Chain of Command

General Douglas MacArthur is arguably one of the most accomplished military officers in American history.  His resume boasts having lead troops into battle in World War I, superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff under two presidents (Hoover and FDR), World War II Pacific commander, presided over Japan’s surrender in 1945 as well as the military occupation of Japan following the war.  When conflict erupted on the Korean peninsula in 1950, MacArthur pulled off one of the most daring and brilliant invasions in modern history, choosing to land troops at Inchon in order to divide and route North Korean forces (who had pushed South Korean forces to the tip of the peninsula) – eventually forcing the North Korean army to retreat to the North’s border with China.  China – claiming the fear of invasion (a matter the students of history will continue to debate for decades to come) – joined the North Korean forces and pushed MacArthur back to the 38th parallel.

MacArthur had urged President Truman to take the fight to the Chinese.  Just as Patton, in many ways, foresaw the Cold War with the Soviet Union, MacArthur believed China needed to be confronted, and fast.  Frustrated that Truman saw things differently, MacArthur publicly announced his dissatisfaction, ultimately leading to his dismissal by Truman in 1951.  MacArthur was – and still is – celebrated as a hero, and he should be.  What should not be celebrated, however, is his public insubordination to the President.  It’s a difficult position to reconcile for many of us who felt Truman should have taken a different road – possibly even taken MacArthur’s advice.  Truman did the right thing in dismissing MacArthur, even if we disagree with Truman’s choices on the war.  The same goes for President Obama’s dismissal of General McChrystal.  McChrystal’s complaints should have been fully and bluntly discussed, in private, with the President.  If he still felt, after all that, that the President was not giving him what he needed to fight the war, then he should have resigned, retired and taken his case to the public.  Most Americans would have listened, politics aside, to a man who’d served his country honorably and respected the chain of command enough to not publicly denounce the President while actively wearing the uniform.

It’s all too easy for the ‘opposition’ (in this case, conservatives) to selectively ignore the importance of our military respecting the civilian chain of command at the top when the target of the complaint is a President with whom we strongly disagree.  It’s conveniently ignored by the Left as well, when it suits them (take the treatment of Petraeus today vs. the “Betray Us” ad in 2004).  The danger would be for us, as citizens, to take the military’s respect for civilian leadership for granted, or to sacrifice that respect for the sake of politics.  The importance of this principle – and the essential truth that the office of president must be respected, even if you don’t like the man – is one of the many reasons why our nation hasn’t fallen into the cycle of “bloody coup after coup” as other nations have when civilian and military leadership come into conflict.  Our current President doesn’t seem to mind ignoring, dismissing or even undermining the institutions that have made us great, but in accepting McChrystal’s resignation, he – whether for this motive or not – helped preserve them.

  • GinaG

    Very well written Jim. It's been interesting to listen around here to the chatter about this situation. Most people that I've heard, on both sides of the aisle, have agreed that McChrystal was wrong and Obama was right in letting him go. Like it or not, there are times when you must respect those in authority. It's a good lesson for most of us to remember too, especially in this age where we have such open avenues to express our every thought and grievance to the whole wide world. It's just not always appropriate. Thanks for another thoughtful post!!