Academic journal article Parameters

The General Stanley McChrystal Affair: A Case Study in Civil-Military Relations

Academic journal article Parameters

The General Stanley McChrystal Affair: A Case Study in Civil-Military Relations

Article excerpt

In June of 2010 the publication of an article entitled, "Runaway General" in Rolling Stone magazine captivated the nation and ended the career of the commanding general in Afghanistan. The incident captured the national and international media for almost a week. For an intense period between 48 and 72 hours, when General Stanley McChrystal's job hung in the balance, a focused national security dialogue occurred on the topic of whether or not he should retain his post. General McChrystal and his staff were not criticized for their lack of military competence, for their dissent over policy, or for failure to implement strategy. Their professionalism--especially those professional competencies related to understanding the roles and responsibilities of military leaders vis-a-vis the civilian political leadership in the context of democratic civil-military relations--was found wanting.

Among other lessons, this case illustrates the deficiencies of the Professional Military Education (PME) system, which gives short shrift to the promulgation of civil-military relations norms in its leader development curricula. Currently, the US Army is midway through its Profession of Arms Campaign during which it is refreshing and renewing its understanding of the Army as a profession. (1) Among the areas being assessed is civil-military relations--especially the Army's interaction with and support of the Nation and its elected and appointed officials. (2)

The case of General McChrystal's relief is detailed here for review so its elements can be mined and analyzed, thereby strengthening the civil-military norms at issue in the case. The incident provides an opportunity to examine the national dialogue of June 2010 as a window into the state of national consensus on principles of strategy and civil-military relations norms. Recommendations are offered in an attempt to emphasize the development of the "political skills" required to navigate the nexus of political-military collaboration and media engagement at the strategic level. PME curricula with sufficient emphasis on civil-military norms will yield commanders better prepared to lead, staffs more capable of supporting them, and enhanced trust between the political and military spheres that is essential for strategic success.

The case presents a unique opportunity for all actors involved in the national security process: senior military officers, the civilian national security team, members of Congress, the media, scholars, and the public at-large to weigh in on matters of civil-military relations and strategy. Its study will help to hone the strategic competencies of the national security community, particularly the importance of a solid grounding in the fundamentals of the American political system, the roles and responsibilities of civilian and military actors within it, and the norms of civil-military relations in a democracy.

The Case Unfolds

On Monday, 21 June 2010, an eight page article was released to reporters ahead of its planned publication date of 25 June. (3) "Runaway General," the work of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, was intended to profile the Afghan war's commanding general and the progress made on the execution of the war's strategy. Instead, a firestorm erupted around the disparaging remarks reported in the article that General Stanley McChrystal, and especially his staff, made related to senior administration officials, including President Barack Obama.

Hastings was embedded with "Team America," the moniker that General McChrystal's staff had assigned to itself. (4) What was originally intended to be a brief visit with the staff was extended by a number of days when volcanic ash stalled air travel in Europe. In the meantime, McChrystal and his staff let down their guard with the embedded journalist still in their midst and spoke candidly about the civilian political leadership. Hastings' reporting laid bare "Team America's" irreverent attitudes and detailed the mocks and insults hurled at members of the administration's national security team. …

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