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June 25, 2010

Mouthy General

Roy Meachum

By coincidence, when President Harry S Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in 1951, Army duty took me to the U.S. Military Academy.


The general didn’t get much support among people I met. No great surprise. His wartime reputation included his penchant for self-designed uniforms, each more imperial than the others. He used his well-publicized corncob pipe as a scepter and as a symbol he had not lost the common touch. But he had.


Stanley McChrystal developed in a totally different tradition. As a USMA graduate he certainly knew about MacArthur’s fate. Still, he insisted on challenging the Constitution that clearly states civilian authorities have the final say.


But that was after the four-star general hired Duncan Boothby, the immigrant Briton who might have thought he was working for a presidential wannabe, and why not? He and his client knew America’s history has more than one example of an Army commander swapping his stars for the Oval Office. But then, as it turns out, Stanley McChrystal was not alone in having civilian media advisers – in addition to uniformed flacks.


At the top, Sally Donnelly is listed as a media advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen; she worked for Time magazine. David Moniz does for the Air Force’s chief of staff what Ms. Donnelly does for his superior; he formerly hung up his hat at USA Today. And it turns out Mr. Boothby held a similar post in Iraq for Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, before switching his desk to Fort Leavenworth. His former employer’s appearance on the Today Show – explaining a new field manual – may have lead to the position, from which he resigned at the first outcry.


In addition to the staggering costs of the wars in Kabul and Baghdad, the taxpayers are stuck with the expensive salaries that go into the military’s public relations civilians. But that should come as little surprise: overpaid mercenaries performed military duties from the get-go – as a way for the Bush Administration to avoid the draft for foreign incursions and invasion. This is how they brushed by the Vietnam War’s demonstrations on TV.


In the Rolling Stone story that led to General McChrystal’s firing, there was at least one quote about the president’s early meeting with him and other brass and the word that stands out is “intimidated.” My April 27 column (On a Roll) touched on the same subject. What happened to the candidate who promised to get the country out of Iraq?


The answer: The pragmatics of being president. He inherited such a domestic mess – financial, joblessness and health care – that he put the wars on hold. He could not afford to enter into a prolonged catfight. Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats will attack any attempt to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan – even if Barack Obama thought the situations practically and morally hopeless.


Recognizing reality, I still think there can be no healing of this country until Washington restores peace. The absence of war is necessary for gearing the economy up for full recovery. America cannot restore its place in the civilized world until it sheds the culpability that accompanies our attempts to mold other nations to our image and likeness.


The British Empire started dying and shriveling in its late-19th Century conquest of South Africa; World War I hastened and exposed the decline. France abandoned all hopes of becoming again a colonial power after Dien Bien Phu; that’s when America chose to take on “the white man’s burden” that led to Baghdad and Kabul.


Duncan Boothby and his ilk exist chiefly to make sure Washington does not cop out and end the military adventures that benefit this nation zip, nada, zilch; they pay off only for the warriors who get faster promotions, bigger paychecks and greater status in the democracy.


In the case of Stanley McChrystal, as I said, there might have been a lagniappe of trying for president. All his dreams vanished Wednesday because he simply shot off his mouth, too many times.


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