Fire McChrystal

When I began managing Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café back in 1987, the first thing the owner told me was to hire my own replacement. I thought this a bizarre request seeing as he had just hired me to run the place. He explained that many people depended for their livelihoods on the café running successfully and that if I got hit by a bus, the whole operation could not come grinding to a halt. My first task, therefore, was to make sure that I had in place one or more colleagues and subordinates who knew how to do the schedule, examine the payroll, train new staff, etc. This was sage advice.

I thought of this exchange when I read the Post’s editorial arguing that as much as Gen. Stanley McChrystal may deserve to get fired, he is so indispensable to the current operations in Afghanistan that he cannot possibly be replaced. If this is true, he – and some of the Joint Chiefs - need to learn some basic management skills from the owner of Kramers. The Post noted that McChrystal is the architect of the current counter-insurgency plan, adopted after many long deliberations among the National Security team last year. Additionally, they argue that he has developed key relationships with Afghan and Pakistani officials. This last might, repeat might, be reason to stay the removal of this man. But, as I say, if he was not ensuring that others in his command were meeting with key officials, he was failing to do his job and should be fired for mismanagement.

The Post then writes that “Most important, the inflammatory comments in the Rolling Stone article are symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction for which Gen. McChrystal is not chiefly responsible.” They go on to point out that the debate between the military and civilian leadership has spilled into the public arena before, noting a comment from Ambassador Eikenberry, another from Vice President Biden and a third from the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. But, those three men are civilians and the last two hold political jobs. The White House may not like it when its internal policy disputes are leaked to the press (anymore than the USCCB does!) but it is not a violation of one of the most sacred principles of the American Constitutional system, the subjugation of the military to civilian leadership.

It is safe to assume that no matter what the President does, he is going to get attacked by the usual suspects at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. This should not deter him. Think of the stature of Gen. Douglas MacArthur when President Truman fired him, but fire him he did and massive protests ensued. The Republicans threatened congressional inquiries. But, in the event, the ticker tape had barely been cleaned up when people came to their senses and came to see Truman’s action as necessary.

Last night, I re-read the announcement of Truman’s decision. Here are the relevant parts: “With deep regret, I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his whole-hearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties. In view of the specific responsibilities imposed on me by the Constitution of the United States….I have decided I must make a change of command in the Far East. I have, therefore, relieved General MacArthur of his commands and have designated Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway as his successor. Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy. It is fundamental, however, that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution. In time of crisis, the consideration is particularly compelling….”

The Church, so far as I know, has no position on the constitutional provisions regarding civilian supremacy over the military, beyond the normal concern for observance of legitimate laws. But, the Church’s history with ugly military regimes should counsel us to be vigilant about such constitutional provisions. I do not for a minute think the U.S. is in danger of a coup, but that is not the point. The constitutional requirement that the military answer to civilian leadership is a mark of a civilized society and the Church has a distinct interest in promoting civilized behavior among nations.

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