Military Drinking and Truth Telling

Although everyone who reads this may not believe me, I had actually planned to write last week’s entry as a semi-tongue-in-cheek advocacy of reinvigorating the military officer club system (which has basically disappeared except as a lunchroom in many places). The reason behind this advocacy was that it might encourage officers to drop by for a drink or two after work (something frowned upon by our current holier-than-thou military leadership). The reason for that, in turn, was that maybe if we got a few high-ranking general officers sufficiently far into their cups,they might express themselves candidly about what they thought of the militarily insane policy we are conducting in Afghanistan (my assumption, based on some personal observation, is that drunks–despite their other shortfallings–generally tell the truth, because their more “refined” defense mechanisms have drowned in a pool of Jack Black or Yuengling beer).

This line of reasoning, unfortunately enough, was both vindicated and overcome by events last week, as General Stanley McChrystal and his merry band of yes-men aides drained a Paris bar of much of its supply of adult beverages and engaged in a bit of truth-telling about what they thought of the national security team that had made up the current strategy (on which, of course, their boss had signed off). As might have been expected of a military staff, they blamed everybody except the general for the problem (sycophancy being one of the most prominent qualifications for service on a general staff), despite his wide public association with the counterinsurgency strategy that is so spectacularly not succeeding in Afghanistan.

There is nothing wrong or even uncommon about military people bitching; it’s part of the culture. There is also nothing wrong with military candor, up to and including saying “can’t do” rather than “can do” when given a task at which they cannot succeed.

There are, however, times and places specified for registering complaints, and President Obama was quite specific in his remarks sacking McChrystal to emphasize that no one had used the prescribed channels for registering dissent to complain. If the mission had been imposed upon them (there is no public evidence it was), they–read McChrystal–could have registered his reservations at the time the orders were issued, and if they were not modified to provide what he considered to be reasonable  expectations of success, he could have declined the command or, as he will end up doing anyway, resigned his commission. That may be a harsh set of options, but they are also the rules that military leaders accept when they “pin them on.” If there was still bitching to be done, it should have been confined to some very dark, private little place where nobody who might even conceivably record and transmit the complaints could hear them. The back room in one of the officer’s club, with the door closed, comes to mind. Then the drinking and alcohol-induced truth telling could have begun.

The rules do not, however, extend to getting wasted and bitching in a Paris bar in front of a magazine reporter (from notoriously liberal Rolling Stone, at that) who has placed a tape recorder on the table and is recording the proceedings. In the aftermath, the sycophants are crying “foul,” arguing that what was printed was off the record–not for attribution or reporting. Give me a break! Anything you say to a tape recorder is on the record, and it even leaves an indelible record that cannot be denied. Is it a surprise that the commander-in-chief and those defamed would respond to “VP Bite Me” by playing a little “bite me” to the perpetrators.

The actions by General McChrystal and his staff were both reprehensible and stupid. They were reprehensible because they violated the military’s own justice code (the UCMJ) and were, should anyone care to pursue them, potential subjects for courts-martial. McChrystal bears the responsibility for this. Given the nature of military staffs, it is absolutely inconceivable that any of the staff members quoted in article would have said the things they did if they had any reason to believe Stan the Man disagreed or disapproved of those sentiments. Sycophants don’t do things like that.

Moreover, and in my mind most damning thing, however, was the sheer stupidity of the episode. We have been bombarded for months about what a bright, even brilliant, guy McChrystal is, and yet he organized/condoned what has to be one of the most mlonumentally boneheaded non-military actions by a military officer in recent memory. What was done in front of that reporter goes well beyond simple bad judgment; it borders on criminal stupidity. 

The general and his boys drank and bitched. That’s what I had hoped they would do. But, they did it wrong, and their judgment was awful. I trust all the aides who took part in this disgraceful display of inanity are falling on their swords next to their leader. The problem, though, is that Stan McChrystal has lowered the bar: who is going to believe claims of brilliance when the next guy with stars on his shoulders smiles into the camera? The fact that such a question can now reasonably be asked may be the lasting legacyof Stan the Man.

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