In the Stephen Spielberg World War II masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) speaks to one of his young soldiers about the tenets of leadership. Captain Miller tells Private Rybman (Edward Burns) that leaders “gripe up, not down”. That a Ranger officer doesn’t gripe to a private; in fact a Ranger officer doesn’t gripe IN FRONT of a private soldier.
In the next few weeks and months, much will be written of the ill-advised and damaging interview granted by Commander NATO/ISAF/USFOR-A General Stanley McChrystal to Rolling Stone magazine. I have not had time to read and digest the interview in its entirety, but I have read enough to find significant alarm in what I saw.
General McChrystal disagreed with policy from officials of the Obama Administration regarding US policy in Afghanistan. Nobody seriously considering events should be surprised or particularly distressed by this. At the level of strategic decision-making, commanders are not merely “three bags full” executors of policy, but participants in the shaping of that policy through their knowledge, expertise, viewpoint, and judgment of National Military Strategy as an element of National Security Strategy.
Much of what General McChrystal takes issue with regarding Administration policy in theater may be valid observations and empirically correct, and it may not be. This can be debated separately, and certainly will be in hindsight. If the two viewpoints, the General’s, and that of the White House, were so fundamentally different as to be truly irreconcilable, then General McChrystal would have the choice that so many junior to him face, which is to salute smartly and carry out orders he knows to be wrong, or to leave the United States Army.
General McChrystal chose to do neither. He chose to publicly criticize those elected and appointed officials whose orders he swore to obey. What is worse, he did so in a way that clearly personally belittles those officials. And his attitude toward those officials, including the Vice President of the United States, was apparently no secret.
The aside comments of the General and his staff regarding Vice President Joe Biden are disrespectful in the extreme. It is bad enough that General McChrystal personally commented in such a manner, but his lack of respect and decorum was shared openly by his staff. The same situation existed regarding comments about Ambassadors Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrook, and retired Marine General James Jones, the National Security Advisor. Each was publicly disparaged by General McChrystal and his staff. One can only wonder what was said among that staff out of earshot of the press.
I am sure to get much disagreement on this next point, but in my mind General McChrystal’s most serious offense was revealing his “disappointment” with his President, “even though he had voted for him”. If a man with thirty-four years of commissioned service doesn’t understand why such a statement is so egregiously inappropriate, there is little in my limited vocabulary to enlighten.
I don’t agree with the assertions of some that Military Officers, especially senior ones, should refrain from voting. I know Admiral Burke and General Marshall did not vote, as they believed doing so would politicize them. I believe officers, ALL officers, should vote. It is their civic duty, and a sacred right preserved for them by the sacrifice of others. However, that vote is done in secret for a reason. And while that officer is in uniform or executing official duties, that vote should have no bearing whatever on how they execute those duties and responsibilities. Their statements, all of them, while wearing a uniform, are a matter of public record, and a reflection of both their personal leadership and the honor and tradition of the service to which they belong.
It is with no small concern that I have watched that assertion be set aside of late, as uniformed senior leadership has felt free to expound on personal beliefs in political matters.
Marine General Peter Pace, serving as CJCS, in March of 2007 expressed his personal views on the morality of homosexuality, for which he received much justified criticism. Admiral Mike Mullen, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also expressed, unsolicited, his personal views on homosexuals serving openly in the Armed Forces before official questioning began while testifying before Congress. To be clear, both men had an absolute right to their respective personal views, but it was exceedingly imprudent for either to have declared those views publicly in an official capacity. Such transgressions regarding expressing personal views encourage LTG Mixon’s actions in Hawaii, and the conduct of the Commander of USFOR-A.
General McChrystal has a right to his personal political views. They are his, and his alone. When they disagree with the orders and policy he is instructed to carry out, his choices are clear. Instead, he chose to let those personal views, and disdain for those elected and appointed officials who disagreed with him, shape the tenor of his discourse with his seniors, and most inexcusably, his juniors. He has failed at the very basics of leadership that Captain Miller explains so frankly to his young soldier.
So, the Commander in Chief has little choice but to accept General McChrystal’s resignation, should that late story be confirmed. If the President were not to do so, he risks the skewing of the civilian-military relationship that is a cornerstone of our personal and collective liberties, much as Truman would have done in failing to discipline General MacArthur in Korea six decades ago. The situation with General McChrystal leaves President Obama with another, very dicey problem. Who will be putting hands in the air to command in a theater where the strategy and policy have been so publicly discredited by a senior General Officer? And whomever is chosen, what will be the effect of a new commander dropping onto the scene just before a key offensive that may determine the long-term success of the US effort in Afghanistan?