Herewith some things I’ve noted as McChrystal’s dismissal unfolded in slow motion over the last two days. I noted with a certain bemusement that two retired general, selected by PBS’ NewsHour as commentators, on Tuesday night, praised the general effusively. One called McChrystal “a warrior,” with emphasis, and several times. I wondered what he meant by this word. Did he mean that in the conduct of war grandstanding before a reporter—in fact apparently trying to impress the reporter by saying naughty things about a number of different leading figures, not least Vice President Biden—is the quality of a warrior? Is that what he meant? Did he mean that a warrior is a person out of control? That to lead American troops we should select berserkers? Is “warrior” in military circles equivalent to “hard-drinking womanizer” in literary circles? — a phrase sure to sanctify the “genuine artist,” or the “deep thinker”? I see the phrase all the time, most recently self-applied to himself by that notable God-debunker, Christopher Hitchens.
I noted my own anxiety that McChrystal might be retained in command, something that, these days, is actually thinkable. And noted next my satisfaction that he was not. And noted the paradoxical aspects of that. Yes, appropriate forms should be maintained, but the war in Afghanistan is still a kind of madness without rational grounding, so my satisfaction had a kind of empty feel.
I noted the pretense, at least I hope it was pretense, that a “decision process” was unfolding. These matters are straight-forward and need no discussion at all. The generals in the media were all wringing their hands—although I did note one lonely retired colonel on CNN who had the right view and bravely stuck to it. A genuine warrior, perhaps.
Last I noted that McChrystal got appointed to his command by people who must have known the pattern of his entire career—which was pockmarked, as it were, by inappropriate behavior. It looks like Petraeus (whose protégé McChrystal was, and whom he is replacing), Gates, McChrystal’s strong supporter, and others on Obama’s staff were touched and charmed by the “bad boy” image all along but thought themselves magically immune to its reckless consequences.
I discern beneath this that if reason fails and flailing takes over as the chief strategy, choosing a bad boy is the appropriate profile for the man in charge. The thought might be that in a crazy world perhaps the mad commander will succeed by sheer accident. In an insurgency, use an insurgent?