My gut response to hearing of President Obama’s decision to replace General McChrystal was slight surprise. To me, the whole uproar over what amounts to battlefield venting is a ridiculous example of America’s frighteningly burgeoning penchant toward voyeurism (and exhibitionism!) and a disingenuous (or at least blissfully ignorant) attempt by folks in charge, and subsequently we the masses, to feign some moral outrage, and thus moral authority, and in so doing, stake a claim to some higher moral ground we only WISH we could even come close to occupying!
However, the vitally significant difference between this “event”, and the normal locker-room bitching and testosterone-laced guy talk that lives every bit as much on the front lines of war as it does at your neighborhood bar or indeed in the men’s locker room at the local gym, was the presence of the media. The press. These men were in a fish-bowl. And even if your average enlistee or mid-ranked officer would inexplicably forget this, or be naive enough not to understand the consequences of blathering on in his presence, a four-star general is smart enough and experienced enough and has led and managed enough crises and missions and operations – and (men) – to more than appreciate the consequences of having virtually millions of witnesses right there in on the conversation – whether it truly was just insignificant pissing or not.
This writer is, of course, a fierce defender of the First Amendment, and would never presume to judge a fellow bard – especially one who has landed such a prestigious (and paying) gig. Still, that same cornerstone of human freedom permits me to respond that RS’s journalist/McChrystal profiler Michael Hastings executed what amounts to – even as I do not think this was his intention at the outset of his assignment and imbeddedness among the troops – an example of “gotcha journalism”.
I think Hastings’ was a position of unique intimacy, and afforded him a trust and historically unheard of access to the behind-the-scenes mud and muck that is the nature of miltary conflict. As such, it crossed my mind that such trust was betrayed by his sharing and shining of the spotlight on these men’s home away from home. They may be soldiers, but they eat and sleep and want and wear just as much as we who get to sleep in our own beds tonight. They shouldn’t have to be “on” 24/7. If *anybody* needs a release, a chance to unwind, relax, debrief and, hell yes, be “at ease, men!” – it’s a soldier in battle – even if said battle is unlike any stereotyped “guns and blood” fighting in military history.
But, it would be just as ridiculous for me, or for the hype-consuming masses, and most critically for General Stanley McChrystal himself, to presume that Hastings would ignore these remarks, in essence “catching and releasing” such a treasure chest of newsman’s gems, and forfeiting the very rewards the reaping of which almost EVERY journalist salivates at just contemplating!
Ahh…but this was not luck. To say that, you would have to admit that it was just as much McChrystal’s disasterously bad luck as it was Hastings’ miraculously good luck, and for anybody to glean some gain or pleasure out of it would thus be cold and selfish to say the least. But, this was not some frail, cigarette-dangling, unworldly old lady, who happened to be Newt Gingrich’s mother, being shamelessly hoodwinked into revealing her senator-son’s private and unflattering opinion of then-first lady, Hillary Clinton, by a sneaky and overly ambitious Connie Chung. THAT was gotcha journalism, and evoked more sympathy for Marianne Gingrich and contempt for Chung than any possible merit such remarks had as news.
No…the McChrystal scandal is an example of a serious journalistic assignment involving much covetted and precious access, and the trust that this imbeddedness deserved. These men, and if not them, then surely their general, were aware that they had a news man among them! It was just as much his job to report what he heard as it was and is their job to carry out the national defense and the missions our government deems necesssary to ensure it.
And, it is our president’s job to lead and protect the American people and ensure said defense and security. It is a reasonable, if unfortunate, position to decide that that security is jeopardized when a general so publically disdains a mission he is charged with carrying out, and the civilian leaders who share the duty both groups have sworn and been elected by the the people to uphold.
The removal of General McChrystal was not a personal matter for Barack Obama. Likewise, nobody can credibly argue that the president, a man instantly famous for his deliberate and cerebral comportment, would make a snap judgment in the midst of some emotional impulse.
There is no question about it, General Stanley McChrystal has been an honorable and dedicated servant of the American people for decades. His service and record bespeak a man worthy of our respect and thanks. But, he is a human being who, as a man who has spent his entire working life living the virtues of trust, accountability, and responsibility for owning one’s own deeds, he knows full well and surely accepts these consequences. And so must we.
I’m’ sure this was not an easy decision for the president. But, ultimately, it was the one he had to make.