The chain of command

The wars in the Middle East have claimed a fair number of military careers.

If you’re looking to retire earlier than you’d planned, being a general overseeing wars in the Middle East seems like a pretty good method.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is heading back to Washington to explain himself to his boss — President Obama — after an article in the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone featured disparaging quotes from McChrystal. The general will be out of work soon because there’s no way a president — especially one without any military background — can let his actions go unpunished. It sends the wrong signal to just about everybody who pays attention to signals.

What’s surprising, perhaps, is that McChrystal is just the latest in a line of war generals who got their jobs because the person they replaced couldn’t keep their mouth shut.

A year ago, McChrystal got his job because Obama fired Gen. David McKiernan. His fate was sealed when he said the U.S. couldn’t devote the resources to the war in Afghanistan, because it had put so much into Iraq. McKiernan probably was right — the war in Afghanistan has gone badly under McChrystal since — but they don’t give you medals in the military for speaking truth to power.

McKiernan was the first general fired by a president since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur after the World War II hero questioned Truman’s strategy in Korea.

Generals often walk a fine line between reality and politics. Army General John Abizaid never questioned the assertions of the Bush administration that the war in Iraq was being won, although he came close in the summer of 2003, he said the U.S. was facing a guerilla war in Iraq, even as Sec. Donald Rumsfeld was denying there was an insurgency in Iraq. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in August 2006 Abizaid said Iraq was “as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” and that it may be on the verge of civil war.

Abizaid was right. Five months later, he was replaced.

Four-star Gen. Tommy Franks retired without incident, mostly because he stayed out of the news. On the rare occasion that he spoke publicly, he spoke the words that would please his president. “We have a firm conviction that Saddam Hussein rapes, murders and abuses his own people, that he threatens the Western world and a great many nations in the international community — and we’re one of them — that he has the capability to bring his threats to reality. And it seems to us this should not stand,” he said just before the start of the war in Iraq.

Timing is everything in the military. Franks’ predecessor, Gen. Anthony Zinni , waited until after he retired before opening up publicly without he really believed about — in this case — Iraq.

“There has been poor strategic thinking in this,” Zinni told 60 Minutes. “There has been poor operational planning and execution on the ground. And to think that we are going to ‘stay the course,’ the course is headed over Niagara Falls. I think it’s time to change course a little bit, or at least hold somebody responsible for putting you on this course. Because it’s been a failure.”

Expect to see a “retired” Gen. McChrystal on 60 Minutes soon.

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