Killing the Horse Midstream

"D-boys could be comically arrogant. When they'd gotten a list of potential target sites, for instance, the D-boys had divvied them up among different teams. Each was assigned to draw up an assault plan. Since his men were involved, [75th Ranger Regiment Captain Mike] Steele had sat in on the meeting when the various schemes were presented. The captain's experience with such a planning session was like this: You sat there and took notes and asked questions only to make sure you got things down correctly and then saluted on upper way out. The D-boys' meeting was a free-for-all. One group would present its plan and somebody would pipe up, 'Why, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard,' which would provoke a sturdy 'Fuck you,' which quickly degenerated into guys screaming at each other.

-- Mark Bowden, "Black Hawk Down"

"The general's staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There's a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. They jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority."

-- Michael Hastings, "The Runaway General"

General Stanley McChrystal is the best in the world at what he does, so long as the world is not watching. As commander of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, he oversaw and engaged in missions that put bullets into thousands of terrorists, including Al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As Michael Hastings reports in the now-infamous Rolling Stone profile that proved the general's undoing, "He went out on dozens of nighttime raids during his time in Iraq, unprecedented for a top commander, and turned up on missions unannounced, with almost no entourage." Hastings relates the sentiments of a British officer: "The fucking lads love Stan McChrystal. You'd be out in Somewhere, Iraq, and someone would take a knee beside you, and a corporal would be like 'Who the fuck is that?' And it's fucking Stan McChrystal."

He hails from a world whose missions, George W. Bush once stated, are "secret even in success." The men of JSOC are no ordinary high-and-tight trigger-pullers. They are the elite of the elite, gods of the battlefield who operate with lethal and effective speed, precision and autonomy unheard of in traditional military ranks. With a life of intense, nonstop training and constant combat in every hotspot on the planet comes a freedom not afforded to most soldiers. As Mark Bowden wrote in "Black Hawk Down," "Officers and noncoms in Delta [a component of JSOC] treated each other as equals. Disdain for normal displays of army status was the unit's signature. They simply transcended rank."

Not anymore.

With the publication of the Rolling Stone piece, the word "insubordination" has been thrown around by civilians who've developed an overnight expertise in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Many asked what McChrystal was thinking. Many called for his job, if not his head, and now they've got their wish.

But here are the direct quotes from Stanley McChrystal. Here is what now amounts to "insubordination":

1. Referring to a dinner with NATO diplomats: "I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner. Unfortunately no one in this room could do it."

2. On the possibility of being put on the spot by unexpected gaffes from Vice President Joe Biden: "I never know what's going to pop out until I'm up there, that's the problem."

3. Checking his Blackberry: "Oh, not another e-mail from [diplomatic envoy Richard] Holbrooke. I don't even want to open it."

4. Referring to President Obama's sluggish three-month review of the McChrystal war plan: "I found that time painful. I was selling an unsellable position."

5. Referring to his Team America: "All these men, I'd die for them. And they'd die for me."

6. Referring to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's scathing assessment of the Afghanistan campaign: "I like Karl, I've known him for years, but they'd never said anything like that to us before. Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.'"

7. To a Navy SEAL he sees in a hallway: "You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight. I'm going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though."

8. Visiting a unit in the field: "I ask you what's going on in your world, and I think it's important for you all to understand the big picture as well. How's the company doing? You guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you're losing?"

When a soldier says yes: "Strength is leading when you just don't want to lead. You're leading by example. That's what we do. Particularly when it's really, really hard, and it hurts inside."

When a soldier presses the issue: "In this area, we've not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I'm telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it? There's no way I can make [losing comrades] easier. No way I can pretend it won't hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that. I will tell you, you're doing a great job. Don't let the frustration get to you."

Only one of those quotes refers to the President of the United States, and it is, at worst, vague impatience and regret that the decision was such a difficult one. If that's insubordination, then half the military should be up for court martial and promptly convicted. Most every damning quote in the piece comes from McChrystal subordinates, and of those quotes, nearly all of them appear in jest. This should not be surprising -- Michael Hastings has admitted to Newsweek that McChrystal's men "were getting hammered" on booze in Paris, where the general was to give a speech. (Alcohol is forbidden in the combat zone, where McChrystal and his team have been fighting for years now.) Hastings is certain that the inebriated soldiers knew they were on the record. Well, "It was crystal clear to me," anyway. Even then, the worst he could come up with were a few jokes a Joe Biden's expense and disappointment that McChrystal's first meeting with the president wasn't more satisfying.

For this, the Taliban has been handed its greatest victory.

Anyone who has served in the U.S. Army, to say nothing of Special Operations, knows that this is simply how soldiers talk -- with a dark humor and lack of nuance. Superiors are either complete idiots or great leaders, and such opinions rotate daily, if not in the same conversation. Throw booze into the mix and the boisterous opinions intensify. Now add a freelancer for a magazine whose idea of a cover story looks like Cameron Diaz covering the situation in Gaza, and an entire war is undermined.

Make no mistake: McChrystal isn't good with the media, and he's not comfortable in the spotlight. He's admitted as much. He's a warrior, not a politician, even by general officer standards. He's made gaffes before, much like the vice president ridiculed by his men. But he's hardly the first American general comfortable in a firefight but out of his element with the press. George Patton was notorious for speaking his mind to reporters, questioning war planners and the loyalty of allies. Few would argue that history would have turned out better without George Patton leading the way.

Because of President Obama's notoriously thin skin, history will find out by proxy.

But maybe the White House deserves a bit of return fire. President Obama hired the general after meeting one-on-one, by all accounts unprepared, for ten minutes. The president then subsequently committed thirty thousand troops, bringing the total American force to a full 100,000. And only now does presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs lament that parents of soldiers "need to know that the structure where they're sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war."

(It's difficult to find a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who isn't offended when referred to collectively as "children.")

Very well. But how many American troops, exactly, did President Obama put in a flag-draped coffin because he appointed an "immature" and "incapable" commanding general? How incompetent is Commander-in-Chief Obama that he couldn't bother determining McChrystal's "maturity" before pinning a fourth star on him and giving him a war?

One thing is certain: this White House is going to plant a lot more soldiers in Arlington. This was General Stanley McChrystal's war. He literally wrote the book on Afghanistan counterinsurgency, and had the support -- and most critically, the trust -- of the notoriously fickle Afghan government. (Something President Obama cannot claim to have.) And on the threshold of the biggest battle in the heart of enemy territory, the president is shaking things up. He's not changing horses mid-stream. Rather, he shot his horse dead and has decided to swim for a while.

General David Petraeus, the rightfully celebrated savior of Iraq and undisputed military genius, has been chosen as Stanley McChrystal's successor. But should he not find success twice-over in Afghanistan, don't worry. As the casualty numbers tick upward, Joe Biden's feelings will have been spared.