Entry from June 24, 2010

My last post was on the effects of President Obama’s unfamiliarity with the honor culture among nations — a deliberately-cultivated unfamiliarity arising out of the crypto-pacifism of the “progressive” left in this country as in others in the West. Now he has obligingly given us a demonstration of his equal unfamiliarity with the honor culture of the American armed services which he commands. This was in evidence in the first words of General Stanley McChrystal’s apology for his Rolling Stone interview: “Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.” I believe this was not just a form of words but something McChrystal really believed. More importantly, they were true. And, for that reason, the President had every right to fire him. Moreover, he deserved to be fired for doing something so stupid as to confide his private thoughts about the President to any journalist, let alone to the likes of Rolling Stone.

Yet I think it was a mistake to fire him. Like it or not, the President is also a part of that military honor culture, and there would have been more honor to him in not firing General McChrystal than in firing him. The firing made him appear thin-skinned and insecure and must have tended to confirm the insight of the original “gaffe” — namely, that Obama is intimidated by his generals and disengaged from the task he has set them in Afghanistan. As Toby Harnden pointed out in the London Daily Telegraph: “When he said that he did not ‘make this decision out of any sense of personal insult’ he seemed to be protesting too much.” Although it would have been more obvious had General McChrystal’s replacement been anyone other than General David Petraeus, it was still pretty clear that the war was taking a back-seat to his own amour propre. Moreover, he also rose to the bait of the media’s challenge that the article really represented. “What are you going to do about this?” he was being asked by Rolling Stone — and others with a vested interest in embarrassing our military leaders. He looked forced to respond when instead he might have chosen to laugh off the general’s remarks.

The taint of over-reaction would have been more obvious but for the media chorus calling for General McChrystal’s head. In yielding to it, the President has contrived to look weak even in the commission of an ostensibly forceful act. In terms of what it says about his leadership abilities, it’s the equivalent of his seeking expert advice in order to find out “whose ass to kick” over the Gulf oil spill. The wrong note has been struck. Again. Another President in another time and under other circumstances might well have been wise to remove General McChrystal — though emphatically not with the prelude of a theatrical summons to the White House to “explain” himself. Better to have waited six months and then quietly eased him out on the pretext that he was needed elsewhere. But even that course was not open to this president, in this time. Now or later, the General’s removal must inevitably appear the result of his having been right about President Obama, not his own verbal incontinence.

This is one point of contact between him and General Douglas MacArthur, whose parallel has been constantly mentioned in the media in the last couple of days. Also standard today is the view that President Truman was right to fire MacArthur over the latter’s criticism of the war in Korea. I disagree with that view as well, for reasons that I set out in my book Honor: A History. But the important point to remember is that MacArthur was right too: right that in war there is no substitute for victory and, therefore, about the unsustainability of the war in Korea as Truman was waging it, a lesson we all learned — though few of us acknowledged the teacher — in Vietnam not long after MacArthur died in 1964, having warned President Johnson before he did so not to get involved in a land war in Asia. The principle of civilian control of the military should not be understood as merely a excuse for the more misguided sort of civilians to dispose of generals who have the temerity to tell them they are wrong — especially when they are wrong.

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