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McChrystal's mystifying media ignorance

What has been most fascinating to me in the whole McChrystal implosion is the fact that he and his team thought it would be a good idea to spend days with and give unprecedented access to a writer for Rolling Stone. The article, which cost the otherwise valiant and capable soldier his job, not only showed a lack of discipline but also a stunning ignorance of the press.

In the New York Times today David Brooks has an interesting take on the cultural forces on McChrystal and Michael Hastings, the writer of the Rolling Stone profile, that led to this week's extraordinary events. There's one passage about the press that stood out.

But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.

By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.

Yes, kvetching is part of life. As Brooks points out humorously in the column, it happens all over Washington within and between institutions and their players. What I have trouble with is Brooks's intimation that McChrystal was the victim of an unscrupulous reporter bent on printing gossip and locker-room banter. When you read the entire profile, you realize that that is not the case. In fact, we learn in the Rolling Stone piece that McChrystal's history of being a little too clever goes all the way back to his days at West Point.

As any 21st century media-savvy person knows -- or ought to know -- when reporters, cameras and mics are around, measure what you say, how you say it and consider how it will be interpreted or perceived. Even people who should know make the mistake of proving that they don't. As Brooks well knows, really smart power players do their kvetching "on background" or through anonymous quotes. They'll even talk off the record if they are assured their kvetching won't end up in print.

Since at least the days of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell during the first Gulf War, the Pentagon has groomed a cadre of military leaders wise in the ways of politics and the press. Gen. David Petraeus, tapped by President Obama to lead the flagging effort in Afghanistan, is that incredible mix of warrior and media-savvy politician. With this Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal showed one time too many that he is not.

By Jonathan Capehart  | June 25, 2010; 8:36 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Comments

Often observers of a surprising occurrence are mystifed, especially if it involves human beings of a culture which, for most of us, is totally foreign.

The mystification often occurs because we are not acknowledging their lack of familiarity with the foreign culture, and so apply the rules, acceptable actions, and interpretations their own culture to the actions of the other.

Almost always, we will reject any possible explanation for the mystifying behavior that does not agree with their own clique's norms, especially if the action's implications are horrifying and frightening, or indicate a very bad development for America.

The media has not mentioned a possibility that is quite obvious--especially when the two aberrations of the behavior of McChrystal and his subordinates is taken into consideration.

McChrystal, by his behavior, disgrace and tarnish his own military career--he led his subordinates to do the same.

I am not intimately familiar with the military culture, but having been married to two Vietnam veterans in my life, I know this: you do not challenge, insult, deride, or in any way inconvenience in the slightest, a superior in your chain of command.

While McChrystal has a long career behind him, for some of his subordinates, their chance for advancing in the military will always be compromised by McChrystal's leadership.

McChrystal didn't lead them into the successful execution of a vitally important commision but, instead, led them into insubordination and disgrace.

In addition, McChrystal did not take the high road to resolving his differences with the civilians with whom he had differences (including his Commander in Chief) by discussing it with them. No, he took the low road of a passive-aggressive weiner.

The damage, humiliation, and difficulties he has caused America and its allies in Afghanistan cannot be understated. Already we are hearing reports that the Afghanistan government and people are backing McChrystal because he was the only one who "got to know them."

McChrystal is a company man. Obviously, the company he was NOT serving was the U.S. and its forces in Afghanistan.

So the question--which no journalist will raise--is this: which company is McChrystal serving? And how far does this plague of insubordination and disalliance with the CIC and the American citizens who control the military go?

He should not be allowed to resign. He, and his insubordinating subordinates, should be investigated/court-martialed to find out how compromised our forces in Afghanistan have become.

Could it be that McChrystal didn't speak inappropriately to only the RS? Did he also--inadvertently or not--provide information to Karzai and his supporters about the military that has led to the uptick in successful bombings and attacks on our forces AND NATO officials?

This issue needs to be settled, because, if we remain "mystified" because we don't settle this frightening question,we risk everything

Posted by: Morgain | June 25, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

The question remains:what was McChrystal thinking? Well, maybe he wasn't, at least not at full capacity.
My answer may come off as rather pedantic, but reading the Rolling Stone article what stood out to me was the general's 4-hour a night sleep schedule. Both neurological and sleep studies have clearly shown that less than a very minimum of 6 hours sleep per night leads to brain and cognitive dysfunction. The hubris of a leader who is in charge of the lives of so many, that he is above the basic biology of his species is a violation of trust toward those who have placed him in a position of responsibility.

The Rolling Stones portrait shows McChrystal as certainly lacking some basic cognitive skills, like discriminating what is said in front of a reporter. And this is the man who was put in charge of the Afghanistan Theater. Please, somebody connect the dots and look at his self-inflicted sleep deprivation and the results that can be expected as shown through scientific studies. Does anyone in the army ever read? Duh. . . .

Posted by: sarawaters | June 25, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

This comment was suggested to me in a discussion with some politically sophisticated friends. Their take is that McChrystal wanted out and used the device of the Rolling Stone article to effect his being fired rather than volunteering his resignation. They feel that in several months he will appear as a military expert on FOX.

While this view is somewhat extreme, it has a ring of truth. McChrystal is no fool and is a savvy guy, he knew that a reporter was recording all of the comments and he knew that, upon publication, there would be "serious consequences". We'll see.

Posted by: fnewt | June 25, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

You don't get to be a General in the armed services by being stupid. Either McChrystal thought he was being cute or he's just catty. Either way he should have remembered the military code and the court-martial offense for disparaging civilian authority.

Posted by: rlj1 | June 25, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks is not unknown to turn against more moderate colleagues to get and keep his access and he's right in line and in time with the spin.
Rather than say that for no apparent reason an otherwise intelligent military man made a really dumb mistake, David closes ranks with the right-wing 'hate the media' types in an effort to maintain his status AND to give McChrystal cover.

Too bad, David. You're usually better than that.

Posted by: bgreen2224 | June 25, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Let's put it in some perspective here. We're talking about some inappropriate comments to a Rolling Stone reporter not actually disobeying orders. This guy isn't some random general in the military. This is your main hand-picked guy in a conflict where troops are getting killed daily. He's extremely popular to your allies over there. Obama should've ripped him a new one and put him in his place, but firing him was foolish. Your throwing away all that talent and experience. On top of that McChrystal has been in command for over a year building relationships and gaining familiarity with the situation. You can't replace that overnight.

Posted by: peterg73 | June 25, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Up to this point, I have found the vast majority of responses, analyses and comments to be woefully over simple and frankly insulting to the level of sophistication and intelligence that a four star general in charge of the theatre of operations of a war would have. A general who achieved this position, in the absence of any other qualities, would have to be a top level strategic thinker, understand the rules of engagement in any encounter, and know the uniform code of military conduct, even if newspaper readers and reporters don't.
General McChrystal, having suggested, endorsed, and being in charge of a military strategy that looks like it won't succeed, can avoid being tagged with it's failure by being removed from the position a year before the deadline date. He makes statements to the press which simultaneously are so egregious as to demand his removal from his position; will endear him to the radical right, and likely result in his being represented as a victim/martyr to truth, free speech, and the oversensitivity of a "thin skinned" "incompetent" "affirmative action" black president. Strategically, it is an elegant 'ream and run' and it has the added advantage of 'working his passage' , of insuring his future earning potential in his retirement, just as Ollie North did. Unfortunately, only those with a good appreciation of the military code of conduct will understand how egregious his words were about his chain of command in time of war, how close they come to being considered 'giving aid and comfort to the enemy' and therefor the actual nature of this act is likely to be obscured. Strategically, he has sold out the honor and reputation of his country in favor of his personal reputation and the opportunity to appear the hero in the eyes of a segment of the population and reap the subsequent financial reward. This is not the act of a stupid, careless, or duped innocent - it was also not the act of a good public servant.

Posted by: anitakay1 | June 25, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

I find the elaborate conspiracy theories that McChrystal destroyed his career intentionally to become the next right wing darling rather hilarious. Yes, the right has/will try to coopt him as a hero, just as they tried with Eric Massa, but that's just their default position because they are desperate. But even Ted Nugent and Oliver North find it hard to defend his stupidity and insubordination. Don't you think, if he wanted to quit the Afghan conflict and become a hero to the right he would have said, "We would be winning this war if Obama hadn't set a date certain to leave," or "We would be winning this war if I had been given exactly what I asked for," or some similar, principled critique? Instead, they said, (paraphrased) "Biden? Bite Me!" "Holbrooke thinks he's going to get fired and I don't want to read his emails" "Jones is a clown from 1985" "talking to the French foreign minister is so f-ing g@y" and they got drunk and generally acted like adolescent frat boys in front of a reporter. If that was the master plan, it sure was a subtle one. Why is it so hard to accept the obvious, simple answer, when we see it happen every day: they just weren't thinking of the consequences of their actions?

Posted by: sml1212 | June 26, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Also,I do agree with sarawaters that sleep deprivation may have contributed to his indiscretion--compounding chronic sleep deprivation with jet lag and alcohol would make most people pretty punchy. This guy may be tough but he's not a robot. The stress of his job and the course of the war may have also contributed. The RS article also hints at alcoholism dating back to West Point, "One classmate, who asked not to be named, recalls finding McChrystal passed out in the shower after downing a case of beer he had hidden under the sink." Yes, he was in college, but I don't know many non-alcoholic 50+ year olds who get so drunk that they "do an Irish jig mixed with steps from a traditional Afghan wedding dance, while McChrystal's top advisers lock arms and sing a slurred song of their own invention. "Afghanistan!" they bellow. "Afghanistan!" "

Posted by: sml1212 | June 26, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Don't you LIBERALS ALWAYS SAY, "THAT'S IN THE PAST, LET'S MOVE ON"? WELL, LET'S MOVE ON!!!

THE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DIVERTED LONG ENOUGH. NOW WE ARE AWAKE AND ALIVE, AND WE WILL BE VERY ALIVE ON ELECTION DAY! WE'LL STAY FOCUSED ON THE DEMOCRATS ABUSE OF "WE THE PEOPLE", AND WE WILL RIGHT THE WRONGS. WE'LL VOTE LOUD AND CLEAR!

WE'LL REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER!

Posted by: barrysal | June 26, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

to all,

General McCrystal & his staff did NOT "disparage" the civilian leadership; instead they told the TRUTH about BHO & "his MIS-administration".

as General Washington said, "When we took on the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen".
fyi, the relevant article in the UCMJ was passed to PROTECT the incomptent/dishonest/stupid civilians in "positions of leadership" from HONEST critiques by SMARTER & MORE ABLE warriors.

TRUTH is TRUTH & this bunch of DIMocRAT DOLTS/LIARS/FOOLS, that infest Washington, should be EXPOSED for the DIM-wits, bigots & "empty-headed nobodies" that they demonstrably ARE!

further, BHO is so incompetent that he couldn't lead three drunken sailors into a bawdyhouse.
obviously, "the brains in the family" belong to Michelle; BHO just has "the MOUTH".

NOTE: the more that i learn about BHO & "his administration" the BETTER i like venomous spiders, poisonos reptiles, rats & slugs.

yours, TN
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | June 27, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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