• Marc Johnson

Firing Generals


When I first heard about and then read Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s comments about President Obama and some of his top advisers, I thought of another general – brilliant, but also cocky – who dissed his commander-in-chief, and, no, it was Douglas MacArthur.

The guy I thought of was George Brinton McClellan – Little Mac – the general who confounded Abraham Lincoln and, I would suggest, bears more than a passing resemblance to the sacked McCrystal. There is a famous story from 1862 about McClellan showing a supreme amount of disrespect for his Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln called one evening on his commanding general at his home in Washington, D.C. Told that McClellan was out, Lincoln, with a couple of companions in tow, told the general’s household staff that he would wait for his return in the parlor. Before too long McClellan came home and was told the President of the United States was waiting to speak to him. Rather than immediately present himself, McClellan sprinted up the stairs and went to bed.

Lincoln’s aides were outraged. What a snub of the president whom McClellan was known to call “an idiot” and “the gorilla.” Lincoln, one wonders why, shrugged off the snub. Time after time during the early days of the Civil War, Lincoln gave McClellan his head and time after time McClellan disappointed. Finally, after McClellan failed to follow up on his on significant defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army at the bloody battle of Antietam, Lincoln sacked the arrogant and ineffective general. McClellan, never lacking in self-confidence, eventually ran against Lincoln for president in1864. Lincoln had the pleasure of dispatching him a second time, but he probably put up with more than he should have and for much longer.

Obama acted more decisively and appropriately with McCrystal. And, when the president summoned his general from Afghanistan, at least McCrystal showed up to face the public hanging.

Lincoln had another general – Joe Hooker – who talked openly about the country’s need for “a dictator” to effectively end the Civil War. Lincoln, again displaying real patience, heard about Hooker’s lose talk and wrote the general one of the greatest letters any C-of-C ever wrote a battlefield commander.

Only generals who create victories, Lincoln told Hooker, could hope to create dictators. You bring the victories, Lincoln said, and “I’ll risk the dictator.” Lincoln finally had to fire Hooker, too.

Here’s the point: had McCrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan been working in a way that all of us could see, he might have survived. As it is, McCrystal is a good deal more like McClellan and Hooker than he is like MacArthur. MacArthur had engineered the audacious amphibious landing at Inchon in Korea, for example, and had a long record of accomplishment before Truman tied the can to him for his open contempt for the president. One of the best analysts of the American military, Thomas Ricks, makes the point that we ought to have even less hesitation about relieving a general. He’s right.

With all respect to McCrystal, he hasn’t won a thing. For that matter, neither has the newly designated commander Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus is given credit for devising and implementing the Iraq strategy, yet despite all the praise for the general, what happens after American troops further disengage in Iraq is still an open question.

The verdict is also very much out regarding the Afghanistan strategy. Obama may look back on this moment and come to regret that he didn’t seize upon McCrystal’s, and his staff’s, Bud Lite Lime infused indiscretions with a Rolling Stone reporter to reassess the entire strategy in Afghanistan. There is plenty of reason to wonder if any commander can make it work.

Lincoln – and Truman – learned that a president only gets to fire a general every once in a while. Doing so reasserts, in an essential way, the American tradition of civilian control of the military. But, considering how rare and high profile such a move is, a president better make the most of it to change strategy, too.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson