Civilian Control of the Military

by Joel on June 23, 2010

President Truman made President Obama’s job of firing General Stanley McChrystal in 2010 (Christian Science Monitor) easier by firing General Douglas MacArthur in 1951. The pressure faced by Truman was worse than by Obama because MacArthur was a hugely popular military figure at the same time that Truman’s approval rating was far worse than Obama’s. McChrystal is widely known in many circles but can’t be regarded as a truly national figure — at least until the last few days. As I consider civilian control of the military essential in a free society, be that considered as either a republic or a democracy, Obama’s action was not only proper but necessary. McChrystal’s actions might have been less than outright insubordination, but to allow McChrystal to stay, regardless of his abilities and talents, would have undermined the presidency and emboldened future challenges to presidential authority and leadership. It is not that civilian judgment is always better than that of military leaders. Indeed, I think the judgment of many top military leaders would have been much better than that offered by former President George W. Bush, as well as by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The military, however, has a very authoritarian structure, is not elected by the people, and has the role of implementing overall policy, not making it. I do find it interesting both that McChrystal is said to have voted for Obama and that he would have shared that fact with anyone. Although I doubt it will be much of a factor in 2012, voters can express their ultimate judgment on the matter in the voting booth. As for MacArthur, although he returned to a hero’s welcome by Congress, a subsequent Senate investigation of MacArthur and Korean War policies took the shine off and MacArthur was unable to obtain the 1952 Republican nomination for president.

I’m settling in at two new charges, so I’ll stop here.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }


Mark Byron 06.24.10 at 12:15 am

You don’t dis the Commander in Chief in public, at least if you like your job.

Obama was in a no-win situation; fire him and look petty or keep him on after a dressing-down and look weak. He chose the least nasty of the two options, which was a wise one regardless of where you stand on the issues at play.


Pam 06.24.10 at 9:09 am

Extract from Sydney Morning Herald on McChrystal story:
“Are you asking about Vice-President Biden?”
McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” asks an adviser.
“Did you say ‘Bite me’?”
This was waiting to happen.


Bene D 06.25.10 at 8:45 am

Frank Schaeffer has a a very good post up about the civilian/military disconnect at Huffington Post.

McChrystal fostered downward infection of his subordinates. He criticizes his boss, his staff feel free to do the same, shows his poor judgement and poor leadership skills.


David Gamon 06.26.10 at 9:47 am

I have never been in a work situation where I or my colleagues weren’t criticising our superiors — AMONG OURSELVES! For a general to do it too, well, it’s just part of human nature; but to do it not just where he can be overheard, but on the record in front of a journalist writing down what he says, what foolishness!


Joel 06.26.10 at 3:11 pm

About a year ago, there were a few on the hard right urging or encouraging a military coup against President Obama. Although I didn’t take it as a serious threat, if the president had failed to re-assert civilian control over the military it could have led to problems down the road in the event Obama’s popularity/approval dropped to less than 30%. However, I would note that the great majority of today’s military leaders, whether they like a president or not, have respect for the Constitutional delegation of military and foreign affairs to civilian control. I could see temporary military control if an entire administration and most of Congress were wiped out in a terrorist attack. Even then, I believe the military would return control within a matter of weeks to months. Retired disgruntled generals, as with disgruntled ex civilian government leaders always have, and often take it, the opportunity to “settle” scores in print via books or magazines for instance, as well as on the air, or today, even through blogs.


Joel Betow 06.28.10 at 4:17 pm


I agree. I’ve heard scathing comments among colleagues about District Superintendents (but far more praise than criticism in general) and even about the presiding Bishop. Now and then I’ve heard colleagues make critical remarks about these leaders in front of congregants. That is deplorable. And I should know, for out of frustration and/or fatigue I’ve done that a very, very few times myself. If my remarks had gotten to the good portion of the whole of the laity in the Oklahoma Conference or significantly undermined my DS, then I should have been removed from my appointment. As it was, a strong supervisory rebuke and stern warning were given and accepted by me.

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