The tale of General Stanley McChrystal is the kind of filet mignon that the Washington press corps and cable news channels love to dine on: the brash General abruptly forced out after he and some unnamed aides are quoted trash-talking or demeaning senior administration officials in, of all places, Rolling Stone. Military and political experts have been busily dissecting what this case of defiance might say about the future of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, and whether there is open ideological warfare between the civilian and military leadership about how best to win the war.
Far from a stand-alone saga, the McChrystal story reflects a widespread development of our time - an undermining of authority of official institutions and a willingness on the part of those who operate within them to flout their bureaucracy or chain of command structure. This waning loyalty to institutions is part of the new system of power and influence that Janine as a social anthropologist charts in her book Shadow Elite. This is the second top General this year to eschew the traditional, internal outlets in pressing their preferred war strategy. These are breaches in conduct from leaders of an organization where adherence to authority and protocol is paramount. And it's the kind of activity Janine has tracked in a wide range of venues. The fact that it has pervaded even the military is telling indeed. Over the past couple of decades, power brokers increasingly have been subverting established official procedures, bucking authority, and exploiting ambiguity. They've used the media and think tank associations to help brand and market their version of the truth to press their own personal agendas or beliefs. For General McChrystal, who took command of the Afghan operation last year, that belief is in COIN or counterinsurgency doctrine (adherents have been dubbed COINdinistas ), described in Rolling Stone as the "new gospel of the Pentagon brass." COIN emphasizes massive ground forces combined with a deep engagement with the local population to try to win a war. It is a massive undertaking far beyond the scope of what the military traditionally does. Critics believe COIN is impractical if not impossible to achieve, and politically untenable at a time when the American public would like to see ground forces out of Afghanistan in a few years, not a few decades. The Rolling Stone fiasco is just the latest and perhaps the last McChrystal media bombshell dropped in an apparent bid to sell the COIN strategy. Last year, he delivered an extremely blunt speech in London, saying that the strategy favored by Vice-President Joe Biden would lead to "Chaos-istan."
This was a few months after he was accused of trying to force the President's hand when his dire 66-page report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling for more troops in Afghanistan was leaked. McCrystal's "strategic assessment team" on the report included an array of think tank players from the Institute for the Study of War, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Brookings Institution, and the Center for a New American Security among others. That last think-tank would play a pivotal role in the head-scratcher that emerged this past January, which Janine and I wrote about here in the Huff Post in March. Major General Michael T. Flynn - the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, delivered, not leaked, his own blistering report on the state of intelligence-gathering in the country. He did this not through a Pentagon spokesman but through CNAS, which has emerged over the past few years, includes many COIN devotees, and is supported by defense companies. The report also emphasizes the need for engaging the local population and uses harsh words for the intelligence officers and analysts now working in Afghanistan: they are "ignorant of local economics ... hazy about who the powerbrokers are ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers." The use of a think tank by an active-duty general to deliver such a sweeping indictment took many military observers by surprise, with some reporters wondering if the release was privately vetted by Flynn's boss - General McChrystal - suggesting that he might be once again pressing his priorities using untraditional means and venues. And you couldn't get a more untraditional venue for a general to air his views than Rolling Stone, a magazine that's of course legendary for its aura of subverting authority. The magazine's editor insists that General McChrystal and his aides knew what was on the record and what wasn't. (One can only imagine what was said off the record.) Some might ask, isn't this what the public should want? A general willing to fight hard for what he believes is the best way to win the war? In the Huff Post, Jon Soltz, co-Founder of VoteVets.org, and a former captain in Operation Iraqi Freedom, says yes, but describes how principled dissent or advocacy should be handled by the military elite.
In 2006, I worked with two Generals, appearing in national television ads critical of President Bush and his strategy in Iraq. Or, should I say, retired Generals. Major Generals Paul D. Eaton and John Batiste each made the painful decision to leave the military they loved so they could speak out. To that point, they had held their tongues.
But McChrystal and Flynn took their messages public, while still serving. And what kind of example does it set for young soldiers and officers? The next generation has a special challenge: they are immersed in new, tempting outlets for loose talk and subverting authority, namely, the say-anything social networking sites and other web and wireless technologies. A report by a major government contractor discussed the conundrum: how to deal with those who are tech savvy, open-minded, multitasking, and perhaps unprepared for command and control environments? The report was initiated because senior military officers were concerned that new web practices run counter to the formal doctrine and informal military culture and norms.
Soltz makes clear why formal doctrine must be upheld:
Because the order and efficacy of our Armed Forces falls apart without respect for the chain of command...every single thing is predicated on the integrity of the chain of command.
And it's not just true for the military. Janine shows in Shadow Elite that this willingness on the part of power brokers and officials to flout the authority, bureaucracy and protocol of traditional institutions such as government and business is endemic to the new system of power and influence. Elite players who work the system to their advantage or to sell their own agendas risk splintering the organizations they supposedly work for into competing fiefdoms.
That risk was likely on President Obama's mind yesterday when he said he "won't tolerate division." Ironically, General McChrystal's cowboy tactics might have undermined not just his career but his cause. As the formal Counterinsurgency Field Manual puts it in Chapter 7, "Leadership and Ethics In Counterinsurgency":
"...military actions and words must be beyond reproach."
And in Chapter 2, "Unity of Effort: Integrating Civilian and Military Activities":
"As actively as commanders may pursue unity of effort, they should also be mindful of the visibility of their role..."
It's a sign of the times that the General didn't uphold that call for mindfulness and discretion when Rolling Stone came calling.