Monday, November 7, 2011

Managing Criticism from the Ranks


While I wouldn’t expect to agree with much of what Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s paragon of mediocrity, has to say—like Mitt Romney, Blitzer is most at home when he’s got a nice, comfortable fence to sit on—I was nonetheless surprised to read his defence of Major General Peter Fuller, who was dismissed for his biting attack on the Afghan government.

I agree that what Fuller said was probably pretty accurate, and that people should always be commended for speaking the truth to power—even if, in this case, it’s an oversimplified and fairly elementary version of the truth.  But I also remember another General who got the sack over a year ago for crossing the line that separates uniformed servicepeople from their civilian commanders.  Now there are differences between Stanley McChrystal’s mockery of the civilian leadership (he should have been fired much earlier, along with David Petraeus, for violating the principle of civilian supremacy by actively undermining President Obama’s review of the Afghan war) and Fuller’s criticism of a U.S. ally, and therein of civilian-set policy. 

But I also think that the military is the kind of institution which needs a special level of policing when it comes to the utterances of its leaders, who are forever trying to thrust, particularly in the era of 24/7 news, into the limelight in a manner that violates the crystal clear premise of civilian command.  Individuals and institutions need reminding of where they stand in the constitutional order of things, and just because many of us happen to agree with Fuller doesn’t mean that he should therefore get a free pass.

So I cannot share Blitzer’s “shock” at events.  He writes, “The fact that an American war hero is fired for telling the truth to the American people is shocking [...] Allen [Fuller’s superior] mad e a major mistake and should move quickly to fix it”.  I’m sorry, but lengthy service doesn’t make someone a hero, however commendable that service might be, and even people who serve their countries can do wrong and should be punished when they do so.

It is not Fuller’s job, while in uniform, to make policy statements that run against what our civilian leadership are trying to accomplish, however much we might disagree with those aims.  There is a place for whistleblowers, and that is outside of the armed services.  People who wish to resign and speak their piece should have our respect, and those who are serious whistleblowers deserve our gratitude and protection.  There should also be space for those who simply want to blow off steam up the chain of command (as seems to be the case with Fuller), or for those who have substantive grievances to voice, to do so.

But at the end of the day, nothing Fuller said was terribly controversial.  As Blitzer notes, he accused officials in the Afghan government of being “isolated from reality”.  He’s accused them of stretching the U.S. public’s patience by playing politics with a war that has claimed the lives of many, any people.  But everybody knows that.  The gutsy thing to do would have been to level those same criticisms at the Obama administration, which has irresponsibly expanded this war that is doing so much to imperil our country’s safety and economy for nakedly political purposes.  This administration, like the one which preceded it, is isolated from reality, and incapable of seeing the threat that its militarism poses to the lives of Afghans and Americans, or to our long-term security.

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