The plainly intolerable violations of professional behavior exhibited by General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone article surely justified his firing. Any officer in a position of responsibility who permits a culture of arrogance and contempt for civilian leadership to develop, instead of crushing both at their first appearance, surrenders his or her legitimacy as a commander of American armed forces. This was hardly a trivial gaffe or some error in judgment. Even officers who vote keep such things strictly private, lest the profession become self-consciously partisan, forfeiting the trust of the political leadership and the confidence of the American people, and thereby undermining civilian control. The tragedy in General McChrystal’s case is the stain on a heroic, historic career, not to speak of the loss of his continued service to the country.
But the president handled this challenge to his office and authority almost perfectly. He acted with dispatch but methodically, consulting his advisers and somehow absorbing the din around him. He recognized the central issue: the threat to civilian control of the military inherent in the contempt that apparently pervaded McChrystal’s entourage and, one must conclude, the general himself. The impossibility of his continuing, given the trust required between a president and his senior field commander, with the uncertainties and high stakes inherent in war, was plain for all to see. That the general needed to be relieved was widely understood in the armed forces. Mr. Obama extended to McChrystal the courtesy of a private meeting before announcing the decision, and properly honored him–graciously and convincingly–in a model statement of regret for his relief and praise for a distinguished career. The whole episode ought to be a case study in professionalism and civil-military relations, and the president’s speech required reading.
Putting David Petraeus in charge further instilled confidence. Expert in this kind of conflict, a gifted and charismatic commander widely respected at home and abroad, up to date on the war and Afghan and Pakistani politics, and as sophisticated in civil-military relations as any American flag officer, Petraeus minimizes the disruption inherent in an abrupt change of command. He can defend the president’s policy and strategy in front of Congress better than any other general. He and the president have nurtured a mutual trust over the last eighteen months, and no senior officer could advise the president with greater credibility and experience.
The one error the president committed was to perpetuate the myth of a senior officer resigning. There is no such tradition and virtually no precedent for it in the American armed forces. Obama sacked the general. To pretend otherwise might function as a useful fig leaf. But officers who resign abandon their troops, or worse the American people. In most every instance they are expressing, however silently, disagreements over a policy or a decision when such matters are not their responsibility, or within their authority to dispute once their civilian superiors have decided them. The higher in rank and responsibility, the more such an act erodes civilian control. The very idea of resignation hobbles the trust politicians must place in their military subordinates, encouraging the selection of pliant officers who will never make waves.
One hears rumblings, from the military as well as political critics, that the president has not fulfilled his responsibilities as a war leader by speaking up about the war and building support at home for prosecuting the conflict to a victorious end. Perhaps Mr. Obama has decided there is nothing to sell here. Perhaps he calculates that he would only infuriate his own political base, and rub a running sore for a clear majority of the American people. Perhaps he believes that the best way to wage a war that remains undecided after nearly nine long years is to lead out of public view, hiding his own ambivalence and keeping the war out of the public mind.
But the president cannot rely on the logic of his policy or the shrewdness of his strategy in such circumstances. A war of necessity requires periodic explanation—not exhortation or ostentatious calls for victory. President Obama has reached out to the military from the very beginning of his presidency, appointing senior retired officers to the highest levels of responsibility, backing military budgets, insisting on better care for the wounded, visiting military bases in his travels. But it's not enough. A wartime president needs to maintain support for his war. He needs to reassure allies of his determination and remind audiences at home, particularly in uniform, of his resolution. A military nearing exhaustion, experiencing pangs of martyrdom as Americans go about their normal business, needs to hear from the commander-in-chief. In the end, successful civil-military relations, particularly for a Democrat, require more than the proper exercise of authority. Frequent visitation and warm expressions of support will not suffice. Nor will treating soldiers as victims rather than the warriors they rightly see themselves as being.
The president needs to dive beneath the surface to issues and emotions inside the military’s own world, address their aspirations and concerns, values and ideals—stuff probably beyond the ken of his present stable of speech writers and Obama’s own knowledge and experience. He needs to connect military service to the historic defense and expansion of liberty. He ought to remind those in uniform as well as the American people of the role of the military in a democracy, how the services have furthered the ends of American foreign policy, how they have contributed to social progress, how they have served the American people well beyond fighting the nation’s wars. At the personal level, millions of Americans have benefitted from service, gained a keener sense of citizenship, embraced discipline and responsibility and, yes, experienced danger and sometimes tragedy. The ethical standards inside the armed forces have much to teach; Mr. Obama should champion military service, while in the process encouraging public service.
Officers need to know that President Obama understands and appreciates them on their own terms. Having now stood tall as the commander-in-chief, he needs to connect more intimately. This will take time, but the payoff will be considerable.
Richard H. Kohn teaches military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A specialist in civil‑military relations, he was chief of Air Force history for the USAF, 1981‑1991.