By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Chatty generals who share innermost thoughts with reporters and in speeches didn't learn their civil-military lessons well at West Point. In general, it's best to have the strong, silent type at the army's helm, especially in wartime. That means those who save their confidences and counsel for their boss, the commander in chief, along with Congress.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our new man in Afghanistan, roundly deserved the rebuke he just received from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for speaking out of school about his wish for an infusion of 40,000 troops. By going public, the general made a grave military situation all the more politically delicate—doing a disservice to President Barack Obama and the nation in tough times.
Abraham Lincoln, Obama's favorite pol, also had trouble taming a general, George McClellan, who refused to fight Robert E. Lee's army and scorned Lincoln's direct orders to get the Civil War started.
Finally, Lincoln fired him.
McChrystal, a flashy guy who showed up on 60 Minutes this fall, skated right on the line of insubordination. Some presidents with shorter tempers would have fired him. Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower (the strong, silent general from central casting) come to mind.
Yet he is not alone, but merely the latest in a modern string of generals who acquired a certain celebrity status unbecoming a military leader in a war theater: Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq War "surge," became a household name because former President George W. Bush, Republican presidential contender John McCain, and Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina repeated it so many times, almost as a prayer.
In that case, civilian leaders inappropriately foisted too much focus on Petraeus. At the end of a day and a war, it is the president who decides the country's course on war, and he who bears the burden. A general is just a general—no more and no less.
Over the last decade, former Army Gen. Wesley Clark (who served as head of NATO under President Bill Clinton) and a host of other retired generals made money and fame by acting as "consultants" on network and cable news talk shows. Some of these experts were later revealed to have links to the Pentagon's press operation during George W. Bush's presidency to build support for the Iraq War. This media strategy shop also brought us "embedded" reporters, all of a piece.
However, it was the elder President George H.W. Bush who appointed a hugely popular general who got too big for his uniform: Colin Powell. This is where our troubles with chatty generals began. When Clinton succeeded Bush in the White House, Powell still had his job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From this plush perch, he let his political opinion on gays in the military be known on the op-ed pages.
Powell openly opposed the commander in chief and never paid a price for it. That defiance in 1993 may have changed the cultural goalposts for subsequent classes of military officers.
West Point, let's go back to basics. Please, no more chatty generals who cross the civil-military code of conduct.