We Southerners are a suspicious lot at the core. For some silly reason, we always look askance when things happen in threes; and so, with General McChrystal and Rolling Stone, we have the third Four-Star seduced into a damning vanity piece. Two of them resulted in the implosion of a career, the other just survived with an insult. Let’s review.

First, something that should be in GOFO 101. From a man all Southerners love to hate as much as they respect,

“I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.”
—- General William Tecumseh Sherman

That should be the core instinct of all Generals and Admirals, as if kept close to the heart would keep reporters at a proper distance. If kept at a proper distance, it would help mitigate the following problem.

Unless they make a special effort to remain humble and recruit a Staff that will keep them that way, a General or Admiral will find himself in an almost god like position where he can do no wrong and is surrounded by those who will remind him of that on a regular basis. That causes you to let your guard down and assume that everyone you speak with has less power than you and therefor is no threat to you.

Additionally, all men are weak. All men have a natural desire for attention and adulation. The press are often the medium through which you can get attention – have more people become aware of your name and importance. Reporters know this. They are persistent, they are persuasive, they will play what ever angle they need to in order to get a story. Though they may seem to be interested in you, they are only interested in you the same way my dog is interested in my ability to transport my cheese toast from the toaster to table. They follow closely, watch with exceptional focus – waiting for a mistake.

Reporters are not your fans. They are not your friends. They have a paycheck to earn. They have their own desire to see their names in front of millions of people. They don’t care about your goals, your plans, your Commander’s Intent. They care about getting a story.

All this is well known. Why then in the last three years have we seen Admiral Fallon, Admiral Mullen, and now General McChrystal fall into the media vanity trap? Simple. They forgot their place.

Let’s review; Admiral Fallon was taken down by a horribly written puff-piece in Esquire by someone who should know better, Thomas P.M. Barnett.

Though he came through the affair only looking silly with his “don’t look at my schedule – I believe in Life/Work Balance” mixed messages, Admiral Mullen was photoshopped by Fast Company magazine to look like Bogart’s LCDR Queeg -no mistake there.

Now we have General McChrystal taken down by – yes – Rolling Stone magazine all because he forgot who he was and what the nature of a reporter is.

What do all three mistakes have in common? Simple. Vanity. Non-mission related, non-value added vanity that degraded or destroyed the “brand” of men who gave decades of service to their nation and rose to its highest levels.

Esquire, Fast Company, Rolling Stone.

Really? A nation at war for a decade. A global war. STRATCOM & PAO guys help me out here. How do these help? Who did the risk analysis?

In the end though, that isn’t fair. It is the Admiral and the General that agree to this – and say what they say – who are responsible.

Everyone learn. More Sherman – less Fallon, Mullen, & McChrystal.

It isn’t about you. It is about the nation you serve and the service members you lead.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Army, Marine Corps, Navy

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  • KhakiPants

    Sherman wasn’t a Flag or General Officer in a time of 24 hour news cycles, facebook, and twitter. The other three are. Access must be granted at some level, or else the story becomes “Admiral SoandSo stonewalls media investigations” “What is General Timbuktu hiding?” “MILITARY COVER UP: What your military leaders refuse to tell you!” etc.

    Keeping any distance, let alone “proper distance” is exceedingly hard to do now. PAOs will certainly need to be better trained in working on both sides of the PR and Journalism coin, and be quite light on their feet.

    It’s only going to get worse.

  • Well said.

  • +1
    Like a mishap chain, this could have been prevented with a simple “no” to the reporter’s request from the flag.
    w/r, SJS

  • Ronbo

    It is unfortunate that in today’s 24 hour media cycle someone like GEN Sherman would probably not survive for fear of the “break glass in case of war” leader vice the more polished, less decisive modern leader of today. We have some incredible GO/FO leaders today who would be as comfortable as a Fortune 500 CEO as they are a flag officer. However, the Fleet Business culture does not necessarily lend to itself well in actual combat environments. Is there a balance between bravado and elevator music? Certainly. GEN McChrystal is the fine example of self-inflicted foot-in-mouth wound. He should go for he has lost the confidence of the CoC and is damaged goods. But what is lost in the chaff is a picture of a civilian/military command structure that is clearly broken and in need of many “asses to kick”.

    Why has Mr. Holbrooke been injected into the scene? Whose agenda does he support or push? State Department vs DoD. Why is the command structure complicated by these diplomatic supernumeraries? Shouldn’t GEN McChrystal’s staff and the US Ambassador be enough? Why are those two not in lock step with each other in the execution of policy? These are issues that will probably be swept under the rug once the decision point on the General is made. At this point, we could bring in a Sherman, Pershing, Patton or Schwartzkoph and not get desire results based on a convoluted and an unnecessarily complicated CoC.

  • Chuck Hill

    First why was access given to the staff. They should know to keep their mouths shut.

    Second, McChrystal saw the piece before it was published and made no objection to the content. That is hard to believe. How could he have expected anything but a firestorm?

  • Chuck Hill

    “We have some incredible GO/FO leaders today who would be as comfortable as a Fortune 500 CEO as they are a flag officer.”

    Lets not forget how good the leadership of BP has been looking lately.

  • Flatlander

    You make a big assumption that this is all about vanity. Far more likely this is a calculated move on McCrystal’s part.

    We have to ask ourselves what that reveals about McCrystal’s assessment of his options.

  • Jay

    Just in — GEN McC out, GEN Pet in.

  • SNAnonymous

    As I said over at Sal’s blog, one lesson taught to every prospective Naval Officer comes to mind:

    “Take heed what you say of your seniors,
    Be your words spoken softly or plain,
    Lest a bird of the air tell the matter,
    And so shall ye hear it again.”

  • Ronbo

    “Lets not forget how good the leadership of BP has been looking lately.”

    I said “comfortable” not “competent”. Good one!

  • Mike

    Well stated. The rule is simple: lead the war and keep your mouth shut. We have lost this sense up and down the chain of command.

  • Bill Wells

    If I recall a Marine General was relieved in Vietnam for advocating that his Marine Division, with some Army help, attack into North Vietnam.

    What surprises this old enlisted guy is that there were no other candidates to fill in. Why pick General Petraeus to replace McChrystal? I realize that Petraeus is one of the so-called architects and is a brilliant commander but if he fails, and there is a possibility, what will that say to the international community?

    I’ve read where Petraeus versed himself in the French wars in Algiers. If so, then he fully understands the outcome that befell the French and everyone else in Afghanistan.

    As for W. T. Sherman, well, if the U. S. Army ran the same type of campaign in Afghanistan as Sherman ran in Georgia there would be war crimes trials this time.

    From my comfortable chair, I get a sense the McChrystal was burned out. That happens to people with long service in a combat zone. Of course, he could have pulled a Custer and really gone down in the history books.


    Excellent Post.
    After reading the Rolling Stone article several times, I fail to see anything significantly unusual. The General, the Special Assistant, and the Ambassador don’t always see eye to eye? thats unusual. The staff is filled with cynical types who use a kind of gallows humor? Never seen that. Plenty of people questioning what the hell is going on and why? Speaking disparaging of others that don’t see things the same way? Not wanting to do certain things? Thinking Joe Biden is an idiot? This is all pretty normal stuff. The only difference is that you normally don’t let reporters be privy to those discussions. It is important to remember that the purpose of newspapers and magazines are to sell more newspapers and magazines. If they can spin a story a certain way and sell more magazines or newspapers, or increase ratings, get more hits, or whatever, they will. They best way to avoid that is to avoid them or keep them at arms length. stay focused, stay on message, and don’t give them access. The Navy teachs dealing with the press at PCO school. I am sure the Army does something similiar. You think people would learn.

  • 1. It is unreasonable to expect that those in command of large instruments of War will not have healthy egos.

    2. The staff are as much to blame as the Gen. (who recommended letting the reporter in, who was supposed to watch him, etc.).

    3. The administration set up what appears to be an unnecessarily complex and convoluted command structure that does not work well and needs some “adjusting.”

    The Gen. is ultimately accountable, and in 3.5 years so will be the Pres.

  • Quartermaster

    McChrystal was a Liberal through and through. The man voted for the Obamatron and has now found himself among other honored company under the bus. The probability the good General purposely got himself relieved is vanishingly small.