McChrystal Resignation, Alter on Obama’s Promise

Alter's book provides the back story to the McChrystal-Obama controversy.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s incendiary comments in a Rolling Stone story, summons to Washington and possible firing have dominated today’s headlines.

While in many ways it could be a dizzying fall from the heights of power, for those who followed McChrystal’s actions last year while Obama was weighing his options in Afghanistan, the decision is unsurprising.

I wrote earlier this month about Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, his look at the 18 months that started with the September 2008 economic summit and that ended this March with the passage of health care reform-legislation that thus far is the president’s singular domestic accomplishment.

Alter writes in words and in the caption to one of the book’s pictures that McChrystal’s attempts to force Obama’s hand represented the sternest test by the military of civilian authority since Gen. Douglas MacArthur and then-President Harry Truman squared off during the Korean War.

The late, great David Halberstam wrote about the earlier conflict in at least two of his books (I’ve not read all of his works, but plan to do so eventually): The Fifties, his exhaustive look at the decade during which he came of age, and The Coldest Winter, his final completed book.

In both works, Halberstam paints a convincing portrait of MacArthur as possessed of an absolutely enormous ego that not only brooked no compromise, but consciously arranged the placement of his men so that he always appeared to be the tallest and center of attention.

Such vainglory caused his problems both on the battlefield-he surrounded himself with sycophants who were unwilling to present any but the most favorable news about the war-and in his relationship with Truman.

After being sacked by Truman for making what the feisty Missourian deemed to be insubordinate comments, the general received a rapturous hero’s welcome upon his return to the United States and delivered an address to Congress in which he uttered the fabled lie, “Old soldiers never die; they only fade away.”

It’s doubtful whether receive similar treatment.  His derisive comments about Vice President Joe Biden, among others, are unlikely to elicit the same widespread sympathy that MacArthur’s desire for the United States to use air power against China did more than half a century earlier.

We shall see.  For now, McChrsytal has left his command, becoming just the latest public figure to learn the perils of talking with a reporter.  Although the comparison between the two cases may be overstated, Alter’s book gives us the back story to understand the current moment.

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