On 23 June 2010, President Barack Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal to Washington, and relieved him of his command in Afghanistan. In the view of most commentators, the president had little choice. As quoted by Michael Hastings in an article in Rolling Stone, McChrystal and his immediate circle of military advisers had criticised and disparaged the United States’s ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, the president’s special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke, and the vice-president, Joe Biden. Their scorn had gone further: it had embraced the president himself. Had Obama failed to act, the norms of civil–military relations would have been overthrown. As the president put it, the article had undermined ‘the civilian control of the military that’s at the core of our democratic system’.
But McChrystal had not set out to challenge that norm. This was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. His dignified response, and his refusal to try to justify or explain away the remarks attributed to him, confirmed his disciplined acceptance of his own constitutional position. What he had done was something rather different: he and his colleagues had vented their frustration at the lack of clear political guidance within which McChrystal’s own operational concepts were meant to sit. The operational level of war is the level of command situated between the tactical and the strategic, between the company or battalion commander in the field and the president in the White House. It is in the exercise of operational art that today’s senior generals, like McChrystal, hope to reach the acme of their professional careers. The bulk of the planning done by their staffs is devoted both to preparing for that opportunity and then to applying their skills in order to manage the characteristic chaos of war. But to do that operational art needs direction; it requires of policy a degree of clarity and a consistency of purpose which can frequently be at odds with the realities and contingencies of politics. In 1952, when General Douglas MacArthur was recalled by President Harry Truman, his sin was to have called for a change in strategy; by contrast McChrystal just wanted a strategy.
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