Why Military Hubris?
Tibor R. Machan
General McChristal spoke out of line, though perhaps truth to power. Yet hasn’t the American military been mislead into thinking that it is the answer to most of our problems? In which case his conduct may well be quite understandable, even a prelude to things to come.
I recall when hurricane Andrew struck on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980s and the military was called out to cope with it. One Air force lieutenant colonel, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., was by that time convinced that this kind of use of the military bodes ill for the tradition of its civilian control, a tradition central to the government of a free society.
Few batted an eye when the U.S. Army was called out to battle Hurricane Andrew in Florida back then. I assume most people thought, “What is government for if not to come to the aid of citizens in such circumstances?” But Dunlap argued that deploying the military for extraneous, non-defense purposes is likely to convince military leaders and enthusiasts that they, not civilians, ought to be governing the country. (See Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, winter 1992– 93, pp. 2–20.)
Arguably this idea can help us understand better what happened in the case of General McChristal who appeared to feel no need for restraint in badmouthing his civilian employers, including the president of the United States. Never mind for now whether what the general said had merit. It is just not his role to first go public with his concerns. He could take them to his chief, of course, and that may actually have been more productive. If the concerns McChristal has are valid, taking them to Rolling Stone magazine would appear to be quite counterproductive. It would and indeed did put the president on the defensive, lead to McChristal’s firing, and most importantly, one may assume, may very well have managed to prevent the criticism from being addressed.
Why is it proper for soldiers to refrain from butting into the management of the military unless they are commanded to do this by their civilian superiors? Because soldiers are arms of the government which is itself supposed to be the servant of the citizenry and would, properly run, convey the citizenry’s appropriate orders. It is, in short, the citizenry who are boss, via a chain of command.
By bucking this chain, General McChristal sabotaged his own effectiveness as an expert influence on the country’s military affairs. This is probably really too bad since by all accounts the Obama administration could use the very best advice available, given how its military endeavors are faltering big time. (For my money, there really is little justification for carrying on with US military involvement in Afghanistan but what do I know? Here is yet another reason that the general’s input, properly advanced, might have done some serious good!)
One matter that’s quite disturbing about this entire affair is that it speaks ill of the practice of free flowing debate in the country, a practice that’s supposed to be normal in a free society. But it has to be conducted properly, so when this doesn’t happen, the harm can be considerable.
Is the episode symptomatic of the way the Obama administration is falling apart on several fronts? Here is a president with his party in full power and somehow nothing he touches succeeds and his popularity is plummeting. He remains, it seems, not much more than a kind of figurehead, with attractive visuals surroungind him but with little that’s desirable accomplished other than, well, the practical nationalization of the health care and insurance and the financial industries. Not something to be proud of as an American president. Maybe as a Russian one!