Army Walks Tightrope On Ties With Political Bosses

President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Oval Office, May 19, 2009. i

President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Oval Office on May 19, 2009. McChrystal's firing this summer following his comments in a magazine interview prompted soul-searching within the military. Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images
President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Oval Office, May 19, 2009.

President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Oval Office on May 19, 2009. McChrystal's firing this summer following his comments in a magazine interview prompted soul-searching within the military.

Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's firing as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan over the summer caused some soul-searching within the military.

At the time, President Obama explained why what McChrystal had done — speak too candidly to Rolling Stone magazine — was a firing offense.

"The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general," Obama said at the time. "It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."

'A Teachable Moment'

For McChrystal it was the end of a 34-year career. For Col. Matt Moten, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the episode became part of the school's curriculum. "It's a teachable moment for us: What should a general do? What should an officer do? What is his responsibility to his civilian superiors? And so there has been a good bit of healthy conversation about that," Moten said.

The incident prompted more than just healthy conversation; it spurred a serious debate. Moten argues that the McChrystal episode marked an "emerging crisis" in military professionalism that could endanger the public's trust. "We in the military are instruments of the state," he said. "We are meant to be apolitical and it's important that we maintain that role."

Moten is among the leaders of a growing discussion across the Army.

Hot-Button Issues

At Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Army instructors are rewriting training manuals, everything from ethics to how a senior officer can offer policy advice without being seen as disloyal. And at West Point, there's a two-year research project looking at proper relations between the soldier and the state.

Maj. Ed Cox is part of that effort, and he disagrees with Moten and others who say the military must be apolitical. "The military shouldn't be partisan, but it can't be apolitical — particularly in its role as an expert adviser on defense issues," Cox said. "It's by definition an active player in the political process."

But every time officers weigh in on the story of the day they risk crossing the line and taking political sides.

Speaking to reporters recently, Gen. James Conway, the Marines' top officer, said: "We sometimes ask Marines what is their preference: I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual."

Conway opposes gays serving openly in the military. His commander in chief, Obama, supports it.

Another example: Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, angered some White House officials last year with his message to Congress on the war strategy. "A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces," he said at the time.

His call for more forces came even though Obama hadn't yet decided whether to send more forces.

Before he was fired, McChrystal also was sharply criticized by the White House for dismissing a troop option before the president had made a decision. His comments had caused Defense Secretary Robert Gates to intervene. "It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately," Gates said.

A Dilemma For Officers

But retired Col. Alan Stolberg, who teaches at the Army War College, says it's impossible for senior officers to provide only private advice. That's because they serve two civilian masters: the White House and Congress, where they often appear in public hearings.

"What do you do when you're asked a question?" Stolberg asks. " 'Hey general, what do you think about this question that's now being debated so hotly?' "

The answer could put the official in hot water.

"In a republican democracy should we have our leaders say no comment?" Stolberg said.

There's still a dilemma for top officers: What do you do if you're obliged to offer your best military advice — when that advice might not be in sync with a politician's agenda?

Stohlberg, of the Army War College, has one suggestion: Until a final policy decision has been reached, generals should offer their views on everything from Afghan troop levels to gays in the military.

After a decision, they should salute or quit.

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