Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is Gen. McChrystal the New Billy Mitchell?

I can't believe that commentators who in the Bush administration held views like "dissent is the highest form of patriotism" are now telling Gen. McChrystal to "shut up and salute the Commander-in-Chief." Secretary of Defense Gates is wrong. Policy debates should take place in public--before commitments have been made. Principled dissent over strategy is the essence of a democracy.

And military officers don't give up their rights as citizens when they join the armed forces. Dissenters can become heroes, as in the case of court-martialed Billy Mitchell. Or they can be heeded, as in the case of George Marshall, or Colin Powell during the first Gulf War. When they go too far, like Gen. McArthur, they can be fired for insubordination by the Commander-in-Chief, and disgraced. But until that point, they need to speak up-- before things get out of hand.

Indeed, Rumsfeld's sidelining of Gen. Shinseki for stating his unvarnished opinion that the Iraq war effort needed more troops should give pause to those pundits, bureaucrats and politicians currently engaged in general-bashing. A reminder from Wikipedia:
Shinseki publicly clashed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the planning of the war in Iraq over how many troops the U.S. would need to keep in Iraq for the postwar occupation of that country. As Army Chief of Staff, General Shinseki testified to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would probably be required for postwar Iraq. This was an estimate far higher than the figure being proposed by Secretary Rumsfeld in his invasion plan, and it was rejected in strong language by both Rumsfeld and his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who was another chief planner of the invasion and occupation.] From then on, Shinseki's influence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly waned. The end of his term of Army Chief of Staff came in June 2003, just a few weeks after President Bush proclaimed that "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." At that time, General Shinseki retired from the Army after 38 years of military service.
If President Bush had listened to Shinkseki, Obama wouldn't have some of the problems he is facing today. Of course, Shinseki is in the cabinet as head of the VA, so perhaps he is offering private counsel on Afghanistan...

Meanwhile, my favorite story of public debate over strategy in wartime involves Walt Disney. He was an advocate of strategic bombing as opposed to tactical support. So convinced was Disney that the United States needed a change in strategy, that he personally paid for the production of a 1943 feature film based on Russian aviator Alexander P. de Seversky's (a disciple of Billy Mitchell) 1942 book, Victory Thorugh Airpower. Disney arranged for the film to be shown in the White House to FDR, an event that led to the eventual destruction of Japanese and German cities by strategic bombing campaigns--and victory in World War II. More details, again, from Wikipedia:
While most World War II films were created for training purposes, films such as “Victory Through Air Power” were created to catch the attention of government officials and to build public morale among the U.S. and allied powers. Among the notables who decided after seeing the film that Seversky and Disney knew what they were talking about were Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Disney studio sent a print for them to view when they were attending the Quebec Conference. According to Leonard Maltin, "it changed FDR's way of thinking—he agreed that Seversky was right." Maltin also adds that "it was only after Roosevelt saw Victory Through Air Power that our country made the commitment to long-range bombing.".
If Gen. McChrystal is convinced that his strategy is correct, he could do worse than to follow in the footsteps of Billy Mitchell. BTW, there's a great film about him, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, starring Gary Cooper.