millionaire star Pat Tillman who
became an Army Ranger, and then was killed by friendly fire in
Afghanistan. This is also the general who was in command of a task
force that had 34 of its members disciplined for prisoner abuse at Abu
            McChrystal wasn't about to get any sympathy from his
superiors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had served George W.
Bush prior to being asked to stay by President Obama, said that
McChrystal "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supported
the firing. But, it was the words of three leading senators who should
have provided the beacon to the unenlightened of the reactionary
right. In a joint statement, the senators said they had "the highest
respect for General McChrystal and honor his brave service and
sacrifice to our nation," but that his comments were "inappropriate
and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between
Commander-in-Chief and the military." The three senators, all known
hawks, were Joe Lieberman, an Independent; and Republicans John
McCain, a former Navy captain; and Lindsey Graham, a colonel in the
Air Force Reserve.
            For his part, Gen. McChrystal knew he was out of line. "I
extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake
reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened," McChrystal
said, and noted that he believed that in his 34-year military career,
he "lived by the principles of personal honor and professional
integrity [and what] is reflected in this article falls far short of
that standard."
            Of course, the attacking force on the right flank, who
were silent when the Bush–Cheney administration choked the First
Amendment rights of civilians, put both their brain cells together and
claimed Obama was stifling free speech. Here's some constitutional law
that will enlighten even the dimmest bulb. Freedom of speech, by law,
does not extend to the military. That applies to privates as well as
generals. The extreme right, which has proven embarrassing to true
conservatives and the Republican party itself, apparently overlooked
the fact that George W. Bush, while President, fired or marginalized
senior officers for disagreeing with civilian policy. Gen. Peter Pace,
chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not get a usual second term
after he not only challenged the Bush–Cheney Administration on its
stand about torture and on Administration claims, later proven to be
false, that Iran was supplying munitions to Iraqi insurgents. Sealing
his fate, however, was his public belief that gays were immoral. Gen.
Eric Shinseki, the Army's Chief of Staff, had bluntly told the Senate
Armed Forces committee in a mandated appearance that there were
significant problems with the Bush–Cheney–Rumsfeld plan for the
forthcoming invasion of Iraq. He retired without the customary
recognition by civilian leadership. Adm. William Fallon, commander of
the U.S. Central Command, was terminated for challenging the
Bush–Cheney strategy that might have led to war with Iran. The reality
that Shinseki and Fallon were eventually proven to be right was of
little consequence. The President, in his role as Commander-in-Chief,
has authority to discipline his senior officers for disagreeing with
him, even privately.
            While President Obama, perhaps more than most of his
predecessors, encourages debate and vigorous discussion, he couldn't
have a field commander publically disagreeing with him. McChrystal's
statements, said the President, represent conduct that "undermines the
civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic
system." It was a concept fully supported by Gen. George Washington
before and during his presidency.
            When the right-wing got tired of attacking President
Obama, they attacked the messenger. Rolling Stone, they shrieked,
wasn't even a good magazine. Gen. McChrystal shouldn't even have been talking to it. It was—you know—an entertainment magazine, thus proving how little they truly know about the media or journalism.
            The 24/7 cable news networks, ecstatic that they had a
brief diversion from the Gulf Coast oil spill and athletes not kicking
soccer balls into nets, for their part brought in all kinds of experts
to spew opinions that sometimes seemed to make the pundits look
brilliant by comparison.
            Somehow in all this orgasmic hyperbole, Fox's Gretchen
Carlson told the "Fox and Friends" audience that being president
involves making "these tough, huge, monumental decisions." But then
she explained that the work of TV anchors—the real journalists,
apparently—was similar to that of the president of the United States,
since they have to make decisions on breaking news stories under
near-battlefield conditions all the time, and "they would have to
carry a story all along." This is the same news anchor who called Ted
Kennedy a "hostile enemy" and whose own combat experience was
restricted to fighting with double-sided tape to hold her swim suit
intact during the Miss America competition.
            There is no question that President Obama needed to
relieve Gen. Mc Crystal of his command or risk appearing to be weak
and ineffective during wartime. But there are other realities. The
extreme right wing, blinded by their venomous hatred of President
Obama, used the words of Gen. McChrystal to bolster their attacks upon
the President. The left-wing, already upset with the expansion of the
war, piously screamed their support of the President, but only if he
got rid of the "troublemaker."
            Lost in the war of words is the reality of who and what
Stanley McChrystal is. He is a loyal American who grew up in a
military family and who has siblings and in-laws who also were career
soldiers. He is, by training and disposition, not a diplomat but a
warrior, the kind you want on the front lines of any war. He was
obviously frustrated by the lack of progress in Afghanistan, by a war
that seemed to be doomed to failure no matter whose strategy was used,
by an Afghani army and a civilian population that was easily
compromised by warlords and the Taliban, by a country whose cash crop
isn't grain but opium.
            McChrystal understands the military system; he has little
understanding of civilians and the media. Perhaps in the field, he and
his senior aides would have been more cautious than on a diplomatic
mission in Paris and Berlin hotels and nightclubs, areas that invaded
their comfort zone. He was poorly prepared and ill-advised about being
so open when talking to a reporter who had a notepad, a tape recorder,
and made clear the rules of the interview. For a junior officer to
make these mistakes is understandable; but, a four-star general should
have known better. And that, not his words, was his downfall.

[Among Walter Brasch's 17 books are Sinking the Ship of State, an
investigation of the Bush–Cheney administration; and Sex and the
Single Beer Can, a humorous and sometimes sarcastic look into the mass media. Both are available at and other stores.]

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