It couldn’t have played out any other way. History tells us so. When Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal stepped over the line, criticizing his civilian superiors in public, he did what a general must never do. As President Obama said when he accepted the general’s resignation as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan last week, Gen. McChrystal “undermined civilian control of the military, which is at the core of our democratic system.” It cannot be tolerated.
Gen. McChrystal, brilliant as he is, should have known better. What would happen when he did what no general must ever do is clearly written in our past. He had two prominent examples from which to draw, two other superstar generals who crossed the line in one way or another and paid: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, fired by Harry Truman a half-century ago, and Gen. George B. McClellan, sacked by Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War.
A comparison of McClellan and Gen. McChrystal is particularly instructive. There are some important differences in what happened to those two generals, but there are more important parallels that put what happened then and what just happened in clearer perspective.
Gen. McChrystal and his aides, in a long profile in Rolling Stone magazine, publicly criticized nearly every member of the president’s national security team. McClellan did not go public with his defiance of civilian control, but in private letters to his wife, in which he aired his true feelings. He bitterly criticized every member of Lincoln’s Cabinet and called the president himself “the original gorilla,” whom he could never regard “with other feelings than those of thorough contempt - for his mind, heart & mortality.” It was the way he truly felt, and it governed and undermined his relationship with his president as Gen. McChrystal’s public criticism undermined his relationship with his president.
Much of Gen. McChrystal’s disdain was leveled against Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., dismissing him as “shortsighted” and calling him “Bite me.” McClellan exhibited like venom for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, arguably at that time in that war the second-most-powerful man in the Union, next to the president. McClellan thought Stanton an “unmitigated scoundrel” and a “Judas.”
With his outspoken public criticism, Gen. McChrystal, a star in the Army, clearly alienated many in Washington. McClellan, at first uniformly lauded by politicians and the public as the “young Napoleon” and the savior of the Union, soon alienated most politicians in Washington with his own brand of hubris.
Both generals were operating under stress, involved in campaigns that were losing public support. Gen. McChrystal was seeing support erode in Afghanistan. McClellan was moving too slowly, too cautiously against the Confederates on the Virginia Peninsula and at Antietam, and the weary public was impatient with his lack of vigor and success in putting down the rebellion.
Gen. McChrystal certainly has many virtues, and in accepting his resignation, Mr. Obama praised them. He seemed to be the one American who could deal successfully with Hamid Karzai, the recalcitrant president of Afghanistan. McClellan appeared to be the one general Lincoln knew could whip a demoralized army into shape, and because of that, reinstated him in command of the Army a second time after the disastrous Union defeat at Second Manassas.
Perhaps taking a page from the very patient Lincoln, Mr. Obama accepted Gen. McChrystal’s resignation reluctantly and only after careful consideration. Lincoln endured McClellan’s hubris, his incessant demand for more men, his slowness to bring the Confederates to battle and his failure to pursue the enemy far longer than his Cabinet, Washington’s politicians and the public wished.
The sackings of these two generals were not for precisely the same reasons. Gen. McChrystal’s fall from grace came not from what he did but for what he said. McClellan’s came not from what he said or thought - Lincoln could endure that - but from what he failed to do in defiance of his president’s orders. In the end, it amounted to the same thing.
Finally, Lincoln had no choice politically or constitutionally with McClellan. Neither did Mr. Obama have a choice with Gen. McChrystal. Both generals had by their actions undermined the civilian control of the military that both Presidents Obama and Lincoln believed to be at the core of our democratic system.
There was only one remedy for that in Lincoln’s day and only one remedy in Mr. Obama’s. The general who does that does what he never ought to do and loses his job. McClellan lost his. Gen. McChrystal has lost his - for the same basic reason.
John C. Waugh is the author of “Lincoln and McClellan” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).