COLUMN: McChrystal's comments no way for a leader to act

Wednesday, July 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:04 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 7, 2010

This column originally contained an incorrect reference to how Gen. George Patton died.

On those occasions I believe there is significant interest, and that interest is warranted, I am stirred to write of a subject in which I am quite knowledgeable — the military.

The most recent column offered my opinion against the repeal of Section 654, Title 10 US Code (don't ask, don't tell), a controversial issue on which I received and, understandably so, mixed reviews.

Section 654 points out that  “The extraordinary responsibilities, unique conditions, and critical role of unit cohesion, require the military, while subject to civilian control, to exist as a special society... subject to its own laws, rules, customs and traditions.”  Inasmuch as fewer and fewer of our citizens experience military service, the special character of this society and the unique framework of the civilian oversight of the highly structured military chain of command can be difficult to comprehend.

The forced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, Commander U. S. Forces-Afghanistan/International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan, offers comprehensive insight into the structure and the necessity for the marked difference between soldiers and civilians. The requirement for civilian control of the military is not at issue — that is both stated and implied in the Constitution; however, soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their leaders in particular march to a different drumbeat than does society.

This phenomenon is most apparent in the reaction of McChrystal's superiors, peers and subordinates to his fate — while there is regret and disappointment, there is virtually no sympathy for him in the ranks. While some, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, several members of Congress and cabinet members and selected media representatives, recommended censure and return to duty, those in uniform closed ranks — the general had compromised his integrity and judgment, thus forfeiting any right to lead.

There is ample rationale for this prevailing attitude. The appointment of all officers to commissioned grade reads:"THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA--To all who shall see these presents greeting: Know Ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities of 'name,' I do appoint him a "rank" in the United States Marine Corps, Army, Navy or Air Force." That "special trust and confidence" is the core of military leadership — officers are entrusted with the very lives of their troops.

There is no room for compromise of these obligations — the President as our duly elected representative charges that officer to "perform all manner of things thereunto belonging" in the name of the people. Any failure of integrity, moral character or honor must be judged harshly, as seen in the Marine Corps May 2010 discharge of 13 2nd Lieutenants for cheating on a Quantico, Va., land navigation examination. A severe punishment perhaps; however, evidence of character flaw is a bar to leading troops in harm's way or in training.

While General McChrystal is a highly decorated and talented officer whose reputation for counterinsurgency training and operations is well respected, one has to question the judgment as well as the professionalism of an officer who makes public his disdain for his Commander in Chief and his administrators. Even more unprofessional is an officer of his stature and leadership responsibility who tolerates subordinates disparaging superiors in his presence.

There is no need to dwell on the utter lunacy of such behavior within sight or hearing of a Rolling Stone reporter to agree that the president exercised the only realistic option open to him — to ask for McChrystal's resignation and, if not offered, to sack him. It is hard to imagine anyone above the rank of private first class who would expect an unbiased, objective review from Rolling Stone magazine.

In relieving him, the president did what had to be done. Those who fear changing commanders in the middle of a war need only look at historical precedent — Generals McClellan and MacArthur were relieved of command. The individual at "the pointy end of the spear" places his trust in the members of his squad or platoon — that general at the apex of the chain of command resides in another dimension altogether.

Finally, there is but one option open to an officer who finds it necessary to criticize his commander in public — resign from the service and complain as a civilian. To do otherwise sets the worst possible example for his subordinates.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at


Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


hank ottinger July 7, 2010 | 7:15 a.m.

Minor quibble: Patton was not "killed in battle": he died in December 1945, well after the end of the war, in an automobile accident on his way to shoot pheasants.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer July 7, 2010 | 9:50 a.m.

Thanks so much for pointing out the error, Mr. Ottinger. I removed the reference to Gen. Patton.
— Joy Mayer,

(Report Comment)
John Bliss July 7, 2010 | 9:52 a.m.

Colonel, I agree with you, General McChrystal may have spoken MY VIEW POINT....But I'm not serving. There is a time and a place for everything, he picked the wrong time and place. Sir, thank you for making it clear.

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller July 7, 2010 | 12:52 p.m.

Thank you Hank and Joe for catching that. I had intended to reference General Simon Bolivar Buckner, killeed in the Battle for Okinawa.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop July 7, 2010 | 4:36 p.m.

General Buckner had been warned by Marine Colonel Harold C. Roberts not to go forward to the position the general went to. Hours later Colonel Roberts himself was killed in action. Then major Roberts was my dad's battalion executive officer with 3d Defense Battalion (Marines say 3d, not 3rd) at Pearl Harbor on 7Dec41. He had gone through the entire war to be killed 4 days before Marine ground combat ended in WW2. Colonel Roberts was the recipient of three Navy Crosses.

First as a enlisted Navy Corpsman (Corpse man for the President)
in WW1 at the battle of Belleau Wood.

The second award as a Marine captain during the second Nicaraguan Campaign.

The third during World War II resulted in his death while commanding the 22d Marine regiment.

He is buried at Ft. Rosecrans National
Cemetary, San Diego, Section H, Site 486.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.