McChrystal's fall comes not from what he did not know, but from what he did not understand.
When Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur, then the top American commander in the Korean War, Truman was criticized and MacArthur came home a hero with ticket tape parades and a nationally broadcast speech to a joint session of Congress. One might be excused for believing that in a nation that ranks the military high in public esteem, speaking out against the civilian leadership might win one similar plaudits. But whatever his merits, history had not placed McChrystal in situations comparable to those that marked MacArthur's career. MacArthur, too, may have been imperious and self-absorbed, just as McChrystal sometimes seems to be, but he had led a successful military campaign against the Japanese Empire and had emerged, with Dwight Eisenhower, as one of the two leading military figures in 20th century America. It is not McChrystal's fault that he had not been presented with such an opportunity to shine, but if he had imagined that blunt criticism of his civilian chiefs would make him a MacArthur redux, he clearly failed to grasp the important distinctions. Knowledge is important but understanding is important, too.
Which brings me to McChrystal's most egregious failure. The Founders designated the president as commander in chief of the military when called into service. One reason was to cement the all-important principle of civilian leadership. But the other was not out of some particular homage to George Washington: as highly regarded as Washington was, and even though he was then the nation's leading military figure, the drafters of the Constitution knew he would not forever be president. And it was not that they believed that particular office -- the presidency -- was apt to always be the one wherein resided the most able military commander. The issue was not which one person would be the civilian leader of the military but that there would be only one person. It could have been the Secretary of War. Or the Speaker of the House. The goal was not to strengthen the presidency but to prevent conflict between rival commanders. In military engagement, there must be a cohesive strategy and clear lines of command. One must not send troops into battle while their generals snipe at each other. Men and women who are able to put the lives on the line must have some sense of confidence that the strategy that is being employed represents the best judgment of whoever is in charge.
Stanley McChrystal may or may not be right about whether the president had a good grasp of the situation; he may or may not be right in his assessments of Joe Biden or Robert Gates or General Jones. But he was most shockingly wrong in failing to understand why the Constitution provides for a single top commander. And whether he likes it or not, McChrystal was not that man. And that's why he had to go.
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