The War Between Obama and McChrystal Is Over — Obama Lost

Parallels have been drawn between General McChrystal's situation and that of General Douglas MacArthur. Those parallels exist at some, relatively minor, levels but the lines diverge at many points. The comparison resembles not one between apples and oranges but one between trucks and roller skates.

During the Second World War, General MacArthur demonstrated a high level of military genius. There were few in the allied countries who were unfamiliar with his name and fame; for the most part, he was revered. Later, in 1950, when he was the "viceroy of Japan," he was absolutely unprepared for the June 25, 1950, North Korean invasion of South Korea (not technically within his areas of command but still his responsibility as the closest military presence) which he had failed to anticipate despite signs that it was a possibility. He was not alone in that lack of prescience, even though Secretary of State Dean Acheson had practically invited an invasion during a speech on January 12, 1950, listing those countries which were vital to the interests of the United States and on whose behalf the United States would intervene if attacked; South Korea was conspicuously absent from the list. The invasion came five months and two weeks later.

Within a few weeks of the invasion, the South Korean government, its military, and the few U.S. military advisers in the country were forced to retreat far to the south, to the Pusan Perimeter. On September 15 -- less than three months after the North Korean invasion -- General MacArthur carried out the Inchon amphibious invasion, a nearly impossible task. Inchon lies at the end of the Flying Fish Channel, a twisting, turning, and narrow channel bordered by waters too shallow for even shallow draft ships to traverse. The tides in that area are very difficult to predict with great accuracy and the currents are extreme. The high tides are often more than thirty feet above low tides and such an invasion was possible only on one or perhaps two days each month; the phase of the moon greatly affects tides. The invasion was extremely risky and was generally opposed by the brass hats in Washington. The invasion could not have been attempted earlier than it was because the United States simply did not have the manpower and other needed resources in Korea to do it. It was carried out on September 15 and was a great success. Very soon thereafter, the North Koreans were sent packing from the south back to the north and Seoul was reclaimed.

Perhaps overwhelmed by his striking success at Inchon, General MacArthur tried something similar on the northeast coast of Korea. Despite difficulties, the push was on into North Korea. Despite signs that the Chinese and perhaps the Russians might intervene, General MacArthur got very close to the Chinese border and reportedly wanted to continue north; it was forbidden and in any event the Chinese came south in incredible numbers. All hell broke loose, and the retreat from the Yalu took place -- a treacherous and deadly trek back south under horrible conditions over barely passable mountains during the dead of winter. The losses of American lives were horrific. Luck is a very important thing and General MacArthur's luck had run out. He had been very lucky at Inchon. Had a hurricane struck the waters off Inchon during the days leading up to September 15, there would have been a disaster. An intense high pressure area over Inchon would have caused the tides to be significantly lower there; an intense low pressure area off shore would have had the same effect. Even General MacArthur was not in a position to dictate the weather and to have postponed the Inchon invasion for a month due to predicted weather could have been equally disastrous; the North Koreans would have got wind of what had happened and would have had a pretty good idea when to expect another attempt.

Although a brilliant general, perhaps the greatest in recent memory, MacArthur had some fatal flaws. He overtly encouraged and believed his favorable press, was a prima donna, and his subordinates, for the most part, fed his already humongous ego. President Truman, perhaps the best president in recent memory, had flaws as well. Many times, he considered firing General MacArthur but there were concerns that, if fired, General MacArthur might run successfully for president. (General Eisenhower, characterized by General MacArthur as "the best clerk I ever had," beat him to the punch.) Finally, events took their course and President Truman fired General MacArthur in April of 1951. General MacArthur returned to the United States -- his first visit in fourteen years -- to a tumultuous welcome. He later addressed the Congress and met with President Eisenhower to urge invasion of China with the use of nuclear weapons should negotiations be unsuccessful; his advice was not heeded, nor was he invited to offer it again. He faded into obscurity and died on April 5, 1964.

General MacArthur frequently forgot or didn't much care that President Truman was the commander in chief, a venal sin for a military leader. These lapses quite rightly infuriated President Truman who, nevertheless, delayed firing General MacArthur, perhaps in the hope that he would resign or retire, until it was obvious that he had screwed up big time not only by the retreat from the Yalu but by challenging the authority of the commander in chief.

President Obama is no President Truman. I find it difficult to mention them in the same sentence. President Truman had military experience during World War I as an artillery battery commander (captain) and fought on the front lines. He remained in the Army Reserve and rose to the rank of colonel. At the outbreak of World War II, he was a senator and was dissuaded from returning to active duty to fight in the war because it was felt that he could do more for the United States in the Senate. President Obama has never worn a military uniform and knows nothing of war. This article by Claudia Rosett suggests another big difference:

To win this war, America, and its generals, need to be led by someone who really wants to win the war. Someone who believes his country is great, and extraordinary, and deserves to win its wars. Someone who takes a direct and genuine interest in those he sends to the frontlines. Someone who makes a point of really getting to know the general he puts in charge. Someone, in sum, who does what’s needed to inspire loyalty and respect.

Does President Obama fit the description? Or does it seem as though he finds the Afghanistan situation a troublesome distraction from his agenda?

General McChrystal, now 55-years-old and in his prime, is no General MacArthur -- who was well past normal retirement age at age 71 when fired. General MacArthur faded away and died at the age of eighty-four. General McChrystal is unlikely to fade away any time soon. There is no longer a place for him in the Army, unless he wants to command a mess kit repair battalion in Alaska or perhaps assume worldwide responsibility for officers' clubs. Does he have political ambitions? He well may, despite his generally expressed disdain for civilians, because he could foresee a productive career in the House or the Senate. His contest with President Obama, which I think he won, would give him significant pulling power with many voters and his outspoken lack of reverence for the powers that be would be far better employed in either of those venues than as a serving military officer.