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Stanley McChrystal deserves to be fired for his dangerous insubordination

June 22, 2010

In recent interviews with Rolling Stone, General Stanley McChrystal and his staff officers openly mocked the civilian leadership of the United States Government. While preparing for an event in Paris, McChrystal and his staff joked about how the general should respond if he was asked about Vice President Biden, who clashed with the top US commander in Afghanistan over sending more troops last year: “‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite me?’”    

The article further claimed that “In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side. One aide calls [National Security Adviser] Jim Jones…, a ‘clown’ who remains ‘stuck in 1985.’ Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, ‘turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.’” An aide to the general described McChrystal’s first one-on-one meeting with Obama as “a 10-muniute photo op…Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.” (McChrystal and his staff approved these quotes before they were put into the article.)     

 The London speech and the interviews show that McChrystal lacks respect for civilian authority over the military. Many are calling for his removal. Henry Kissinger said he should be fired. In a statement House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) said that McChrystal joins “a long list of reckless, renegade generals who haven’t seemed to understand that their role is to implement policy, not design it. General McChrystal’s comments are not the first time we’ve seen a General contemptuous of his civilian superiors. It isn’t even the first time we’ve seen this General be contemptuous…Anybody, including a U.S. Army General, is entitled to making a damn fool of themselves once. But General McChrystal hasn’t appeared to learn from his mistakes. In London last October, he made a deliberate determination to try to box in the President, and the President was generous to give him another chance to prove that he understood the chain of command. His repeated contempt for the civilian chain of command demonstrates a bull headed refusal to take other people’s judgments into consideration. That is damn dangerous in somebody whose decisions determine life and death for American troops and others in the region.”     

McChrystal’s behavior is more than unprofessional, it is dangerous. In a republic, it is absolutely essential that the military remain under the complete control of civilian leadership. Our founders knew from the history of ancient republics that an army could not only be used against external enemies but against a government enacting politics that the generals opposed. They knew that it was the Roman army under Julius Caesar that overthrew the Roman Republic, plunging the world into almost two thousand years of autocratic rule.     

Stanley McChrystal might not be calling for a coup d’état but his words and the words of his inner circle show a dangerous lack of respect for civilian authority over the military in his headquarters. The fact that he is willing to opnely talk to the press, and allow his staff to openly talk to the press, in such a way as to bring the civilian authorities into disrepute is unconscionable.     

The Uniform Code of Military Justice states that “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” The reason this rule must exist is that a spirit of contempt for civilian authority might begin as talk but can become something more dangerous. It almost did in 1783.     

A year and a half after the decisive victory by French and American forces at Yorktown, George Washington’s Continental Army was encamped in Newburgh, New York. Hostilities with Britain had ceased but a formal peace treaty was still being negotiated. The nascent US government, known as the Confederation Congress, lacked the power to tax and was therefore broke. It had failed to pay the troops’ salaries for months. Many officers also feared that congress would be unable to pay their promised pensions. In December 1782 a group of influential officers had sent a petition warning Congress that “The uneasiness of the soldiers, for want of pay, is great and dangerous; any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects.”     

A group of nationalist in Congress, led by Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton, saw this as an opportunity to force the States to empower Congress to lay an impost(tax). In an article in American Heritage James Wensyel described their dangerous plan thus: “Their basic idea, however, was extortion, pure and simple. Let the states yield power to raise funds and satisfy the army, or face mutiny. And, with mutiny, loss of the war.” Their plan was incredibly dangerous. If the army had attempted to use force against the civilian government it would have almost certainly have destroyed the new American Republic. The destruction might not have been immediate, though it could have been, but an attempted coup d’état would have set the precedent for the type of military interference in democracy that ultimately destroyed the Roman Republic.     

Instead, in what was arguably the turning point in world history that allowed for a resurgence of republican government after almost two thousand years dominated by autocracy, George Washington shamed his officers into backing down. Addressing a meeting of his officers, Washington read from a letter that called for a coup d’état and then exclaimed “My God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather is he not an insidious foe? Some designing emissary, perhaps, from New York,[where the British were still stationed] plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the civil and military powers of the continent?” He then urged them to “in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.”Then, preparing to read a letter from a Congressman sympathetic to the plight of the soldiers who had gone for months without pay, Washington took out a pair of reading classes, which he had not worn before, and said “Gentleman, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”   

By the end of this performance, many of the officers who had been considering mutiny were weeping. Several months later Washington further proved his greatness when he resigned his commission as commander of the Army. His actions set the precedent for civilian control of the military and allowed the United States to become the most successful republican in human history.   

Stanley McChrystal’s pattern of contempt for this tradition should be grounds for dismissal. I sympathize with his view of how the United States should proceed in Afghanistan but his dangerous insubordination is unacceptable. There are rumors that he has offered President Obama his resignation. For the sake of civilian control of the military, I hope Obama makes an example of him by firing him rather than accepting his resignation.     

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