When I read Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General," I expected to learn something, be reminded of something, and to chuckle. Hastings did not disappoint.
I learned that the recently resigned four-star general was West Point, Class of 1976. He had to wait for a really big counterinsurgency operation, and he would do so without being constructively prejudiced against the last good one. How he must have longed for his shot at Vietnam.
Turns out McChrystal was "The son of a general,…[and] also a ringleader of the campus dissidents — a dual role that taught him how to thrive in a rigid, top-down environment while thumbing his nose at authority every chance he got." Well, isn’t that special!
I wonder if Hastings has ever read Robert Timburg’s The Nightingale’s Song. Somehow I think not, but I’m sure he would enjoy it. That book tells of another spoiled rabble-rousing demerit-prone rule-breaker who never got kicked out of a federally funded military school, and unrelatedly I’m sure, was also the son of a famous flag officer. Similar to McChrystal, John McCain continued to make a career of being a "regular" guy despite lacking the credentials. A full psych workup would be required, of course, but I’m thinking that these special boys are plagued with a near-permanent inferiority syndrome combined dangerously with a passionate belief that the world is their oyster.
It is good to remind ourselves the source of that metaphor — Shakespeare’s minor character Pilot, a "braggart ensign" who, when denied a loan, tells Falstaff no matter, he’d get what he wanted with his sword.
I also learned about McChrystal’s fundamental dislike of a peer flag officer and the U.S. Ambassador to our very own Afghanistan. I had not read Eikenberry’s November 2009 policy cables on the flaws and likely outcomes of our Afghanistan policy and "investment strategy" when they were published in the New York Times earlier this year. When I did read them, they were refreshing only because they contain some valid observations — that just about every American who watches the news already fundamentally understands.
In diplomatic language, we find that the U.S. Ambassador believed as early as November 2009 (and probably much earlier) that Afghanistan had been cooked down by the Bush and Obama regimes into a bubbling fetid pit of American despair. Our Afghanistan recipe exceeds the Vietnam Conflict in terms of time and money, is a cesspool of waste and wasted lives, ours and theirs, and Al Qaeda doesn’t even live there anymore. Karzai is a puppet and a crook, rivaled in corruption only by his drug-dealing brother. As Hastings puts it, "Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile."
Well, if nothing else, being "intensely wary to openly hostile" puts the Afghans in good company. This succinctly describes the attitude of a large percentage of Americans towards our government today. Curiously and I believe laudably, it also describes McChrystal’s attitude towards his military and civilian counterparts and bureaucratic superiors. It’s refreshing to know we share something with the people and livelihoods we are murdering, looting, lecturing and trying to "fix." Don’t take my word for it — just ask people on the Gulf Coast these days.
I was reminded of a few things as well. One was the rash use of macho profanity and the obscene as part of military camaraderie. There’s something special about the military seen as soldiers for Jesus doing the last great crusade by the Christian right giving the Constitution and every parable of Jesus a middle finger and a great big f**k you! Well, at least McChrystal is just doing that to Afghanistan, Iraq a few years before, the U.S. State Department, and Washington politicians. According to the article, his wife of 33 years rarely sees him, in the interests of national security and public service. I guess that’s something.
Speaking of the State Department, I was reminded too of Hillary Clinton, back in the day when she had such problems with the men in the military. Today, according to Hastings, Hillary is one of McCrystal’s political sponsors. She had his back, was making sure he got "what he wanted." Who can know the heart of a woman? But it’s is easy to understand the heart of an imperialist — and throughout history they have always been thrilled by the bold murderous generals who tell them "Yes We Can!"
I was also reminded that McChrystal eats only one meal a day. My gut reaction to hearing this cultish bit (again!) is that each of my five dogs also eat only one meal a day. On that basis alone, I certainly wouldn’t send them to conquer Afghanistan. However, I do have a Border collie. Perhaps, after McChrystal is fired, my dog Bandit could consult with General Petraeus. Eikenberry and the other "defeatists" certainly have the right idea. It’s simple. Get the f**k out of Afghanistan. Of course, I’m pretty sure Bandit doesn’t use profanity.
Finally, I was reminded that the people, like Hastings, who study the personalities and the formal policies of American empire are different people than those who study the fundamental economics and philosophy of that empire. In a sense, Hastings is classically liberal — considering individual logic, and freedom to choose and to act as existent in both national policy and within the leaders and actors, even the people, of that national bureaucracy. This is commendable, of course, and makes Hastings something of an optimist, saying as he did today on CNN that he did not imagine McChrystal would be fired over the piece but that he had hoped to create a new window for American discussion of the war in Afghanistan.
Hastings — and all of us who hope for change — would do well to explore classical liberal traditions a bit further, examining the same enlightenment ideas that inspired Marx (and from which he drew the wrong conclusion about the nature of class conflict). As Sheldon Richman writes in his short essay introducing Libertarian Class Analysis,
Thus it is crucial to see that the thinkers from whom Marx apparently learned about class analysis put in the productive class all who create utility through voluntary exchange. The "capitalist" (meaning in this context the owner of capital goods who is unconnected to the state) belongs in the industrious class along with workers.
Who were the exploiters? All who lived forcibly off of the industrious classes.
Eikenberry’s November missive (classified "Secret" and intended for diplomatic channels only) mentioned funding and resource wastage repeatedly — but as McChrystal no doubt recognized — his criticisms are but the jealous complaints of a tax feeder on his share, couched in strategic analysis. Hastings points out the extreme difference in finances between the military and the diplomatic bureaucracies, and the journalist inadvertently reveals a great deal of how this parasitical class works in his podcast with Antiwar’s Scott Horton this week.
The day-to-day drama of the parasitic exploiting class — Obama and Petraeus, Clinton and McChrystal, Enron and Unocal, Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman, FOX versus CNN versus MSNBC in their three-legged sack race to put out the status quo story — is really not important. As we have been assured repeatedly by top Senators and talking heads and the White House, the status quo for the exploiting class that benefits immensely from the Afghanistan occupation (and sorry, I forgot to mention many stately and elegant drug money laundering establishments in Europe, Asia and America) will not be changed by the retirement of McChrystal. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
In reading "The Runaway General" I learned a few things, I was reminded of a few things, and Hastings provided me with at least one chuckle. It occurs to me that perhaps now, after decades of wasting his talents trying to create a world shaped by his imagination, Stan McChrystal can now go back to his first love — writing fiction.