Thursday, June 24, 2010

Too Much Truth Cost A General His Job

We took a tremendous national risk when we elected as president a man with virtually no experience in foreign affairs. But we wanted change. So we elected Barack Obama and made him commander in chief of the armed forces. Little did we know we'd bargained for a man with the sensibilities of a momma's boy.

Obama was all gravitas and suppressed rage when he fired General Stanley A. McChrystal after a brief meeting at the White House. McChrystal was the United States' top gun military commander in our engagement in Afghanistan. The general and his cronies had the misfortune of lowering their guard and ranting some over drinks one night. They did so in the presence of an embedded journalist for Rolling Stone, who dutifully reported what military brass sounds like when knocking back a few cold ones.

I hesitated about what to call our presence in Afghanistan. The politically correct term is war, as in we are at war against terrorism. But other words spring to mind, words like occupation. We barged into Afghanistan almost a decade ago looking to clean house, dislodging the Taliban from power and looking to ... well, what, exactly?

My sons did not die in Afghanistan. Neither did they serve in the military, although they were of an age when they could have. But when we'd talk around the family table about the world, we never could make sense of American objectives in the land that so famously fought off the Russians. Afghanistan is stocked with a proud and ferocious people. I simply cannot imagine they are pining away to become the 51st state or desire Walmart franchises.

We couldn't imagine what it would be like to awaken to see foreign troops patrolling our streets, speaking a different language, engaging in religious practices at odds with ours. We've watched classmates of my sons become soldiers. We've wondered whether eyes glassy with hope will return dull with horror, or even return at all. And we've read that suicide rampages through the ranks of soldiers pressed hard against the unforgiving mountain ranges and even less forgiving people of a land foreign not just in terms of geography but also in terms of spirit.

General McChrystal and his command staff are valiantly living this nightmare. They are following orders, doing their best to meet a rising tide of insurgency, trying to win the hearts and minds of a people who shown no real signs of wanting to be seduced. The general and his men and woman are warriors. They are doing their duty and facing death, one day and one soldier at a time.

It is no great crime to wonder whether this nation and its top civilian leadership has any idea what it is doing in Afghanistan, or, for that matter, Iraq. President Obama has no coherent strategy beyond indefinite occupation. His soldiers may well be men of duty and honor, but they are not machines. Only a fool can behold the mess in Afghanistan without doubts and sorrow. Does Obama want fools as commanders?

We permit journalists to become embedded with our troops. We give them access to the front lines and then want reports that are honest. But apparently, we do not want too much honesty. We want pictures of reality scrubbed clean of inconvenient truths. A journalist sat with the general and others and listened to soldiers gripe about navigating in hostile waters with no real map. We are adrift. I suspected as much.

President Obama's decision to fire McChrystal had the elegance of a firing squad. Too much truth cost the man his job. The president wants to portray a united military leadership. Dissent is not tolerated. But united behind what, Mr. President?

Strutting around the White House playing angry peacock isn't persuasive. By signaling to the nation's men and women at arms that private candor is a crime, the president signals far more than he intends. Bury your doubts, he tells all. Follow without questioning. Trust. Obey.

And if the doubts become too much, well, you can always just kill yourself, as so many of your colleagues have done. But tell us, Mr. President, why must a foreign policy without vision result in a suicide pact for either offices or the nation? Firing the general was a rookie's mistake that will cost of us much in the eyes of the world.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.