And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Atë by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a
Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war.
—William Shakespeare's Julius
Caesar, Act 3, scene 1
Those words, written more than 400 years ago, could not better describe this week's showdown between the Pentagon's Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the nation's Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, a showdown precipitated by a damning article in Rolling Stone titled "The Runaway General." Like so many heads of state in so many nations for uncountable numbers of years, America now finds itself at the hour of decision in which we determine whether we are a nation of laws whose policies are set by elected representatives of the people, or if we have slipped into a state where the military decides it can go its own way in defiance of civilian rule.
McChrystal is the general currently in charge of the Afghanistan War. Scion of a military family and son of a general, McChrystal is himself a hardened dog of war who, this week, was summoned back, "hot from hell," to explain the comments he and his top aides made to Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone article.
The hard copy won't hit newsstands until Friday, but you can already read it online and see for yourself how the men conducting the day-to-day fighting, killing and dying in the dust of Afghanistan view those who are, under our form of government, supposedly their bosses.
For instance, McChrystal is quoted as saying he got to his position by "never taking my eyes off the real enemy, the wimps in the White House." His disdain for top administration officials comes through in virtually every quote throughout the article and reveals much about what America's super-heated militarism has wrought.
In recounting the first face-to-face meeting between Obama and Mc-Chrystal, one of his top advisers says: "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."
Or how about his take on Vice President Joe Biden, who is next in line to lead the nation should something happen to President Obama? Biden is ridiculed by both McChrystal, who asks, "Who's that?" and his staff, who insultingly call him "Bite Me." Why? Because Vice President Biden challenged McChrystal's demand for 40,000 more troops last year for his so-called "surge" in Afghanistan. Biden, sensibly enough, didn't think McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy would work and was making his opinion known, as is not only his right, but his duty to the nation.
Then there's McChrystal's respectful treatment of the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and National Security Advisor Jim Jones. As the article puts it: "McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama's top people on the diplomatic side." And indeed, he and his staff seem to regard their civilian counterparts with little but disdain. Jones, a retired 4-star general, is described by one staffer as "a clown" who is "stuck in 1985." Holbrooke, meanwhile, gets dubbed "a wounded animal" and deemed "dangerous" because of it. When McChrystal gets an e-mail on his Blackberry from Holbrooke, he bemoans it, saying: "I don't even want to open it." An aide then quips, "Make sure you don't get any of that on your leg."
Even if McChrystal was winning the Afghan War, which he is not, such actions would be grounds for immediate dismissal. Sure, he's a tough old Ranger guy who, as head of the Joint Operations Special Command, oversaw secret Black Ops programs using Navy Seals, Rangers and Delta Force to reportedly kill "thousands." Of his time in Afghanistan, McChrystal readily admits: "We've shot an amazing amount of people."
Yet, despite having his operations dubbed "a killing machine," McChrystal has camouflaged himself as someone who is trying to reduce civilian casualties. Then again, since he was one of the highest-ranking officers in the cover-up of the friendly-fire death of former football player turned Army Ranger, Pat Tillman, we may want to take this particular general's statements with more than a little skepticism. In another well-documented episode, McChrystal was in charge when prisoners at Camp Nama in Iraq were "subjected to a now-familiar litany of abuse: stress positions, being dragged naked through the mud."
But in the end, it is not the killing, the deception or the fraud that should require McChrystal's resignation. It is his attitude—and the attitudes of those he leads—toward the very structure upon which our nation is founded. Plainly put, the people are in charge of the military and not the other way around. If our elected representatives say "enough is enough" or decide to pull out troops by a set date, such as President Obama has pledged to do in Afghanistan next year, it is not up to a general to dispute that command—not for any reason, not for any rhyme. His duty, first and foremost, is to obey his superiors and, in this case, that would include the president.
We are teetering on the brink of chaos. As the Rolling Stone article bluntly concludes, McChrystal's "counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war." But Americans show no sign of desiring a state of perpetual war.
President Obama is beset on all sides with seemingly unsolvable problems. The last thing he needs is, as the article correctly dubs it, a "runaway general." If we believe the fate of other nations cannot happen here, where the military literally takes over the country and displaces civilian rule, we are ignoring the lessons of history at our peril. It's time to leash the vicious dogs of war.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.