Was General McChrystal right?

General Stanley McChrystal was fired last year from command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after Michael Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, quoted some of McChrystal’s aides are saying insubordinate things about top figures in the Obama administration.  For what it’s worth, the Pentagon has cleared McChrystal of insubordination.  Their investigators couldn’t verify that the comments were ever made.  McChrystal himself was never quoted as saying anything critical of President Obama.

As a general rule, when somebody is fired from a high-profile job for speaking out of turn, there is a deeper underlying reason for which the comment provides an excuse.  I think this was the case with General McChrystal.  Far from being fired because he was a wild man, I believe that he was fired because of his policy of “courageous restraint,” which was unacceptable both to the troops and to the administration.

Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone article laid out the problem.  It began by establishing that that General McChrystal was a hard-charging, tough paratrooper, not some squeamish pantywaist humanitarian. This established his credentials for asserting that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by firepower alone.  McChrystal said the war in Afghanistan could only be won by winning the allegiance of the Afghan people.  He said this could only be done by understanding Afghan society and, more important, by valuing the lives of Afghan civilians as highly as those of American soldiers, because every killing of an ordinary Afghan means more recruits and more sympathy for the enemy.

He tried to prevent innocent Afghan civilians being killed by mistake at roadblocks.  He asked U.S. troops to exercise “courageous restraint,” to hold their fire when in doubt even though that might endanger their lives and the lives of their comrades.  Without such restraint, American troops will create more new enemies than they kill existing enemies.

The problem with this is that McChrystal asked more than was humanly possible for most human beings.  He had an admirable philosophy of leadership that is well described in the video above, but the troops were not willing to follow his leadership on this.

Hastings’ Rolling Stone article describes a sergeant who challenged McChrystal to come on patrol with him, and see what conditions were like.  McChrystal actually did go on patrol with him, and it was a real patrol, not going through the motions. I don’t think many generals would have done that.  The sergeant was unconvinced.

After President Obama replaced General McChrystal with General David Petreaus, no more was heard of  “courageous restraint.”  Use of drone warfare – flying killer robots – spares the lives in American troops in the short run while unavoidably killing more Afghan bystanders, which, even if you think an Afghan life is worth less than an American life, will increase the number of enemies of the United States.

Recently President Obama appointed General McChrystal to a commission to help military families.  The wife of an NCO who died in Afghanistan responded as follows:

My husband a 22 year Army NCO with many years of combat experience did not survive his wounds he suffered while involved in an ambush on September 8, 2009 in the Ganjgal Valley of Afghanistan that killed 4 Service Members … . Many patriotic families were affected that very sad day. These brave men who gave the ultimate sacrifice died under the watch of General McChrystal who issued the new ROE restrictions on the use of military force to reduce the risk of further alienating the population… “Tying our Warfighter’s hands behind their backs is past unsatisfactory…it’s criminal!” [Colonel Wayne Morris, USMC (Ret)] McChrystal had countless brave men and women sacrifice their very safety under HIS VERY watch. My husband and the brave men who unnecessarily died that day died due to McChrystal’s ROE.  Now appointing him to an advisory board to “help” military families has and will only add salt to an unbearable wound that he himself has caused!

via NationalJournal.com.

To sum up:  General Stanley McChrystal, one of the United States’ toughest and smartest commanders, said that the United States can’t win in Afghanistan unless we stop killing civilians, even at the cost of American lives.  This asked more than the vast majority of human beings (myself included) could or would do, and is a policy that the Obama administration is unwilling to support.  What would work (if anything would work) is more than we can do, and what we can do won’t work, short of waging a war of extermination.

Click on The Runaway General for the original Rolling Stone article.  The body of the article does not, in my opinion, support the headline. The links were not in the original on-line version.

Click on Pentagon Clears General McChrystal Over Rolling Stone Article for the New York Times report on the Pentagon inquiry.

Click on The Public Rehabilitation of Stanley McChrystal for a National Journal article on his appointment to a commission to help military families.

As to the original article, I don’t fault Michael Hastings for quoting General McChrystal’s ill-considered remarks.  If you agree that your words are on the record, you can’t justly complain if your words are quoted accurately.  In fact General McChrystal did not complain.

I do fault Hastings for quoting General McChrystal’s aides off the record, particularly when these quotes were more damaging than the on-the-record quotes.  This was not a case of protecting whistle-blowers, who endanger their livelihoods by revealing inconvenient facts.  This was enabling people to make insulting remarks from behind the protection of anonymity.

The  four videos below are General McChrystal’s presentation on Afghanistan to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London in 2009.  I think that his clarity and honesty was admirable, but the question is whether he was being asked to do the impossible.  View the videos and decide whether what McChrystal advocated is feasible.

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One Response to “Was General McChrystal right?”

  1. Dave Says:

    I found your site through a Google search… and found this blog post. I served under Gen McCrystal and thought he was the best leader that the US Military had at the time. And I still believe that.

    I think Gen McCrystal understood the cost of war more than the general public does. (And he has the guts to say in public that it would cost American’s lives) Maybe this cost is too high for people today, but history has shown that the cost of war is ALWAYS too high. Unfortunately, Afghanistan may go on for years and years, in which many more soldiers may die.

    In my opinion, McCrystal had the foresight to make the hard decisions, which is what leadership is all about.


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