It may seem and odd thing to write, but today is a day every American should be happy – liberal or conservative; young or old; male or female. Civilian control of our military is a hallmark of American government and when General McChrystal stepped over the line by criticizing the president’s staff our system worked correctly in replacing him. Our armed services are there to carry out policy – not make it.
I know there are a number of good folks out there who do not like our president (or at least his policies). They yearn for the day when another president is in office. If you have this view, it might be easy to think that what we need to do is rally around the general since he too found himself in opposition to the president. But in our system there are civilian leaders to rally to if we don’t like the president, not military ones. We walk down a dark path followed in many third world countries that none of us would like if we try to start mixing the military into politics.
“Wait Tom”, you may be thinking, “a few comments in Rolling Stone magazine hardly make for a military junta. Don’t military members enjoy freedom of speech?” It doesn’t and yet, at some core level, loyalty is vital. First, the general was chosen by the president to lead our effort in Afghanistan. Loyalty is vital in our armed services (especially in its leaders). The message the general sent by criticizing the president’s staff publicly sets a truly negative precedent (especially if it were shrugged off as many pundits wanted the president to do). Second, military members do not have full freedom of speech when in uniform. McChrystal spoke, not as a private citizen but as the leader of our military efforts in Afghanistan. If the general had gotten to a position where he could no longer with integrity support the president, his staff, or his policies – he should have resigned. Later, after he retired (which wouldn’t take too long), it would be proper and fitting the publicly air his views.
All this goes well beyond this specific case. Sometimes I will read or hear someone saying, “the president needs to listen to his generals in the field.” No, quite the reverse. The generals need to be listening to their commander-in-chief.
And our responsibility as citizens is to vote for men and women who we want to have that responsibility. If we don’t like the current one, then our duty is to vote someone else in. But it is not, if we value our democracy, to start “listening to the generals” when it comes to public policy.
I am hopeful that our new general leading our effort in Afghanistan, General Petraeaus, will more successfully keep the focus on military strategy and helping to establish a stable government in that troubled nation. He did well for us in Iraq. And I hope the day will come, in the not too distant future, that we don’t have to be sending our sons and daughters to that far away land.
I usually don’t write on politics but this is an important issue.
Until next time,