Not on the Cover of the Rolling Stone

June 26, 2010

The newest addition to the seemingly unending collection of stories that you just can’t make up is the strange case of General Stanley McChrystal, who until this week was the top military man in Afghanistan directing American and NATO combat forces. The general handed his commander in chief a resignation on Wednesday after the public airing of disparaging comments aimed at American civilian leaders. But there is the unanswered question of why he joined a fight he was sure to lose, and a particularly strange part of the story is the battlefield he chose for the losing campaign. Rolling Stone.

“We take all kind of pills to give us all kind of thrills, but the thrill we’ve never known..” Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show gave us the song that you might not be able to get out of your head for a while when you hear it. “Is the thrill that’ll get you when you get your picture, on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”

For the record the General didn’t actually make the cover. That honor in the issue McChrystal made famous went to Lady GaGa wielding twin automatic rifles attached to her chest, in a bizarre, campy photo, that the general really couldn’t have competed with. He did, however, knock BP and the Gulf oil crisis – the news story that just when you think it couldn’t get bigger, it does – from the top headlines for a day or two. The only thing missing was a camera crew in a helicopter stalking McChrystal’s car ride from the Pentagon to the White House. Thank goodness for the Washington “no fly” zone.

So what’s strange about McChrystal’s case, apart from the Lady GaGa motif? One of the first aspects of the story that was striking was the seemingly deliberate showdown with civilian authority. Could McChrystal really believe Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter, was in his entourage, interviewing him and his staff, for any purpose other than to write an expose? No. You don’t rise to four-star general in the Army these days without being media saavy. They teach you about the adversarial military-media relationship in “general school.” The story in Rolling Stone that fried McChrystal wasn’t the result of a reporter going through his trashcans to unearth some dirt on the general. It wasn’t the product of some kiss and tell scandal. It was a case of the general wittingly walking into his downfall, a self-inflicted wound. Why did he do it? Was it truly his frustration with America’s direction in the war? Was it hubris from someone who had survived episodes of poor judgments previously? It would only be speculation at this point; it is the story waiting to be written, probably by McChrystal himself.

Another unusual aspect of this episode was the absence of the usual reflexive criticism of President Obama by his political adversaries. It showed there is at least one truly bipartisan position in Washington – the tradition of unquestioned civilian authority over military power. I can think of few – actually not any – decisions the White House has made since taking office that didn’t generate a negative response from the other side of the aisle. The necessity of sacking a general, even a war-time theater commander, whose divisive, derisive comments were more damaging than the label “poor judgment” suggests, was so clear as to silence the usual din. President Obama’s acceptance of McChystal’s resignation was unquestionably the right decision.

In 1951 President Harry Truman sacked popular Army General Douglas MacArthur, commander of combat forces in the Korean war theater, who was critical of his commander in chief in a letter leaked to the press. Who would have been on the cover of the Rolling Stone then, if there was a Rolling Stone then, probably wouldn’t be remembered in that chunk of history. Likewise, years from now no one will be thinking about Lady GaGa’s guns when we look back on the McChrystal saga. But before the history is written we still have to look to the course ahead. The best we can hope for from this sad story is to answer two questions. Why did it happen? And, should there be a comprehensive review of American policy in Afghanistan? But that’s another column.

Pat Ryan is a writer in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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On the Cover of the Rolling Stone
June 26, 2010 at 9:45 am

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