In the living memory of many seniors in this country, a relatively unpopular President of the United States fired one of the most popular Generals of all time.
Harry Truman had been a minor Senator who became President because the most popular President in our history died. Roosevelt had been considered, and still is by some, the greatest President we have had, along with with Lincoln and Washington. He served the country during what were perhaps the most consequential 12 years in our country’s history.
Truman had been a decorated veteran himself of World War I, but he faced an antagonistic Republican Congress, railroad strikes, and re-adjustments at home following the war. In Europe, the Western nations faced the Eastern Bloc, including Russia, in the Soviet Union…an aggressive ideology led by the world’s greatest remaining dictator, Josef Stalin. In Asia, Mao Tse-Tung was gradually defeating the warlords one by one en route to making China totally Communistic and totally…totalitarian.
Suffice to say, defeating reactionaries at home, including eventually the Red Scare of Joe McCarthy and building a bulwark against aggressive Communism abroad was a daunting task for President Truman. Then came the Korean War in 1950.
General Douglas MacArthur was the son of a general, top student at his military academy, varsity quarterback and shortstop, top cadet at West Point, fought in the Philippines, in World War I, became the youngest general, recommended for the Medal of Honor three times, won it once, organized the Philippine military, planned and executed a successful war in the Pacific against Japan, became the U.S. government administrator of Japan.
Then he was called to service again, at age 70, to run our military operations in Korea. After making the masterful strategy of the Inchon invasion and driving the North Koreans back up the peninsula, he wanted to continue. American policy, for reasons having to do with world wide threats and the possibility of a land war against hundreds of millions of Chinese in Asia brought him into conflict with President Truman.
The problem was that MacArthur had become an authentic American hero, an idol of many in the military and a sentimental favorites of patriots both in and outside the military. Even those who did not agree with him respected his military acumen and his distinguished service. They saw his service to the country as epic…which it was. But the issue in Korea had to do with a potential land war in Asia, which the military did not want to have. MacArther was more sanguine and was highly critical of the President.
It was the early 1950s, and the Communists were in full bloom all over the world. Not only had North Korea, a Communist country attacked our ally, the South Koreans, but the Russians controlled Western Europe and were seeking to introduce Communism all over the world. The issue between Truman and MacArthur was how to win the war in Korea. General MacArthur’s idea was an aggressive posture that held great risk of beginning a much larger war that would include China. The plans of the President and the General Staff were at odds with his. He disagreed and said so in the Press.
MacArthur was not only well known as a military hero, he was arguably the best known general of the entire period between 1915 and 1951, when this situation took place. His criticism was exactly the kind that the Constitution sought to avoid, the kind that would confuse the nation and the world about American policy and raise doubts about military policy. Truman flew out to the Pacific to meet with MacArthur. He chastised him for his conduct and eventually fired him.
This wasn’t something new. Before Truman and MacArthur there was Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan. McClellan refused to follow Lincoln’s orders to pursue and attack the Confederate Army. McClellan, like MacArthur the son of a general, had little respect for Lincoln’s strategic planning and was quite derisive of his Commander in Chief. Lincoln eventually fired the popular McClellan. McClellan eventually ran opposite Lincoln on the Democratic side and was defeated. Lincoln eventually found Grant, who brutally and aggressively took the war to the Confederates and won decisively.
McCrystal would probably admit that he is no MacArthur or Grant and that while President Obama may be no Truman, and is definitely no Lincoln, he is the President. If MacArthur could be told to shut up, then certainly there is even more reason for McCrystal to follow the rules. It is interesting to note that, once again, the subordination is committed by a man from West Point, a man whose father was also a General, just as was the case with both MacArthur and McClellan.
General McCrystal is a distinguished military officer, successful, bright and an accomplished leader…exactly the kind of military officer we need. But the Constitution is very clear. In the U.S., military men stay out of politics so long as they are in the military. They can do what they want when they remove the stars from their lapels but while they are wearing a uniform they serve the President who reflects the will of the majority. Therefore the military serve the People.
McCrystal shouldn’t be fired. He should just be told to shut up and come to Washington to clarify any situations with which he has difficulty or feels the country and his military operation is being badly served. There is no clash of opinions or policies. The President is the opinion. He is the decision maker. He handles all that with the advice and guidance of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCrystal should focus on putting the finishing touches on Afghanistan so we can bring out troops home.
But this should make us consider a broader point. It may be time to decide whether we will be a military country or a country with a strong military. The Department of Defense wants $700 billion. They want to replace not only our equipment, depleted by two long wars, but also the training of our officers and enlisted men. The entire military purchasing operation is under review right now for corruption and incestuous relationships between military contractors and the Generals who do the purchasing.
Thanks to the Bush Administration we have the best general staff we have every had and yet we have the military clearly in the worst shape in decades. We spend enormous amounts and accomplish nothing. The decision making at the top levels in the Bush Administration have left the generals in the same condition as the banks in late 2008…a total mess. Many generals who went along with playing politics with our armed forces are now suffering for it and they deserve our disrespect as much as the Neocon Congress and Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.
The Neocon Republicans in Congress, who have voted in a bloc for every military expenditure in order to curry favor with the Generals, spent funds borrowed from China to conduct military operations. Their expenditures lined the pockets of military contractors in unprecedented amounts. They used military contracts for their districts to create some jobs to replace domestic jobs that their corporate benefactors had sent off shore.
We have become too militarized, with generals retiring to cushy jobs with military contractors and then often returning to government service as a consultant. Generals are often hired by think tanks to make recommendations which inevitably result in recommendations for more sophisticated weapons.
There is no choice. We can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. We can even more efficiently defend our homeland if we focus on our borders and on a smaller budget that calls for protection of the country and not more aggressive discretionary wars planned in secret and executed in violation of international law by the Executive Branch.
McCrystal should get back to work. We need to end these wars and bring the troops home.