“I do not envy the generals,” wrote the famous Civil War-era poet Walt Whitman.
Barely 18 months into his White House term, President Obama is now on his third commander in Afghanistan. The first, Gen. David McKiernan, was booted months ago. Gen. David Petraeus, the newest, just arrived.
This merry-go-round of senior generals could make or break the war effort and the Obama presidency. Time will tell.
The media compared the president’s action – perhaps imprecisely – to dismissals of commanders in earlier wars: Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Korea (1951), and Gen. George McClellan in the US Civil War (1862).
President Truman dumped MacArthur for being too aggressive.
President Lincoln fired McClellan for being too passive.
One wonders: If the two generals had swapped places, would either have been dismissed?
Mr. Obama’s action was for reasons that seem obvious, but were not fully explained. The catalyst was critical comments about senior civilian leaders by McChrystal and his staff to Rolling Stone magazine.
The words were impolitic. But a firing offense? Not necessarily.
MacArthur and McClellan were fired because each pursued warfighting in ways that upset their presidents.
In McChrystal’s case, the counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan was developed by the general, and the president himself approved it.
Rather, this looks as if Obama fired McChrystal for being a blabbermouth in front of a reporter.
That logic brings us to what may be a better historic comparison. McChrystal got into trouble for being a gung-ho, macho, tough-talking warrior. It rather reminds one of George Patton of World War II fame.
General Patton often put his boot in his mouth. And he sometimes acted rashly, such as the time in Sicily when he slapped two enlisted men who had gone to field hospitals suffering from “combat fatigue.” It was a court martial offense, but Gen. Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, his commander, let Patton off with little more than a reprimand.
Why the soft treatment? Ike appreciated something that the public did not. Patton was an extraordinary commander. He inspired his men. He was extremely aggressive, something that America needed as World War II heated up.
In North Africa, Patton had taken the ragged US II Corps, which had been crushed (3,000 dead and wounded, 3,700 prisoners, 200 tanks lost) at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, and within 10 days he turned the Corps into a sharp fighting force that began rolling back the Germans and Italians. Soon after, Patton’s forces performed brilliantly against another German army in a joint US-British invasion of Sicily.
But Patton’s personal missteps seemed interminable. In Britain, he offended the Soviet allies when he reportedly said publicly (he denied it) that Britain and the US would rule the world after the war.
He once threatened to quit if any of his troops were transferred to a British commander. He was blistering in his complaints about Eisenhower – at one point suggesting that Ike wouldn’t push ahead to Berlin because he lacked “any ideas as to what to do next.” He said Eisenhower kowtowed so often to the British that he was “the best general the British have.”
Yet Ike kept him. He wanted Patton in the fight. He saw what both the Germans and Soviets saw.
German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt said after the war: “Patton was your best.” And when Patton’s Third Army knifed through the German lines in 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin said: “The Red Army could not have conceived and certainly could not have executed the advance made by [Patton’s] Third Army across France.”
Nearly 200 years ago, during a low point in the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson, then living at his estate at Monticello, wrote several letters to friends about the difficulty of finding quality commanders. He said: “Our men are good, but our generals unqualified. Every failure we have endured has been the fault of the general.…”
Days later, he wrote: “The creator has not thought proper to mark those in the forehead who are of stuff to make good generals. We are first therefore to seek them blindfold, and then let them learn the trade at the expense of great losses.”
Tossing out McChrystal, a battle-hardened general, could have future consequences.
In fact, if Eisenhower were now president, he might use McChrystal the way he did Patton during a forced hiatus after the slapping incident. To fluster the Germans, who deeply feared Patton, Ike sent the general on decoy missions to Algiers, Malta, Tunis, and other strategic locales.
Might McChrystal, a black ops expert, be used in a similar way?
John Dillin covered the Vietnam war for the Monitor in 1966-67 and later served as the newspaper’s managing editor.