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October 3, 2009
Going grimBy Greyhawk
"I arrived in Afghanistan in May 2002 and I have spent a part of every year since then involved in the effort. I have learned a tremendous amount about it and I will tell you, every day, I realize how little about Afghanistan I actually understand. I discount immediately anyone who simplifies the problem or offers a solution, or raises one finger and says 'this is what you gotta do', because they have absolutely no clue of the complexity of what we're dealing with."
When did it become permissible for a senior commander to publicly question policy considerations while they were in the process of being formed?
Given that other questions are being asked of General McChrystal and he's providing answers, that question is now being asked with increasing frequency. To buy into the argument (and it's an argument formed as a question - and an unsubtle message that the general should STFU and keep his nose out of the business of his betters) you first have to accept that he's asking questions rather than answering them.
Has the general crossed a line? I certainly don't know - that's a line for the president to draw; as with most of the president's thoughts on Afghanistan that's a detail he's chosen to keep to himself. But I do know that any military officer refusing or undermining the orders of his Commander in Chief (as opposed to indirectly challenging the political views of other Americans by commenting on operational aspects of war on his battlefield) will have crossed a line - and the president's response should be clear and swift. Until then, the political and military intersect (in fact there is nothing about the military that isn't within the sphere of the broader political), and few embody that intersection more than those of flag rank. This isn't new (though rapid, worldwide communication is - relatively speaking). Arguments against his public pronouncements have as much validity as those against Hillary Clinton's on Afghanistan, perhaps less (though both approach zero). They are grown ups working for (and at the convenience and by appointment of) the president with advice and consent of Congress. The president can correct their behavior if need be. He probably doesn't need guidance on that, although obviously there are those who feel he does.
Bruce Ackerman is among that group willing to step up and help our inexperienced president see the error of his ways. You have to scroll to the bottom of his Washington Post diatribe to discover who he is: The writer is a professor at Yale Law School. Perhaps his compulsion can be credited to more than just a desire to lend intellectual aid to an ill-prepared and stumbling Harvard man confronted with a brutish West Pointer.
Whatever his motive, he's very upset:
Unless McChrystal publicly recognizes that he has crossed the line, future generals will become even more aggressive in their efforts to browbeat presidents.
What line has the general crossed?
A bit of confusion there - if the president wanted his advice he'd ask for it, which, um, well, he did. But clearly the general has exceeded his authority...
President Barack Obama holds a strategy review on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 30, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
But they did meet for 25 minutes on Air Force One this week, too. Perhaps the president took some or all of that time to clarify the general's position for him. Perhaps not, perhaps there was no need.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his wife, Annie, aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen, Denmark on Oct. 2, 2009. The President and Gen. McChrystal, the Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, then held a meeting on the plane before the President flew back to Washington, D.C. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Professor Ackerman must have insight into the president's position on Afghanistan that the rest of us lack, given his degree of certainty that General McChrystal is some sort of boorish rogue agent interrupting conversations in which he has no part. But this accusation is becoming a talking point used by those who are apparently concerned that McChrystal's comments are a ploy to influence public sentiment and steer an insecure president's decision process on Afghanistan. Since most statements in opposition to the general's assessment come from "a senior official" or "an official" "in the administration" or "at the Pentagon" (or even a "person familiar with the discussion") the good professor probably sees a great degree of unfairness in a real (and qualified and influential) person explaining his position and claiming ownership of his recommendations. His bottom line: the general should STFU, the masses can make do with what information news reporters can get from anonymous sources and filter for their eighth-grade reading level consumption. They'll still form their opinions, those opinions will still have whatever influence the president assigns them, but at least they won't be contaminated by some uniformed thug bent on destroying... uh... something. Perhaps even something we hold dear.
Also missing from the vague accusations leveled at the general is some sort of motive for his behavior. No one has accused him of racism yet, but others imply that perhaps this man who spent so much of his career in the near-invisible special ops world now enjoys nothing so much as seeing his name in the paper. Since that's true of many folks who feel their opinions are wrongfully ignored it's easy enough to project. Besides that, it seems every couple of years some general turns up out of nowhere and is suddenly an instant expert. Who do these guys think they are? Other than that, those who accuse the general tend to leave motive to the reader's imagination.
But no one acts without a motive. So let's also consider that Professor Ackerman of Yale ("Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and the author of fifteen books that have had a broad influence in political philosophy, constitutional law, and public policy. His major works include Social Justice in the Liberal State and his multivolume constitutional history, We the People. His most recent books are The Failure of the Founding Fathers (2005) and Before the Next Attack (2006)." He's also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Commander of the French Order of Merit...) is legitimately concerned about a constitutional crisis, an encroachment by the military into the sovereign territory of our duly elected or appointed civilian leaders - precisely the sort of thing that left unchecked begins the downhill slide to a coup and military dictatorship.
Now we're certainly approaching the deep end. Certainly we must all remain ever vigilant against such threats to good order, but before venturing too far into that territory something mentioned briefly earlier in this discussion bears a bit more consideration: "...the masses can make do with what information news reporters can get from anonymous sources and filter for their eighth-grade reading level consumption". Sadly, that's exactly what much of this discussion results from, and unfortunately even a Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale is vulnerable to stumbling into that trap.
Here's the trick (and newspapers do this all the time, in part on the assumption that readers will fall for it every time): take two people explaining all sides of an issue, quote only that part of each that makes it appear they're in opposition, and you've got a "juicy" story. The opposition may be real, but if nothing else the degree of that contention, or of either side's understanding of the position of the other (or the certainty of their own) must be ignored in the interest of portraying a brawl or smackdown that fans of professional wrestling can understand. Put that in writing (in addition to motive, leaving the audible grunts and visible sweat of the grudge-match contenders to the imagination) and you've got something that even a Yale Man can cheer (or jeer) from ringside.
At this point, for those interested in full quotes a good reading of (self-identified progressive) Spencer Ackerman's commentary and analysis is in order - and highly recommended. For those who appreciate insight from those a bit closer to the fire, here's a milbogger in Afghanistan who won't dissapoint. And for the rare few who might want to bypass all filters and read the general's remarks in their entirety, here they are. Should you prefer to view the proceedings, you can do so here.
Hopefully at this point we're past the greatest part of foolishness in the argument (we aren't really - the world is full of wrestling fans) but before closing this discussion it's worth noting a final accusation from Professor Pain's cage match with General Disorder: "He emphasized that the president had "encouraged" him to be blunt when making his grim report on Afghanistan." The word report (or assessment) now appears to be inseparable from the adjective grim. (By the way, here's the report - you can decide for yourself whether that's the best possible one-word description.) The report (and the situation in Afghanistan) is grim, but suddenly there's another talking point bubbling up through the noise implying that this is deceptive. Nothing anyone would want to actually say, of course (at least not in a manner that their name or reputation could ever be connected to the comment), but like "the general is treasonous" the message is there.
What next? The general returns to the battlefield, of course - where other pressing issues will limit his time for The Press. Perhaps we'll hear little from him for a while - perhaps not:
That fever shows no sign of breaking just yet.
President Barack Obama meets with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen, Denmark on Oct. 2, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Update: SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! "Officials" push back - smack general with realistic metal folding chair!!!!
The championship belt goes to whatever nameless, spineless, 98-pound weakling came up with this line: An adviser to the administration said: "People aren't sure whether McChrystal is being naïve or an upstart. To my mind he doesn't seem ready for this Washington hard-ball and is just speaking his mind too plainly."
LATE UPDATE: Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, Combat in Nuristan - U.S. Forces Afghanistan reports "eight ISAF and two ANSF service members" killed in action.
"Coalition forces' previously announced plans to depart the area as part of a broader realignment to protect larger population centers remain unchanged."
"Unchanged" also means "waiting for Washington" - and moving in slow motion. More here.
Posted by Greyhawk / October 3, 2009 2:45 PM | Permalink
Also missing from the vague accusations leveled at the general is some sort of motive for his behavior. No one has accused him of racism yet...Here's why I said "yet":The army is also "in a war against the White House -- and they feel they have [Presid... Read More
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
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