What America Lost with McChrystal's Resignation

As is often the case with military topics, major elements of the McChrystal story have been overlooked. Virtually everyone involved, from Obama on down to the myriad media commentators (not excluding Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer who started it all), has disregarded one of the basic features of military command: personal leadership.

Personal leadership is a topic that has received particular attention from the new military historians who have replaced the traditional tactics-and-strategy boys over the past two decades. It has been discussed in detail by Victor Davis Hanson in works as various as The Western Way of War and The Soul of Battle, and by John Keegan, who devoted an entire work, The Mask of Command, to its development and evolution across the millennia.   

Personal leadership is the bond established by a commander between himself and his forces. It is sociobiological in origin, an extension and refinement of the prehistoric hunting band relationship. It is expressed through the physical presence of the commander amid even the most dangerous situations on the battlefield. It is one of the most crucial of all military qualities.

Alexander exemplifies personal leadership in primitive form. Alexander consistently attempted to be at the head of his troops no matter what the circumstances or odds -- the man leading the charge, the first one to strike a blow, the first to go over the top. So persistent was this behavior as to suggest a personal obsession. It finally nearly got him killed, when during an assault in Bactria a siege ladder broke, leaving him alone facing a horde of enemy troops. He was down and almost lifeless when his men at last rescued him, and the effects of the injury (an arrow through the lung) may well have contributed to his death.

When we come to the Caesars, only a few centuries on, the role of personal leadership has shifted to a more sophisticated level. Though still present on the battlefield, the Roman commander was not expected to act as a point man, instead directing the army from slightly behind the front. This was an early sign of generalship in the modern sense.

With advances in both technology and logistics allowing truly enormous forces to be marshaled, generalship has of necessity become more impersonal and separate from the battlefield. But personal leadership remains a powerful element of the commander's technique.

The truly great generals have made a point of both appearing on the battlefield and exposing themselves directly to the effects of combat. Wellington rode along the line at Waterloo, personally halting a developing rout through sheer force of will. MacArthur once challenged a Japanese sniper in New Guinea, refusing to take cover while shouting insults as bullets whizzed around him. Ridgeway appeared on the line in Korea with both a grenade and a first-aid kit strapped to his webbing (possibly the most telling symbol of modern generalship ever, and a reference to "the duality of man," as Private Joker put it in Full Metal Jacket). 

Failed commanders, on the other hand, neglect the personal element of command. Keegan discusses the "chateau generals" of World War I, who remained well behind the lines in luxurious quarters, eating five-course meals while their men suffered in the trenches. (One senior officer being driven to the front at Ypres after a disastrous British offensive burst into tears upon seeing the yard-deep muck that constituted the front line. "We sent men to fight in that?" he cried out. "It's worse farther up, Sir," his driver replied.) We could also mention Lloyd Fredandall, cowering in a concrete bunker sixty miles from the front while his troops were annihilated by Rommel, or the Vietnam-era generals who flittered above the battlefield in helicopters like so many butterflies.

Stanley McChrystal is the epitome of personal leadership in the millennial era. Many news stories mentioned his habit of showing up unannounced in the midst of operations, in combat gear and occasionally in face paint. This became part of his reputation, a story passed on from one unit to the next. His purpose was the same as that of Alexander, Wellington, or Ridgeway -- to establish a personal bond between commander and troops.   

One aspect of this style of leadership is that it establishes an in-group. In fact, it establishes several levels of in-groups -- the army at large, the headquarters staff, and the commander's direct assistants, his "military family" -- each nesting within the other, each acting as in the classic "band of brothers" mode with an "us against the world" mentality. "The world" is usually represented by higher staff and REMFs. The attitude toward such necessary but less-than-respected types among combat troops is a disdain of ancient provenance, expressed often and loudly. It was this precise attitude that was heard in the comments retailed in the Rolling Stone -- not defiance, not contempt, and certainly not insubordination, but simply a display of esprit of the in-group created by McChrystal's style of leadership.

Obama does not understand this, not any more than he understands economics or resource extraction. He would not have fired McChrystal if he did. Nor do any of the media figures who have commented on it, with particular reference to Michael Hastings. All the natter about Harry Truman and MacArthur is completely beside the point. The Truman-MacArthur confrontation was the product of intense personal friction between two alpha males exacerbated by a near-disastrous chain of events, none of which is matched by anything in this latest eruption.

It's possible to be critical of aspects of McChrystal's strategy. The rules of engagement appear overdone. While the necessity of maintaining good relations with the civilian populace during a counterinsurgency campaign has been accepted since Lawrence, extending the courtesy to abandoned shacks, particularly abandoned shacks utilized by the Taliban, may well be taking things a bit too far. Look for some changes in the theater RoE in the near future.

But this is not to criticize McChrystal's leadership. McChrystal was acting in the classic mode of the capable commander, following a model going back to Alexander and beyond. Creating a bond with the troops is a necessity, perhaps more so than ever in an epoch where technology sets up so many potential barriers between commander and troops. You will not find a great general who has not made this factor a basic element of his command methods. No army can prevail without it, and to interfere with it is fatal. The cost of having a nation run by types with no military experience sometimes comes in more subtle forms than we realize.   

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.
As is often the case with military topics, major elements of the McChrystal story have been overlooked. Virtually everyone involved, from Obama on down to the myriad media commentators (not excluding Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer who started it all), has disregarded one of the basic features of military command: personal leadership.

Personal leadership is a topic that has received particular attention from the new military historians who have replaced the traditional tactics-and-strategy boys over the past two decades. It has been discussed in detail by Victor Davis Hanson in works as various as The Western Way of War and The Soul of Battle, and by John Keegan, who devoted an entire work, The Mask of Command, to its development and evolution across the millennia.   

Personal leadership is the bond established by a commander between himself and his forces. It is sociobiological in origin, an extension and refinement of the prehistoric hunting band relationship. It is expressed through the physical presence of the commander amid even the most dangerous situations on the battlefield. It is one of the most crucial of all military qualities.

Alexander exemplifies personal leadership in primitive form. Alexander consistently attempted to be at the head of his troops no matter what the circumstances or odds -- the man leading the charge, the first one to strike a blow, the first to go over the top. So persistent was this behavior as to suggest a personal obsession. It finally nearly got him killed, when during an assault in Bactria a siege ladder broke, leaving him alone facing a horde of enemy troops. He was down and almost lifeless when his men at last rescued him, and the effects of the injury (an arrow through the lung) may well have contributed to his death.

When we come to the Caesars, only a few centuries on, the role of personal leadership has shifted to a more sophisticated level. Though still present on the battlefield, the Roman commander was not expected to act as a point man, instead directing the army from slightly behind the front. This was an early sign of generalship in the modern sense.

With advances in both technology and logistics allowing truly enormous forces to be marshaled, generalship has of necessity become more impersonal and separate from the battlefield. But personal leadership remains a powerful element of the commander's technique.

The truly great generals have made a point of both appearing on the battlefield and exposing themselves directly to the effects of combat. Wellington rode along the line at Waterloo, personally halting a developing rout through sheer force of will. MacArthur once challenged a Japanese sniper in New Guinea, refusing to take cover while shouting insults as bullets whizzed around him. Ridgeway appeared on the line in Korea with both a grenade and a first-aid kit strapped to his webbing (possibly the most telling symbol of modern generalship ever, and a reference to "the duality of man," as Private Joker put it in Full Metal Jacket). 

Failed commanders, on the other hand, neglect the personal element of command. Keegan discusses the "chateau generals" of World War I, who remained well behind the lines in luxurious quarters, eating five-course meals while their men suffered in the trenches. (One senior officer being driven to the front at Ypres after a disastrous British offensive burst into tears upon seeing the yard-deep muck that constituted the front line. "We sent men to fight in that?" he cried out. "It's worse farther up, Sir," his driver replied.) We could also mention Lloyd Fredandall, cowering in a concrete bunker sixty miles from the front while his troops were annihilated by Rommel, or the Vietnam-era generals who flittered above the battlefield in helicopters like so many butterflies.

Stanley McChrystal is the epitome of personal leadership in the millennial era. Many news stories mentioned his habit of showing up unannounced in the midst of operations, in combat gear and occasionally in face paint. This became part of his reputation, a story passed on from one unit to the next. His purpose was the same as that of Alexander, Wellington, or Ridgeway -- to establish a personal bond between commander and troops.   

One aspect of this style of leadership is that it establishes an in-group. In fact, it establishes several levels of in-groups -- the army at large, the headquarters staff, and the commander's direct assistants, his "military family" -- each nesting within the other, each acting as in the classic "band of brothers" mode with an "us against the world" mentality. "The world" is usually represented by higher staff and REMFs. The attitude toward such necessary but less-than-respected types among combat troops is a disdain of ancient provenance, expressed often and loudly. It was this precise attitude that was heard in the comments retailed in the Rolling Stone -- not defiance, not contempt, and certainly not insubordination, but simply a display of esprit of the in-group created by McChrystal's style of leadership.

Obama does not understand this, not any more than he understands economics or resource extraction. He would not have fired McChrystal if he did. Nor do any of the media figures who have commented on it, with particular reference to Michael Hastings. All the natter about Harry Truman and MacArthur is completely beside the point. The Truman-MacArthur confrontation was the product of intense personal friction between two alpha males exacerbated by a near-disastrous chain of events, none of which is matched by anything in this latest eruption.

It's possible to be critical of aspects of McChrystal's strategy. The rules of engagement appear overdone. While the necessity of maintaining good relations with the civilian populace during a counterinsurgency campaign has been accepted since Lawrence, extending the courtesy to abandoned shacks, particularly abandoned shacks utilized by the Taliban, may well be taking things a bit too far. Look for some changes in the theater RoE in the near future.

But this is not to criticize McChrystal's leadership. McChrystal was acting in the classic mode of the capable commander, following a model going back to Alexander and beyond. Creating a bond with the troops is a necessity, perhaps more so than ever in an epoch where technology sets up so many potential barriers between commander and troops. You will not find a great general who has not made this factor a basic element of his command methods. No army can prevail without it, and to interfere with it is fatal. The cost of having a nation run by types with no military experience sometimes comes in more subtle forms than we realize.   

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.

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