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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

culture clash: civilians vs. military

The McChrystal ousting was definitely a drama worth watching. It featured a daring journalist who broke mainstream journalistic conventions by exposing more than some thought he should have, a driven general who botched his career, and a beleaguered president who saved his image.

I haven’t heard a lot about McChrystal before this drama began to unfold, but coincidentally, I did read in the last few months several books about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among these books was Jon Krakauer’s account of Pat Tillman’s accidental death by “friendly fire” and apparent cover-up by none other than McChrystal, Where men win glory; David Finkel’s account of one army battalion fight during the surge in Iraq, The good soldiers, and Rick Atkinson’s In the company of men, about the second invasion of Iraq. These books and others I’ve read on the topic made me feel I could form some kind of opinion, if not the most accurate one, when the s**t hit the fan with surprising velocity.

My first reaction was total dread. How would Obama cope with the crisis? How would the crazies use Team America derisive comments to paint him as a weakling? What would be the fallout? Is my first gut reaction that the general had to go was a result of a grudge I held against him because of the Pat Tillman’s cover-up? I wasn’t sure what to think. Then everything was quickly resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

So as usual I turned to my favorite bloggers and columnists to read about the affair, including, of course, the culprit article in the Rolling Stone, and came to my own little conclusion: civilian and military cultures are like oil and water, they just don’t mix too well.

You see, civilian and military personnel come from completely different cultures. While the civilian environment can thrive on debate, and on top down and bottom up collaboration, the U.S. military is strictly hierarchical and unapologetically authoritarian. Add to this mix some government bureaucracy and you got a very strange and unappetizing concoction.

More than once I heard thru the grapevine about frustrated civilians who had to respond to military bosses that meddled in their business; what civilian experts thought when generals and colonels stepped into their territory and made demands, aware on unaware that their and expectations were ridiculously unattainable. But the civilians kept their mouths shut and followed the orders like the good soldiers that they were not. And everyone kept on working and pretending that the system worked well and that things got done according to the plan, until things started falling apart and the general came storming in demanding some straight answers which no one was able to give.

This resentment flows in two directions and is unavoidable: military vs. civilians, civilians vs. military. When a general demands the impossible from his subordinate civilians they consider him as a clueless dweeb no matter how many stars and stripes decorate his uniform. The same goes when civilians demand the impossible from the military.

What we need to realize is that when McChrystal was interacting with the civilian leadership he was the expert, the ‘doer’ on the battle ground, the general who was running an impossible war, and the civilians were wasting his time with their demands and political considerations. All he heard was background noise and interference in his mission. And he did not like it. The unfortunate thing for him was that at his level of leadership, his discontent and indiscretion were violating the constitution which he swore to defend.

No wonder the general and his team regarded their civilian bosses as a bunch of morons. They were not kvetching, as David Brooks pontificated in his NYT column. They were speaking their mind.

related articles:

The Nation: David Brooks, king of kvetching

Skepticblog: I didn't know the mic was on

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