What follows has nothing to do with sports, but, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are contained in the nightly scoreboard, and it is the 4th of July afterall.
I was recently reminded of the song made famous by Frank Sinatra and Neal Diamond, among others, called “The House I Live In.” It is sometimes known by its refrain, “That’s America to Me.” The particular stanza I thought of was:
The "howdy" and the handshake,
The air of feeling free
The right to speak my mind out,
That's America to me.
Last week, Pres. Obama removed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man in charge of our Afghan operations. The apparent cause of the firing was the content of an article about to be published in Rolling Stone magazine.
This was not the first time that McChrystal’s mouth has gotten him in trouble. Several months ago, during a question and answer session in England, McChrystal had the temerity to refer to VP Joe Biden’s counter-terrorism plan as “shortsighted.” For “speaking his mind out” on that occasion, McChrystal received a personal audience with the President.
McChrystal, it seems, has some differences with Biden. McChrystal favored a counter insurgency plan named COIN that advocates spending decades winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans. Biden favored a more short-term approach – call it blow them up and let’s get out of there..
Presenting a united front to the enemy is an important psychological part of war. But this wasn’t supposed to be war. Our aim was not supposed to be the subjugation of Afghanistan. Our aim was supposed to be the elimination of Al Qaeda. Both McChrystal and the administration seem to have taken their eye off the ball.
The best current information is that Al Qaeda has moved its base of operations to Pakistan. The people we are now fighting in Afghanistan are the Taliban supported by Afghan insurgents who want us, and the government we’ve installed, out of their country. The Taliban don’t represent any threat to us. They are at least 200 years away from being able to build a ship big enough to visit us.
When Al Qaeda was in Pakistan, President Bush decided to eliminate them by invading Iraq, where they weren’t. As soon as we turned our attention back to Afghanistan under Obama’s leadership, Al Qaeda exited to Pakistan. Of course, if we spend 20-30 years winning the hearts and minds of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and reversing Muslim culture all over the Middle East, we will make those places inhospitable to Al Qaeda, and we might get rid of them. It is more likely, however, that by that time Bin Laden will have perished from old age in his new location Indonesia, or the Philippines, or New Jersey, or on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Did it ever occur to our government that we would stop more terrorist threats over here by making sure that non-citizen Muslims don’t get past our borders in the first place, and kicking out those who are already here, than we will by trying to invade the entire Middle East while terrorists plot in Mosques in Newark?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for catching and doing away with Bin Laden and his evil band. But what has catching Bin Laden got to do with anything we’ve been doing for the past five years in the Middle East?
I’m not a West Point graduate, and I don’t have a doctorate in political science or foreign affairs from George Washington University, but my Masters degree from the University of Common Sense tells me that if you want to stop Alibaba and the 40 Thieves, the best way is neither to bomb their cave after they have left, nor to win the hearts and minds of the people in the town adjacent to the cave. The best way to stop Alibaba and his gang is to hunt them down in each new hideout until you catch up with them, and then eliminate them. Once you get rid of the gang, there is no need to occupy every hiding place for the next one hundred years to make them inhospitable.
To quote Ret. Col. Douglas Macgregor with reference to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan, "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people. The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”
Both the administration’s plan, and Gen. McChrystal’s plan are completely off base, but we owe McChrystal a vote of thanks for speaking out and letting us know just how far both he and the administration have already strayed. While we spent time capturing Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda got stronger in Afghanistan. While we spend time with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda plots and trains in Pakistan. The benefit to speaking one’s mind is the communication of ideas and discovery of facts.
As President Obama pointed out after dismissing McChrystal, our military is civilian controlled. Effective civilian control means imparting as much information as possible to the public. That means publicly airing differences of opinion. We cannot decide which way to go if we don’t know the choices and don’t understand the arguments for and against each choice. Generals who keep their mouths shut and send false reports from the front have a very poor record in history. Presenting a bold and united front is not everything. Having valid policies and tactics is more important.
McChrystal was not fired for his gaffe when he referred to Joe Biden’s plan as “shortsighted.” He was merely reprimanded. When he engaged in a cover up regarding the death of a Corporal under his command, he got a pass. When he was the commander of a prison engaging in torture and human rights violations, our President did not demand a personal audience, or ask for McChrystal’s head. Despite over 90 civilian deaths, including an attempted cover up of the shooting of two innocent pregnant women and their babies who were somehow mistaken for weapon-toting insurgents during a night patrol, McChrystal remained on the job.
“ Given everything McChrystal for which McChrystal was given a pass, he must have really said something bad during the Rolling Stone interview,” I thought to myself.
The infamous Rolling Stone article, The Runaway General, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236?RS_show_page=1 hit the newsstands on Friday, June 25.. As I read it, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
There are only three statements directly attributed to McChrystal. The first was a poor attempt at a joke. Referring to his “shortsighted” characterization a few months before, McChrystal observed that his problem was that he never knew what he would be asked or what he’d say before hand. Then, according to Rolling Stone, McChrystal laughingly mocked himself by pretending to another gaffe at that night’s speech.
"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal said with a laugh. "Who's that?"
It was a bad joke likely aimed at McChrystal’s own inability to think on his feet. But then, one of McChrystal’s advisors volunteered the following sophomoric punch line,
"Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?"
It was a pun not even worthy of Junior High School. Such is the state of the people advising our generals and running our armed forces. Still, McChrystal wasn’t the one who said it.
The second statement referred to an email from Richard Holbrooke. According to Rolling Stone, McChrystal saw the email on his Blackberry and said, "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don't even want to open it." Hardly a statement to get fired over, although there was another idiotic attempt at a junior school joke by one of McChrystal’s aides that was clearly derogatory. And by the way, what are government and military doing communicating in the least secure way available?
Finally, when asked about a cable from Karl Eikenberry that was critical of McChrystal and that had been leaked to the New York Times, McChrystsal said, "I like Karl, I've known him for years, but they'd never said anything like that to us before." McChrystal added that he felt "betrayed by the leak,” saying further, "Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.’”
The worst statement was not one that McChrystal made to Rolling Stone, but one attributed to him by one of the reporter’s many anonymous witnesses. McChrystal was quoted as calling Richard Holbrooke a “wounded animal,” ostensibly because Holbrooke lived in constant fear of being fired.
I reread the article. That couldn’t be all of it. I looked again for something Stanley McChrystal had said that warranted flying him back to the White House at taxpayer expense to be relieved of duty. There was nothing.
Various aides and witnesses volunteered their impressions of McChrystal’s thoughts and actions at various points in time. Unnamed sources are credited with saying that at Obama’s first meeting with McChrystal, McChrystal thought the new President looked “uncomfortable and intimated” in the room full of military brass.
Another advisor gave the following impression of the President at the second meeting between the President and McChrystal:
"Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged.”
The same person said of McChrystal, “The Boss was pretty disappointed."
All these things are just third party opinions and impressions. Was Obama really intimidated? Did Obama really know nothing about Stanley McChrystal? I suspect Obama would deny that these assessments were valid. Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that the thoughts and emotions attributed to McChrystal by the same source are valid.
To be sure, there were plenty of disrespectful comments from the aides and advisors to McChrystal. Their macho attitude combined with hubris led them to believe they could say anything they chose. Jim Jones, for example, was called a “clown.” Rolling Stone does not allege that such statements were made by McCrhyystal, or in McChrystal’s presence, or that he agreed with them, or that he even knew of the statements prior to their publication. The reporter does not claim to have done any fact checking with McChrystal regarding the statements and emotions attributed to him by his staff, nor any checking to determine if McChrystal was in agreement with the attitudes and opinions of his aides.
Such is what passes for investigative reporting today. I remember the first issue of Rolling Stone. It was a counterculture publication dedicated to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and a negative stance on the Viet Nam war. All the things I cared about back then. Nobody, however, considered Rolling Stone one of the newspapers of record in the United States, or bastion of accurate reporting. Their articles were, and still are more opinion pieces than reporting. But today, the medium has become the message. The Rolling Stone has now been placed in control of our foreign policy and the conduct of our wars.
Perhaps McChrystal should have been fired for the poor judgment he exhibited in allowing a reporter from Rolling Stone to hang out like a groupie with McChrystal’s cadre of self-absorbed morons and muscle heads. But still, the people should be given access, and, unfortunately, it is only publications like Rolling Stone that do any old-fashioned first-hand reporting. The more mainstream media now seem to rely completely on self-serving press releases by news subjects, and rewrites from AP or Reuters.
It is interesting to note that the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 88 states:
USC Title 10 § 888. Art. 88. Contempt toward officials http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/usc_sec_10_00000893----000-.html
Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
Of course, the word “Justice” should never be used in conjunction with the words “Military Code.” I’ve always wondered where in our Constitution and Bill of Rights it says, “except for those serving our country in the military.” Why are those who are giving up the most in service to their country protected the least by the rights that country affords? The answer is not just the necessity of obedience. Prisoners are required to be obedient, but they are given the right to speak their mind, the right to be charged with a felony only by a Grand Jury, and the right to a public trial before a jury. Any civil service worker is given the right to speak up about his boss, or the department that employs him, without being fired, or worse, punished by a court martial. The same goes for illegal aliens. They have freedom of speech, and the right to a trial by jury, and to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Why are our soldiers second-class to those from foreign lands whose presence here may have been solely for the purpose of terrorist acts? Above the doors of our recruiting stations should be the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Even under the restrictive Article 88 of the Military Code of Justice, however, I can find only one statement in the entire article that would be violation. That is, the statement of the advisor who used the pun “Bite me” as a play on V.P. Biden’s name. For some reason, that aide seems to have been ignored. Contemptuous statements about various diplomatic personnel are not forbidden under Article 88. Likewise, nothing in the words “. . . Joe Biden? Who’s that?” can be said with any certainty to be contemptuous. Expressing disappointment is certainly not contemptuous.
Is the current administration so thin-skinned that mere in-the-moment joking has risen to an offense worthy of relieving the general in charge from duty in the midst of war – an action taken only once before in our history? To assuage the fragile feelings of his Vice President and a few diplomats and politicos, Obama has demonstrated to the world that in the United States, land of democracy, liberty and free speech, engineering a serious cover up of the killing of a soldier is fine, maltreatment of prisoners in a prison under your command is not important enough to warrant disciplinary action, and taking no action when your troops attempt to cover up their tragic slaying of two pregnant civilians and their babies is worthy of being placed on the “stuff happens” pile, but if your staff is caught speaking their mind about our politicians, and those words are not sufficiently flowery, you’re a goner.
No one can keep everyone on their staff in line. If it wasn’t to Rolling Stone, McChrystal’s advisors would have shot their mouths off to someone else. It’s the egotistical nature of the beast. The lesson to be learned by the officers placed in charge of our wars is that candid communication is to be avoided. If you don’t express any feelings or opinions, and don’t discuss any actions or plans, then there is nothing for your underlings and advisors to talk about when Rolling Stone shows up, and no basis for any assumptions about your attitudes, feelings and beliefs. In Obama’s war, the watchword of our officers will now be taken from Sgt Schultz’ motto in Hogan’s Heroes, “I see nothing. I hear nothing. I know nothing.” No communication among the generals, the troops, the diplomats, and the politicians – now there’s a sure-fire prescription for success.
Obama promised change. So far, the biggest change has been going from a President who constantly hung out at his ranch in Texas and pretended he was working, to a President who constantly hangs out in front of TV cameras and pretends he’s working.
Here’s some change. The words of the song at the start of this article should be changed for the Obama administration to:
The torture and the cover-ups
They get a pass for free,
But fired for speaking one's mind out
That’s our President to me.