Man vs Armyman

The sacking of General Stanley McChrystal comes at a crucial juncture in the war in Afghanistan. Days before he was shown the door, the American commander had warned in an internal assessment of a “resilient and growing insurgency”. In his public comments too he had been pouring cold water on fervent expectations of significant progress by the end of the year. Firing him at this point could not have been an easy decision for US President Barack Obama. But the general had undeniably breached the norms of military subordination to the civilian authority. It is tempting to explain away his actions as a lamentable indiscretion — not least because Gen. McChrystal had become something of a hero for his role in turning around the war in Iraq. But it would be wrong to do so; for the episode stems from a deeper malaise in American civil-military relations.
The roots of the problem stretch back to the Korean War. In the aftermath of the North Korean invasion of the South, US President Harry Truman acted on the advice of his military commanders. He allowed the American forces to rollback the invading forces beyond the 38th parallel right up to the Yalu river near the border with China. This prompted the Chinese to enter the fray, resulting in a retreat of American forces. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (Japan) and Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command (Korea), wanted to restore the situation by adopting measures that would certainly have led to a wider war. Truman, however, was unwilling to risk a larger conflagration. Faced with MacArthur’s persistent insubordination, he sacked the general, an act for which Truman paid a considerable political price.
The Korean War foreshadowed a problem that would plague wartime civil-military relations for decades. The military chafed at the restraints imposed on them in “limited wars” and demanded a free-hand in dealing with adversaries. Furthermore, the war opened a crack between the military establishment and the presidents of the Democratic Party — one that would eventually widen into a yawning gulf. With Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, these problems remained dormant. For Eisenhower had a military reputation unrivalled by any living American.
But the problems resurfaced during the tenure of John F. Kennedy. The appointment of Robert McNamara as secretary of defence introduced a new set of institutional tensions. McNamara sought to challenge the authority and judgment of the service chiefs by bringing into the Pentagon both his own team of civilian analysts and new-fangled techniques of systems analysis. The military, in turn, provided advice that was astonishingly unsophisticated and unmindful of the peculiar problems posed by the advent of thermonuclear weapons. The onset of a string of crises — in Berlin, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam — underscored the strain between the civilians and the military. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, President Kennedy sought only to remove the missiles from Cuba; but the military initially set the objective as a full-fledged invasion of the country.
The subsequent war in Vietnam decisively poisoned American civil-military relations. The military believed that it was the civilians’ insistence on a strategy of “graduated escalation” that lay behind the failure in Vietnam. The American military came up with a curious reading of the nature of the conflict. They believed that it was actually a conventional war; one that ought to have been fought with North Vietnam instead of pussyfooting with aerial bombardment and counterinsurgency in the South. The post-Vietnam military took a conscious decision never again to get bogged down in this fashion. Instead of reconsidering its flawed counterinsurgency practices, the military aggressively reinvented itself as a first-rate institution for waging conventional wars.
A corollary to this was to refashion the military institutionally to be able to “stand up” to civilians. The “slide rule prodigies” as Colin Powell — a major during the Vietnam War — would call them, had to be met on equal terms. After the searing experience of Vietnam, the military began sending its officers to top-ranking graduate schools to acquire the requisite educational qualification and confidence to deal with McNamaras of the future. Slowly but surely the military began to re-establish its primacy on operational matters. Fighting units were reconfigured to involve a sizeable component of reservists. The idea was to make it impossible for the forces to be deployed without calling-up the reserves. This would, of course, make the civilians think hard before plunging the military into the “wrong” wars.
The post-Vietnam military also turned visibly uncomfortable with the Democratic Party. This was because of President Lyndon Johnson’s ostensible failures and because of the emergence of the Vietnam doves to the forefront of the Democratic Party. The military’s political leanings were reinforced during the Jimmy Carter years, particularly by the disastrous failure of the mission to rescue hostages in Iran.
The end of the Cold War brought fresh challenges for the American military. They were now deprived of the potential enemy that could justify a massive conventional force. The Gulf War of 1991 was in many ways the moment of glory for the Vietnam-scarred military. The subsequent engagements — in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo — were smaller and more amorphous conflicts that the military wished to avoid. The civilians, of course, had a rather different view. And the resulting tensions were quite sharp.
These were exacerbated by the fact that during this period the country was led by a Democratic President. Bill Clinton had a harrowing time dealing with military over a range of issues. An Air Force general, Harold Campbell, went so far as to describe him as a “dope-smoking”, “skirt-chasing”, “draft-dodging” commander-in-chief. Campbell was forced out, but the institutional tensions remained.
The disdain for Mr Obama displayed by Gen. McChrystal is a product of long-standing institutional tensions. The peculiar strategic problems posed by the conflict in Afghanistan have lent an edge to civil-military interactions. Gen. McChrystal’s successor, General David Petraeus, is more politically cautious as well as strategically savvy. But his ability to work with his commander-in-chief may well determine the course of the war in the coming months.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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