A Conservative on McChrystal

June 28th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Victor Davis Hanson, one of my favorite conservatives, wrote an article at Pajamas Media the other day presenting a fairly typical conservative view of the McChrystal debacle.

Hanson makes it clear that Rolling Stone is a disreputable rag (not much argument there), and the free-lance reporter who wrote the story is a disreputable swine who tricked those poor, naive generals and colonels.  Maybe so, but Hanson admits that however it happened the commander and his staff said what they said, as evidenced by the fact that they haven’t challenged the substance of the article.  There’s been some whining about whether this-or-that was off the record, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  What matters is what was said, and Gen. McChrystal’s response proves that he knew immediately that he was in deep, deep trouble.

Hanson gets some of it right and some of it wrong, I think.  Here’s a quote that confounds — hard to tell if he’s being funny or serious:

I think we finally understand what McChrystal and his staff were up to: they are terribly naive and bedazzled by a sort of Gonzo-wannabe reporter who, they hoped, would do a weird Zen-like hagiography on their boss, perhaps confirming their image of him as an against-the-grain warrior-philosopher not fully appreciated either in or out of the military, the ultimate antithesis to a Gen. Jim Jones or Gen. Eikenberry.

But in a backhanded way, Hanson gets it right, notwithstanding his attacks on the reporter and Rolling Stone:

The contorted story of how Hastings probably misrepresented himself, and the duplicity of Rolling Stone don’t matter much, inasmuch as many of the things McChrystal’s staff indulged in border on conduct unbecoming officers, about which military protocols do not distinguish how knowledge of such unbecoming behavior reaches military superiors, only that it does. I think that explains why the staff has not contested too much how they were had, inasmuch as in theory their crude remarks to a reporter might well have been grounds for a preliminary military court investigation. …

My very limited sympathies are, of course, with a distinguished general, who is a better, braver sort that those who did him in. But that said, his laxity and absence of judgment — and, yes, ego — did an enormous amount of damage at a time of war, and all of the ripples (changes in command, effect on the enemy, political insider stuff with the Afghans and at the White House) are not quite yet over with.

If Hanson knew more about military Law, particularly Article 88, UCMJ, he wouldn’t use conditional terms like “border on” and “in theory.”  The law is clear, and so is the apparent offense, pending the findings of an official investigation.  I’ve been personally subject to military law from the time I was a teenager.  I’ve always expected to be charged if I committed an offense of sufficient gravity, and I don’t doubt that Gen. McChrystal does, too.

My sympathies are also with the General, and I have vastly more respect for him and his staff officers than I do for Rolling Stone and it’s minions.  At the end of the day, though, the law is the law, and if it’s to mean anything it has to be enforced.

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15 Responses to “A Conservative on McChrystal”

  1. larry ennis |

    I’ve already voiced my opposition to destroying this man’s career because he or rather his subordinates stated basically what everyone already knows.
    This country has been fighting in Aphganistan for ten years. For ten years the commanders have been forced to wage war based on the whims of political hacks both republican and democrate. With rules of engagement imposed because of non-military planners and generals weighted down in public relations campaigns we can easily spend ten more years in Aphganistan.
    Can any general win in such a setting. Not likely if politicians are interfering in his attempts to win.
    As I said, destroying this man’s career won’t improve our chance’s.

  2. Dan Miller |


    I am less certain than you about the applicability of Article 88 of the UCMJ. It provides,

    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 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.

    Among the elements of the offense the following is stated

    If not personally contemptuous, adverse criticism of one of the officials or legislatures named in the article in the course of a political discussion, even though emphatically expressed, may not be charged as a violation of the article.

    The statement of elements also includes the following:

    expressions of opinion made in a purely private conversation should not ordinarily be charged. Giving broad circulation to a written publication containing contemptuous words of the kind made punishable by this article, or the utterance of contemptuous words of this kind in the presence of military subordinates, aggravates the offense. The truth or falsity of the statements is immaterial.

    It may be that some of General McChrystal’s views as commented upon by his aides reflected what he had previously said to them; or they may simply reflect their personal interpretations of his views. That remains to be seen.

    Obviously some of the comments made by various people in the presence of the Rolling Stone reporter were contemptuous. However, the following comments were attributed to General McChrystal by the Rolling Stone article:

    Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.”

    That could easily be interpreted as a “political discussion” and and does not, to me at least, appear to have been personally contemptuous; it was about the policy then advocated by Vice President Biden.

    flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

    “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 comment attributed to the “top aide” was contemptuous; General McChrystal’s comment could, I suppose, be so construed but I’m not sure about that.

    Last fall, with his top general calling for more troops, Obama launched a three-month review to re-evaluate the strategy in Afghanistan. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal tells me in one of several lengthy interviews. “I was selling an unsellable position.”

    That expresses disagreement with a policy under consideration by President Obama, but not in a manner I would characterize as contemptuous of the President.

    McChrystal reserves special skepticism for Holbrooke, the official in charge of reintegrating the Taliban. “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” says a member of the general’s team. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is COIN, and you can’t just have someone yanking on shit.”

    At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” he groans. “I don’t even want to open it.” He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

    Mr. Holbrooke, Special Representative to Afghanistan, is not among the officials recited in Article 88.

    General McChrystal also didn’t much care for Ambassador Eikenberry:

    McChrystal and his team were blindsided by the cable. “I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” says McChrystal, who adds that he felt “betrayed” by the leak. “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.

    U.S. Ambassadors are not on the list in Article 88 either.

    Clearly, General McChrystal was way out of line in apparently condoning the remarks of his various but unidentified top aides and failing to reprimand them; it is reasonable to assume that he agreed with them. I don’t think that fits within the four corners of Article 88. It may be punishable under other articles of the UCMJ, but that’s a different issue than the one raised in the article.

  3. larry ennis |

    Sorry folks
    My spelling ability lessens everyday it seems.
    AFGANISTAN not apfganistan stupid.

  4. Brianna |

    At the risk of making you look even sillier, it’s actually Afghanistan, not Afganistan.

  5. Brian Bagent |

    I understand the importance of military men not speaking out about their boss, but Obama is about as feckless a “leader” as the military has ever had, probably even worse even than LBJ.

  6. larry ennis |

    Aww, Shoot, too many letters.(or is it to many letters)?I know that two is the wrong to or is it too.
    I hate Mondays.

  7. Lisa |

    General McChrystal and his troops provided security for Hastings while he has been in Afghanistan. They had his back. He did not reciprocate. Perhaps he will be left stranded in enemy territory.

  8. Tom Carter |

    Dan, I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you said. My view is that there’s ample reason to believe that a violation occurred, either of Article 88 or others (e.g., 133 or 134). It could turn out that McChrystal himself is guilty of violation of all or none of those articles; same for his staff. That’s why an Article 32 investigation would be appropriate — as you know better than I, it’s the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding or a preliminary hearing in the civilian judicial system; it establishes whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. If that isn’t done, the integrity of the law (UCMJ in this case) is compromised.

    For those who are still wrapped up in anti-Obama political issues, that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether what was said was true or untrue or whether Obama is the best or worst president we ever had. What’s at issue is the law and whether it really does apply to everyone, no matter how high or low his/her station.

    Lisa, I think you’re right on that point — Mr. Hastings might want to pursue other stories in other venues, at least for a while!

  9. Dan Miller |

    Tom, I have no problem with an Article 32 investigation,and it might be useful to clear the air.

    Has there been any indication that General McChrystal’s retirement is likely soon?

  10. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, that’s just it – the law doesn’t seem to apply to those with political power. Nixon was the only one that ever paid a price for it. The rest of them, presidents anyway, have gotten away with their lawlessness lock, stock, and barrel.

    You’re right that for the law to mean anything that it must be applied with equanimity from top to bottom. I submit that the law doesn’t mean anything any more because it isn’t applied with equanimity from top to bottom.

  11. Dan Miller |

    According to this article, General McChrystal has announced that he intends to retire from the army. He apparently has not submitted his retirement papers yet.

  12. Dan Miller |

    Tom, here is an interesting article on General McChrystal. Your take on it would be interesting.

  13. Tom Carter |

    First, I’d say this: American Thinker is a right-wing website, and J.R. Dunn, looking at a few of his past articles, fits right in. This is important only because I come away with the impression that his principal goal is to discredit Obama, and it leaves me wondering if he would have written the same thing if Bush had been the one firing McChrystal; I doubt it. He makes an issue of Obama’s lack of military experience (not an unfair point), so I looked for bio information on him to see how much military experience he has. Couldn’t find a word of bio information on J.R. Dunn, which is a bit odd.

    As to the substance of his article, without writing something as long as the article itself, there are lots of apples and oranges comparisons and some pretty thin analysis. As he acknowledges, at least a little, comparing Alexander and other commanders at intervening points in history with commanders of today in Afghanistan mixes a whole lot of apples and oranges of different varieties. For example, stating that the circumstances resulting in Truman firing MacArthur was the result of “intense personal friction between two alpha males” illustrates that he doesn’t know what happened and doesn’t know much about Truman, in particular. Talking in an Afghanistan context about Wellington at Waterloo and Ridgeway in Korea is also specious.

    Here are two key points that Dunn either doesn’t understand or avoids because it doesn’t fit his political agenda. First, what McChrystal and his staff said and how they behaved in front of a reporter was more than enough justification for being fired, no matter who was president. I have no doubt that Bush (either of them) or Reagan would have done the same thing. This constituted fundamental lack of respect for presidential authority, a questioning of the principle of civilian control of the military, and a huge display of very poor judgment. Second, there are a good many superb three-star and four-star generals in the Army and a few in the Marine Corps (“a few” only because there aren’t many of them overall) who could command effectively in Afghanistan.

    Finally, the issue of “leading from the front.” Combat arms soldiers fight in small units; the leaders most important to them are their squad leader (corporal or sergeant), platoon sergeant (staff sergeant or sergeant first class), platoon leader (lieutenant), first sergeant, and company commander (captain). These leaders lead at the front, and soldiers see a lot of them. Battalion commanders and regimental/brigade commanders (lieutenant colonels and colonels) are present a lot of the time, too. Generals come flying in from time to time, often accompanied by bodyguards and photogs, and the time they stay on the ground is inversely proportional to how hot the area is. That’s all true in spades for four-stars. That’s an inescapable reality of modern warfare. Soldiers like to see them and even get to talk to them, but the value of those short visits can be overrated, especially when a general arrives with his face painted and personally packing weapons beyond his sidearm.

    McChrystal is a good combat leader, no doubt, and I admire him. A case might be made, however, in light of what happened, that he may be a classic example of a good combat leader who got promoted a couple of times too many. I personally think GEN Petraeus will do at least as good a job as McChrystal would have, given that he’s a brilliant officer who understands COIN, has a lot of respect among soldiers at all levels, thoroughly understands the essential politics involved and can deal with it, and is rich in personal political capital.

  14. Dan Miller |

    Tom, thanks for the insights. My focus was not on what General McChrystal may have said, or permitted his subordinates to say, unchallenged in the presence of the press. Rather, my focus was on the sense of camaraderie among General McChrystal and his subordinates which the article conveys. It struck me as somewhat extraordinary,and not necessarily in a militarily useful way.

    Perhaps you are right in concluding that he exemplifies the Peter Principle writ large, and would have been more productive with two or three fewer stars.

  15. Tom Carter |

    I think you’re right that the atmosphere around McChrystal and his staff, assuming it was accurately portrayed, was extraordinary. It was neither professional nor helpful. When I read the article, that’s what struck me first. I described it then as a “frat house” atmosphere; I’ve since seen a number of others use the same words. I personally never saw anything quite like it.

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