Army Walks Tightrope On Ties With Political Bosses Gen. Stanley McChrystal's firing this summer prompted soul-searching within the military: Should top officers be political when talking publicly about issues ranging from Afghanistan to gays in the armed forces? There is no consensus.
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Army Walks Tightrope On Ties With Political Bosses

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Army Walks Tightrope On Ties With Political Bosses

Army Walks Tightrope On Ties With Political Bosses

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Today, we're going look at what's happened inside the Army since General McChrystal was fired. As NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports, the episode has caused some soul-searching.

TOM BOWMAN: It was President Obama who back in June, explained why what General McChrystal had done was a firing offense.

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

BOWMAN: For McChrystal, it was the end of a 34-year career. For Colonel Matt Moten, a professor at West Point, the episode became part of the school's curriculum.

C: 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.

BOWMAN: More than just healthy conversation, but a serious debate. Colonel Moten argues the McChrystal episode marked an emerging crisis in military professionalism that could endanger the public's trust.

C: We in the military are instruments of the state. We are meant to be apolitical, and it's important that we maintain that role.

BOWMAN: Colonel Moten is among the leaders of a growing discussion across the Army. At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Army instructors are re-writing 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. Major Ed Cox is part of that effort, and he disagrees with Colonel Moten and others who say the military must be apolitical.

BOWMAN: Well, the military shouldn't be partisan, but it can't be apolitical, particularly in its role as an expert adviser on defense issues. It's, by definition, an active player in the political process.

BOWMAN: But every time officers weigh in on the story of the day, they risk crossing the line and taking political sides. On gays in the military, here's the Marines' top officer, General James Conway, speaking to reporters recently.

G: 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.

BOWMAN: Conway clearly opposes gays serving openly in the military. His commander in chief, President Obama, supports it. Another example: Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, angered some White House officials last year when he had this to say to Congress about the war strategy.

BOWMAN: A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces.

BOWMAN: More forces, even though President Obama hadn't yet decided whether to send more forces. Before he was fired, General McChrystal also was sharply criticized by the White House for dismissing a troop option before the president had made a decision. McChrystal's comments caused Defense Secretary Robert Gates to intervene.

INSKEEP: 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.

BOWMAN: Privately. But retired Colonel 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.

C: What do you do when you're asked a question? Hey General, what do you think about this question that's now being debated so hotly?

BOWMAN: But that's where you can get yourself into hot water, right?

C: Given the answer, given the sensitivity of the topic, potentially it could be hot water. In a republican democracy, should we have our leaders say, no comment?

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.


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