A Further Perspective

Free General McChrystal

U.S. Military Leaders should be encouraged to speak publicly about Afghanistan and other military matters.

By 10.7.09

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Do U.S. military leaders have a right to speak publicly about wartime requirements and defense policy? A growing number of commentators, on both the left and the right, say that they do not.

Generals need to "shut up and salute," writes Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. The only thing that they should say publicly is "Yes, Mr. President."

National Review contributor Mackubin Thomas Owens agrees. Speaking outside of the military chain of command is a "serious problem," Owens says. McChrystal's actions reflect a "widespread belief among military officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serve in their traditional advisory role."

Robinson's and Owens' comments, of course, were precipitated by General Stanley  A. McChrystal's recent public pronouncements about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

"It's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command," counsels the National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones.

"It is imperative," adds Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately [emphasis added]."

Gates never explains why it is "imperative" that American military leaders refrain from speaking publicly about Afghanistan; but his predilection for secrecy is lamentable and well documented. To decide the fate of last year's defense budget, for instance, Gates convened a series of secret budget tribunals, while forcing senior military leaders to sign secrecy oaths.

Secretary Gates may have meant well, but his actions concerning the budget were profoundly un-American and antithetical to the spirit of American democracy, which is predicated upon democratic self-rule, or rule by the people. Secrecy, silence and censorship may make life easier for government officials; but they hinder public discussion and public debate, which are integral to wise and sound decision-making and good public policy.

The United States doesn't suffer from too much free speech and analysis of defense issues; quite the contrary: It suffers from too much public ignorance and apathy about U.S. military requirements. For a democratic republic such as ours, which depends upon an informed and educated citizenry, this is a real problem.

That's why it is imperative that U.S. military leaders speak publicly and often about wartime requirements and defense policy -- not to advocate particular policies, which they should not do, but rather to inform and educate the public.

This is exactly what General McChrystal has done, and he should be commended for thoughtfully engaging the public dialogue. The United States, after all, prides itself on having an educated and professional military. Thus, U.S. military leaders are not mere functionaries. They are not robotic automatons who mindlessly follow orders.

U.S. military leaders follow orders, of course. But they also think, cogitate and analyze; partake in professional military forums; and write for professional military journals -- and we rightly expect this of them. The professionalization and education of the United States military is one of its defining characteristics, and thank goodness for that.

That General McChrystal's analysis may have, and surely does have, political ramifications is of no concern to him, nor should that be his concern. The general is a wartime military commander, not a politician. His job, as I explained previously in The American Spectator, is to "report the facts as he sees them -- and to do so without favor or prejudice, and without fear or concern for any potential political ramifications back home."

The political questions are best left to the politicians and the pundits. But the military facts on the ground in Afghanistan, and what must be done to remedy the situation there, certainly fall within McChrystal's purview of responsibility and expertise.

If the general's honest assessment of the situation in Afghanistan has political ramifications, then so be it; but that is not a legitimate reason for the Secretary of Defense to try and censor McChrystal's public pronouncements. It is, instead, a reason for the American people and their elected representatives to become more engaged in the public policy process -- so that their views and their will can be heeded. In America, remember, the people rule.

U.S. military leaders absolutely must work within the chain of command; however, the chain of command is a two-way street. It runs up to the commander-in-chief, President Barrack Obama; and it runs down to the young sergeants and corporals who are risking their lives in Helmet Province.

General McChrystal is accountable to both. He is accountable to his civilian overseers and he is equally accountable to the courageous young men and women under his command. Indeed, McChrystal's recent public pronouncements are about keeping faith with his young charges.

As far as loyalty up the chain of command is concerned, a four-star general like McChrystal does not undermine the chain of command when he engages the public dialogue. Quite the contrary: he strengthens the chain of command when he informs and educates the public to which the chain of command is ultimately responsible. That's because the chain of command and the public both require good, accurate and substantive information upon which to base their decisions.

The United States, remember, is a constitutional democracy. The American people do not serve the military; the military serves the American people. That's why public dialogue and public discussion about military matters are so crucially important: because they empower the American people who are the ultimate decision-makers and the ultimate source of power in our republic.

Some analysts like the Brooking Institution's Michael O'Hanlon agree that McChrystal's public pronouncements have been "well with bounds," but fault the general for being insufficiently "nuanced" and too "blunt and impolitic."

Oh, please. We're talking about a wartime general, not a blowhard, blow-dried politician. If oh-so-sensitive, politically correct etiquette must govern our military leaders, then America will deprive itself of some truly great military talent.

Rough-hewn Generals Andrew Jackson, George S. Patton, and Walton "Johnnie" Walker, for instance, all would have failed the PC test. If McChrystal's candor rubs some bureaucrats in the White House and in the Pentagon the wrong way, then too bad. These bureaucrats should grow up, be adults, and get a thicker skin. General McChrystal's words and conduct have been exemplary and in accordance with the highest standards of military bearing and professionalism.

A more serious but still misplaced concern involves the leak (to the Washington Post's esteemed Bob Woodward) of McChrystal's confidential Afghan assessment. Some critics argue that leaks are illegal (or at least unauthorized) and that they compromise national security.

Some leaks are unauthorized and some leaks do compromise national security, but not all leaks and not this leak.

Leaks of ongoing intelligence operations, and leaks of tactical troop movements, for instance, certainly jeopardize our troops and their missions. But in an act of patriotic grace, Woodward and the Post redacted from McChrystal's assessment information that Obama administration officials said might jeopardize future U.S. military operations.

Moreover, the leaked Afghan assessment addresses the overarching strategic issue of America's overall policy in Afghanistan in light of the deteriorating situation there. This overarching strategic issue is rightfully and necessarily a matter of public concern.

Indeed, in the American system of government, the President and the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people, set the overall strategy or policy, and the military executes that policy in all of its myriad details.

For these reasons, Secretary Gates' attempt to censor McChrystal is seriously mistaken. U.S. military leaders already are far too reticent to speak publicly about military matters. The Defense Secretary's mild but unmistakable admonishment that they speak just privately and with the President only will exacerbate this long-standing problem.

More than a decade ago the distinguished social scientist and United States Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), lamented the institutionalization of a vast culture of governmental secrecy, which, he said, needlessly and counterproductively restricts the American people's access to information.

"But secrecy," the Senator observed, "need not remain the only norm. We must develop," he said, "a competing culture of openness, fully consistent with our interests in protecting national security, but in which power is no longer derived primarily from one's ability to withhold information."

Senator Moynihan was right then, and his words ring true today. The United States needs a culture of openness in which our military leaders are not punished for sharing information with the American people.

A military leader's position ought not be secure simply because he refrains from public communication. To the contrary: military leaders ought to be rewarded and promoted in part because of their willingness and ability to smartly engage the public dialogue. The well-being of our democracy requires that. Let it be, and bring it on.

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About the Author
  John R. Guardiano blogs at www.ResCon1.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @ResCon1.