It seems I’m one of the few Americans who was appalled at the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In a rare moment of unity, pundits on both the left and right supported the president’s 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.
Truth regardless of consequences But put aside the hysteria and think soberly for a moment. What was McChrystal guilty of? Insubordination? This wasn’t Gen. 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 journalist?
Perhaps. But how media savvy do you expect a general who for years has been running the blackest of black ops 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 understand.
McChrystal’s error was to blow off steam and allow his subordinates to grumble about their civilian 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 gaffe-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 banker can make in a year, was thrown to the wolves for saying things like he didn’t want to read Richard Holbrooke’s e-mails.
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 a 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 youths feeling a sense of entitlement and more parents feeling like they are glorified ATMs. Neither do employees in today’s economy feel appreciated as they are laid off in record number by companies that often put profits before people.
But gratitude is also lacking in today’s media, which are 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, Hastings’ 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 more colorless.