Civilians must control the military

Note: At the time writing, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was still leading U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He resigned Wednesday. President Obama announced Gen. David H. Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, charged with carrying out President Obama’s war strategies in Afghanistan, was recently quoted in Rolling Stone magazine as having dissed Obama and others on the “O” team.

Obama was tagged as “unprepared,” Vice President Biden was referred to as Vice President “Bite Me,” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry a “betrayer,” U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke a “wounded animal,” and White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones a “clown.”

Although McChrystal has apologized, many feel Obama should fire him. Even Republicans and conservatives think Obama should be fired. Conservatives should be careful. Many American soldiers are extremely frustrated at McChrystal for the new “cautious” approach to the war in which airstrikes and other lethal support are now restricted.

President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 because the General disagreed with Truman’s Korean War strategy and wanted to also fight China, which had come to Korea’s assistance. The firing was “a defining event in American civil-military relations, a demonstration that the principle of civilian control of the military extended even to an unpopular president [Truman] holding control over a wildly popular general.”

I know that civilian control over the military is crucial in democracies. I grew up in Latin America where generals often overthrew governments with which they disagreed.

Let me say it again, you must have civilian control over the military or the whole architecture of democracy is endangered. The chain of command must be maintained. If you don’t like how the president is running either a war or the country, you vote them out or make it so distasteful that they do a “Lyndon” — named by me after President Lyndon Johnson, who simply decided not to even run for reelection because the nation was so divided and angry about the losing war in Vietnam.

While we can all agree politicians are often just as the Latin generals described them, the generals rarely did better at the helm, often doing much, much worse.

Presidents usually don’t know too much about military strategy, tactics, logistics and so forth. Even “General” Jimmy Carter, who served in the Navy, didn’t and mostly screwed up our human intelligence a problem that still plague us.

So, politicians — especially presidents — have no choice but to pick the brightest military and work with them on all the short- and long-term issues that must be addressed: how to win a current war, what kind of weapons systems and strategies to ramp up for the war 30 years from now, gays in the military, women serving on submarines and so forth.

All of this is very complex and difficult. No wonder disagreements arise among politicians — Biden wanted a smaller force, while Obama went for surging in Afghanistan — among military commanders and sometimes between the president and his commanders.

In normal a time that’s the way it goes. In times such as these, with record numbers of military personnel reported as committing suicide; with wars without end, asymmetrical warfare, warfare against groups and movements and not against governments and countries; nuclear proliferation challenges — Iran and North Korea — adding to the urgency, these disagreements can, and apparently have, turned toxic.

Most of us want to wrap up these sticky wars and move on to other lesser challenges. The Afghanistan war is unsustainable in my opinion. We have been in Iraq and here for seven years, and few of us think progress of any sort has been made.

Our men, women, families and wealth are being poured down a huge, dark hole. We are not winning — I don’t really care anymore what spokesmen for either the military or the White House are saying. I remember Gen. William Westmoreland, and the mouthpieces about Vietnam for Presidents Johnson and Nixon too well. I remember they saw a “light at the end of the tunnel” many, many times; and it turned out to be an incoming Vietcong rocket-propelled grenade.

If things continue to go bad, then in early 2012, Obama may decide to do a Lyndon. Then Sarah Palin or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is the latest front runner in the GOP search for a presidential contender, may get a crack at solving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Wall Street, Healthcare, the European crisis and BP.