In April 1951 US president Harry Truman sacked general of the army Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations (UN) forces in Korea.
The previous year MacArthur had recklessly taken his offensive against the North Korean army to the border with China, dismissing warnings that Beijing would retaliate.
When the People’s Liberation Army did indeed invade Korea, driving the UN forces down the peninsula, MacArthur panicked and started to campaign for a nuclear attack on China. A letter to an opposition leader in Congress was the last straw, leading to his dismissal.
Last week Barack Obama sacked General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. His offence was to have allowed disparaging remarks by himself and his staff about Obama, vice-president Joe Biden and other leading administration officials to appear in Rolling Stone magazine.
Is there any deeper significance to McChrystal’s sacking? That the US military has a macho culture and despises politicians and civilian bureaucrats is hardly news.
The Washington Post pointed to a more interesting issue: “Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US Central Command, which oversees both wars. Three of those commanders... have been fired or resigned under pressure.”
The explanation of this problem, it continues, is that “much of what top commanders do in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq bears little relation to the military skills that helped them rise through the ranks, military officials said.
“Today’s wars demand that top commanders act like modern viceroys, overseeing military operations and major economic development efforts. They play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.”
So McChrystal, who spent his career amid the sinister murk of US Special Forces, just lacked the necessary qualifications to be an imperial proconsul. Maybe, but the high turnover of top brass may also have something to do the small fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t really been stunning successes.
Indeed, the most striking passages of the Rolling Stone portrait describe the state of the Afghan war, not McChrystal dissing the White House:
“In June, the death toll for US troops passed 1,000, and the number of IEDs has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward US troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile.
“The biggest military operation of the year – a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja – continues to drag on, prompting McChrystal himself to refer to it as a ‘bleeding ulcer’.
“In June, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history – and Obama has quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing US troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire:
“A quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.”
The July 2011 target is likely to become an increasing source of conflict between Obama and the military. He has replaced McChrystal with his immediate superior, General David Petraeus, chief of Central Command and the architect of the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007-8.
Petraeus is the chief theorist of the counter-insurgency war McChrystal tried unsuccessfully to wage. He’s also a much more astute political general. But in Congressional hearings just before the Rolling Stone article came out, he made clear his scepticism about Obama’s plan to start withdrawing troops in a year’s time.
As the US high command continues to struggle with a war they can’t win, there will be more political casualties – maybe in the Oval Office itself.