Q&A With Military Historian: Relieving Generals ‘Rare’ in Time of War

BY Larisa Epatko  June 23, 2010 at 3:45 PM EDT

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as the top commander in Afghanistan, over critical comments he made in a Rolling Stone article, and would replace him with Gen. David Petraeus, currently head of U.S. Central Command.

Petraeus will need Senate confirmation.

Gen. Stanley McChrystalIn announcing the switch, President Obama said McChrystal’s conduct does “not meet the standards that should be set by a commanding general.” The president added that he did not make the decision based on any difference in policy in Afghanistan or personal insult, and that he had great admiration for McChrystal’s military career.

To put the developments in context, we spoke with military historian Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

Have there been similar divisions in the past between military and governmental officials?

RICHARD KOHN: There’s a long history of divisions — rarely does it spill out into the public — but it happens occasionally, going all the way back to the Civil War and before. It almost never came out into the public in World War II, but it did during the Vietnam War and it comes out in peacetime in national security policy and budgets on a rather regular basis since the mid-1940s when the country was reorganizing the government for the purpose of strengthening national defense.

But I wouldn’t look at this as a division. This is no division over policy and strategy. This is something that is, I think, more unusual and in some respects more disturbing, and that was a culture of contempt for the civilian leadership that grew up in General McChrystal’s staff and General McChrystal’s poor judgment not only in putting a reporter into his closest staff for a long period of time but in his own attitudes toward some of his civilian superiors and his civilian partners — Ambassador (Karl) Eikenberry and Ambassador (Richard) Holbrooke.

The more disturbing part of this to me is the development of that set of attitudes and that ethos in his staff because it’s quite likely that this is not singular in the senior military ranks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And an officer of his success — the man was a hero in Iraq — and his background and education, to make these kinds of basic mistakes of professionalism is really troubling.

How often do generals get hired and fired during an ongoing war?

RICHARD KOHN: They get relieved in an ongoing war very rarely. It occurred of course several times in World War II, but with perhaps once exception not the most senior people. But in the wars since that time, because they only serve a stated period of time in command, it’s been quite rare. Gen. (William) Westmoreland was relieved and kicked upstairs in 1968 in Vietnam; Gen. (David) McKiernan was relieved in 2009 in Afghanistan; Gen. George Casey was replaced in Iraq and made chief of staff of the Army. It is not a frequent occurrence.

What will happen now that McChrystal is going to be replaced?

RICHARD KOHN: There will be a general feeling both in the military and the administration and among the American people that this is a tragedy that a very good and a very successful senior military officer has to be lost to the service of the United States because of his poor judgment and his attitudes and that of his staff. I think it will further complicate relationships with the (Hamid) Karzai government, depending on President Obama’s instructions to the rest of his team dealing with the Afghan war, including people in the White House and in the Pentagon, it could lead to some other personnel changes.

I think it will delay at least to some degree the prosecution of the war as a new commander takes charge and reviews the situation and makes his own decisions as to what needs to be done and how, although that will be kept to a minimum by the naming of General Petraeus to the command.

I think it will complicate the president’s ability to trust the senior military and I think it will probably confuse and distract civil-military relations for a period of time into the future, exacerbate the wariness on both sides. I think it will be in some ways an instructive lesson for both the military and civilians in trying to connect with each other, work together, cooperate and foster an atmosphere of trust between them as they deal with such difficult problems as the Afghan war.