We'll never quite know why General McChrystal used his mouth as a weapon against himself. His on-the-record comments in Rolling Stone not only fatally wounded his career, but injured countless others who relied on his guidance and leadership.
As a studier of the media and an armchair pop psychologist, I can't help but wonder if the missteps by General McChrystal weren't subconsciously planned. On the outside we see a seasoned professional with a five-star resume: graduate of West Point, Green Beret, Commander of the top-secret Joint Special Operations Command; U.S. Commander in Afghanistan. His medal-covered uniform is proof enough he is a driven man who cares profoundly about the future of this country. He lived in a war zone, commanded thousands of troops and, until this point, seemed to have President Clinton's Teflon coat of armor when it came to the media.
His past indiscretions, including withholding information that Pat Tillman had been killed by fire from his own platoon and approving the paperwork awarding Tillman a Silver Star for dying in the line "of enemy fire," belie a lack of a clear personal reputation management strategy and are in conflict with his buttoned-down military make-up. Could it be that his psyche was sending an S.O.S to the administration about his frustrations over this exasperating, seemingly never-ending war?
From my days in college psychology, I seem to remember Sigmund Freud's theory that some people - no matter how successful they are in the eyes of others- fear living up to their achievements and don't know if they can sustain their success. Fear of success is the opposite of fear of failure which by definition is making mistakes and losing approval. Freud says when those who fear success start to achieve more success than they think they should; their subconscious self sabotages them to bring them down to the level where they believe they should be. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, born the same year as Freud, wrote ''There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.''
McChrystal may have reached a "success" plateau he couldn't exceed. Maybe deep down he realized that he simply couldn't win the war. We've watched countless politicians and government leaders jettison a lifetime of accomplishments through acting out in what can only be described as self-sabotage.
Look at John Edwards. After his love child admission and his divorce from his cancer-stricken wife, the former Senator and VP nominee has been seen, according to the Daily Beast's Diane Diamond, hanging out in North Carolina bars such as The Wooden Nickel and the Saratoga Grill drinking white wine and chatting up pretty single women. A big tumble from his mansion in Georgetown with his chauffeured limousines and catered dinners.
It took former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich two FBI tape-recorded sentences to unravel his Presidential aspirations. In talking about his power to name a replacement for Senator Barack Obama after the November elections he told an aide, "I've got this thing, and it's f______ golden...I'm just not giving it up for f______ nothing." He was arrested and earlier this month proclaimed his innocence in court on two dozen charges of conspiracy, extortion, fraud and bribery.
Self sabotage is just as common in other professions. Look at the long litany of adult and child entertainment stars that couldn't live up to success: King of Pop Michael Jackson; Mickey Mouse Club singer turned pop superstar Britney Spears; Gary Coleman; Kurt Cobain; Marilyn Monroe, and the list goes on and on. Add sports figures to the list and place the chronic philandering of Tiger Woods right at the top.
What's the cure for a strong case of fear of success? Doubtful a visit to Oprah's couch is in McChyrstal's future. If you believe psychologists who make a living at this sort of thing, "those wrecked by success," need a revision of values. A person at peace with himself is often far better off than the success-hungry, in this case, military machine.
Can McChrystal rehabilitate? Well, we never thought former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer could do it after his 2008 resignation for patronizing Emperors Club VIP prostitution service. Yet just today CNN announced Spitzer will co-host a primetime television news show with award-winning journalist Kathleen Parker.
In America, no matter what Freud says, anything is possible.
Lauren Ashburn is an award-winning journalist with 20 years experience in print and television. She is a former managing editor of USA TODAY Live and Gannett Broadcasting.
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