McChrystal Seen Through Washington's Glasses

On March 15, 1783, a group of Continental Army officers met in Newburgh, New York, to plan a mutiny against the Continental Congress. Independence was all but won, but the Army had not been paid. Some prominent politicians thought a brief uprising of the soldiers would bring the delegates to their senses. But they had not reckoned with George Washington. Without notice, the old lion showed up and scolded the officers: "This dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance) has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea." 

Then, in what historian Ron Chernow calls "the most famous coup de theatre" of his career, Washington attempted to read a document, failed, and drew from his pocket a pair of glasses, which no one in the room had ever seen him wear.  "I have grown not only gray but almost blind in the service of my country," he said. Hardened veterans of Valley Forge burst into unashamed tears, and the "Newburgh Conspiracy" dissolved.

Washington's victory at Newburgh established a principle that was vindicated in President Obama's decision to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his position as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan after McChrystal and his staff made insubordinate comments to a reporter from Rolling Stone.

The reaction to Obama's action is instructive. There has been some shallow lament about the great wrong done to McChrystal. But the Senate's most serious military players, Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, have firmly supported a President they despise. That's more than calculation of advantage; it is the wisdom of a tradition flowing almost unbroken from Newburgh 1783.

It is customary for Americans to say that the Constitution establishes "civilian control of the military." The reality is a bit more complex; the Constitution's text sets up a structure designed to keep the military under political control, while making sure that it could never become the tool of any one political actor. There's no reference to a principle of "civilian control" of military forces.

Instead, the Framers at Philadelphia seem to have taken for granted that some civilian power would have command of the armed forces. That makes sense, for they assumed that a self-governing republic would never maintain a huge peacetime military establishment like England's. Their only question was whether command would be lodged solely in the president, in the president with an executive council, or shared by the president with an executive council. They feared that ambitious civilians would use the military, not that the military would act on its own.

Authority over military affairs is carefully divided. Congress must appropriate funds for the Army, and that must happen every Congress--no blank checks. Only Congress can "declare war," and it may "make rules for the government and regulation of the land and air forces." But actual command is lodged in the president. This division destroyed the danger of Caesarism.  "The army and navy were to be raised by Congress, and not by the President," George Nicholas told the Virginia Ratifying Convention. But the army would be commanded by the President, who "at the end of four years, was to relinquish his office."

Those structures by themselves have not established the astounding civilian control of the military we enjoy today. Washington's sense of moderation--his stubborn refusal to take advantage of his near-godlike statute--have inspired presidents and generals alike over the years. Direct challenges to political authority--McClellan's disdain for Lincoln, MacArthur's defiance of Truman--have been rare. Neither of America's greatest wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, were veterans.

A general's trash-talking the commander in chief is not a "gaffe," as it would be if done by a civilian appointee. David Brooks to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not "gotcha" journalism or ordinary politics. A general who display's McChrystal's level of contempt for his superiors is in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But perhaps worse, from the standpoint of soldiers who believe in honor, he is in violation of the spirit of Newburgh. Both military and civilian officials follow that spirit because it has made our government and our military strong. Mixing the two, as Washington saw, would weaken both.

Nine months after Newburgh, with no respectable government in place, weak and vacillating politicians bickering over trivia, and the country yearning for leadership, George Washington quietly resigned his commission and went back to Mt. Vernon. It was an act that literally stunned the world. When he was told of Washington's plans, no less hostile a figure than George III remarked,  "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."