Runaway Redux: Patton 2.0

Last week, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Michael Hastings entitled “The Runaway General,” a provocative portrait of four-star General Stanley McChrystal.  The article is a compelling narrative filled with vulgarities, booze, and down-right arrogance, reading more like the plot summary of Hollywood's next big action movie than a critical analysis of the man in charge of the Afghanistan war effort.   Ultimately, the administration responded harshly and the General was dismissed from his role as top commander of American forces in Afghanistan

This, however, is not the first time an American President has had to deal with a sharp-tongued rebel as a military commander.  General McChrystal seems to be the 21st century reincarnation of the man who was arguably World War II’s most famous and tactically brilliant general – General George S. Patton.  Patton, like McChrystal, possessed an infamously brash attitude and a penchant for vulgar language.

Patton was also a public relations nightmare for his administration.  During supply shortages in WWII, he was quoted as saying, "Men can eat their belts, but my tanks gotta have gas."  In 1943, following an aggressive and very successful campaign to capture Sicily, Patton lost his notoriously red-hot temper with two of his soldiers.  The General dismissed the soldiers' complaints of "battle fatigue," considering them cowardly.  During his notorious tirade, General Patton slapped both soldiers across the face.  When the story was published on the home front, Americans were outraged.  President Eisenhower pressured General Patton to release a public apology, and then assigned Patton to serve in occupied Sicily.  In other words, Eisenhower temporarily sidelined Patton until he could learn to stay put and shut up.  Eventually, Patton returned to a prominent role in the U.S.'s war efforts, leading an important mission on D-Day.

Unfortunately, President Obama was not nearly as lenient on General McChrystal.   After the release of the article, the General was immediately summoned from Afghanistan to the White House for a meeting with the President.  That meeting lasted a mere twenty minutes.  Just a few hours later, around 1pm on June 23rd,  President Obama announced that General McChrystal had been relieved from his role as the top commander in Afghanistan and that General Petraeus would be taking over his command.

The 1970 film Patton provides an intimate look at the brash general.   The movie was a huge critical success, winning six Oscars that year.   The film is so well made that it continues to appeal to audiences today.  (In fact, if you have yet to have seen this film, I order you to go watch it immediately or else I might have to slap you, Patton-style.)   This scene provides a particularly poignant look at the General's personality.

I fear that the Rolling Stone article and the film Patton share one thing in common – they are more caricatures than realistic portrayals.  Upon close reading of the article, one begins to notice that the majority of the salacious quotations are attributed to his aides, not the General himself.  While I’m certainly not suggesting that Hastings fictionalized some new character that is “the General McChrystal,” I do believe his actual behavior was probably embellished for theatrical appeal.   After all, isn’t that the stuff that sells magazines?

I find it unsettling to know that the commander of all American forces in Afghanistan, a man who was hand-selected by President Obama to lead thousands of troops in an effort to eliminate insurgency from the ruins of a crumbled country, was dismissed after an article in an entertainment magazine.   The man who was once considered the most competent man for the job is now suddenly ineligible due to some comments in a magazine which, although may not have been entirely innocuous, were mostly made by his staff.  Yes, there are some vulgarities, but wasn't it just last week that the President himself stated, with the regards to the BP Oil spill, that he wanted to know "whose ass to kick?"

This leads me to a simple plea: Mr. President, next time you have the power to decide who is going to lead our troops in a dangerous insurgent fight overseas, please do not do it on the basis of his diction.  I must implore you to consider one thing and one thing alone – which General will send the smallest number of American soldiers home in body bags.