President Obama agrees with me: General McChrystal is not guilty of insubordination. “Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully” [emphasis added], Obama said Wednesday.
But what about “bad judgment”? Were General McChrystal and his staff guilty of saying and doing things that, although technically permissible, nonetheless reflected poorly upon them and the U.S. military?
I don’t think so. It seems to me that the political and pundit class have overreacted to remarks that are rather tame and innocuous.
Yes, I said tame and innocuous. We keep hearing about the general’s “reprehensible” and “inappropriate” comments. But what, exactly, did the general say that is “reprehensible” and “inappropriate”? Can anyone really cite a specific incriminating remark? I don’t think so.
Here, for instance, is what McChrystal said about Obama:
“I found that time [meeting with Obama for the first time last fall] painful. I was selling an unsellable position.”
And here’s what he said, with a laugh, about Vice President Biden: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?”
And so it goes, with McChrystal expressing mild disappointment in his civilian superiors. Big deal. Yet, everyone just blithely assumes that McChrystal was “out of line.” No, he wasn’t.
Sure, the general’s aides were more blunt in their criticism: “Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: ‘Bite me’?”
But given the context of that comment — what was said, when it was said, and how it was said (in a casual conversation filled with good cheer, mirth and joking, light-hearted banter) — the comment clearly is not contemptuous of the civilian leadership. To the contrary: as Peter Worthington points out in “An Unnecessary Firing” at FrumForum:
The unidentified quotes in the Rolling Stone article that were snarky about many of the people around Obama, and on whom Obama depends, were not by McChrystal, and had the flavor of a bunch of guys sounding off over a beer.
They were the sort of cracks about management that happen in every office.
Let me suggest an alternate hypothesis: It is not General McChrystal and his aides who exercised “bad judgment,” but rather the political and pundit class. They’re too thin-skinned; they don’t appreciate the importance of public dialogue and debate; and they adhere to stereotypical notions of military subordination and command and control.
I say stereotypical because to listen to some of the pundits, you’d think that the only good military man is a stupid military man — one who doesn’t think, cogitate and reflect, or who does so only “privately.” But in a free and open society, thinking and analysis aren’t done in solitude. They’re done in the public square and through the media, in the public prints.
That’s because the media and the public prints allow for the type of vigorous dialogue and debate that make our collective efforts better and stronger.
Indeed, Americans’ frank, candid and yes, public talk about contentious public-policy matters is not a weakness, but a strength; and military personnel should vigorously partake in our public dialogue. The U.S. military, after all, is not the Nazi military. We do not (or at least should not) cultivate robotic automatons who mindlessly follow orders.
Sure, American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines follow orders — of course. But we also contest orders — when, for instance, orders are illegal or unlawful. And we pride ourselves on having an educated and professional military.
Yet, the minute U.S. military men and women dare to think for themselves, we hear overwrought cries of concern from the Washington political and media elite. Such thinking “threatens civilian control of the military,” they cry.
No, it doesn’t, not even close. The principle of civilian control of our military is so deeply engrained in the U.S. military culture that no one need worry it’ll be overturned or ignored. That simply ain’t gonna happen, not now or ever.
A more legitimate concern is that we’ll cultivate a military of mediocrities who are incapable of producing fresh and original thought. Yet, if our political and pundit class continue to punish military leaders like McChrystal, that’s exactly what will happen. Talented and creative military officers, after all, are unlikely to remain in an organization whose members are told, in effect, to shut up and be quiet.
Talented and creative military officers want, of course, to have the freedom to think, create and explore. They want the freedom to engage intellectually with the outside world and to partake in the public dialogue and debate. And if they can’t achieve that within the U.S. military, then they’ll leave the institution altogether. But is that really what we want? Would that be good for America?