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McChrystal Remarks Sad But Not Surprising

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s fall from grace in the aftermath of a Rolling Stone exposé revealing his utter contempt of the White House and other senior government officials is sad, yet not surprising.

Though everyone is entitled to their own opinion, military officers should know that theirs are best kept private… particularly if they are at odds with the chain of command.

Despite his admirable achievements over more than a 30-year career, McChrystal is simply the latest 4-star officer to show the world that some remain woefully out of touch with the press, and at times, reality itself.

Navy Admiral William “Fox” Fallon, the former Commander, U.S. Central Command responsible for all our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, was similarly caught off guard in March 2008 by an Esquire reporter who was embedded with his staff, for “brazenly challenging” the Bush Administration over Iran, leading to his prompt resignation.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, strayed far from the official “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by labeling gays “immoral” in a March 2007 media interview, prompting a political firestorm that helped guarantee his tenure as the country’s top military officer was relatively short.

There are other examples of 4-star officers who have made serious mistakes in dealing with the press, though some have gotten lucky and have escaped the scrutiny that Gen. McChrystal has not.

Regrettably, these mistakes result largely from institutional problems within the military and deserve closer examination.

In continually seeking to innovate and show initiative, many 4-star admirals and generals are more often seeking media advice directly from newly-created “strategic communication cells” consisting of civilians of varying age, experience and skill levels who seek to “influence” audiences, while minimizing traditional roles of career military public affairs staffs who function to “inform” the public.

Though U.S. military public affairs officers generally have Bachelors Degrees in communications while most have Masters Degrees by their mid-career days, they are typically relegated to the junior-most positions at military commands worldwide. Lumped together with lawyers and doctors in often-derogatory terms as “support staff,” and frequently worse, public affairs officers are institutionally dead last in the pecking order at most military commands.

In fact, the highest-ranking career public affairs officers in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps are Colonels, while the Navy at least has traditionally enjoyed one 1-star admiral leading its community. (Not surprisingly, the Navy enjoys disproportionately more press coverage of its aircraft carriers, fleet weeks, Blue Angels air shows and the spotlight in Hollywood relative to other services). In comparison, lawyers and doctors have 2 and 3-star officers leading their communities in each branch of service.

In the military culture, which places a premium on rank in decision making, many senior officers and their inner circles of aides do not bother to seek or follow the advice of more junior public affairs officers, despite their education, experience and training. 

Some leaders trust their own judgments when dealing with press without any assistance, while some others turn to alternative sources of advice, such as “strategic communicators” from various walks of life, most notably including former journalists.

Unfortunately for Gen. McChrystal, rather than rely on his seasoned military public affairs staff, he apparently sought and accepted the advice of a relatively junior and inexperienced civilian “strategic communications” contractor by the name of Duncan Boothby. Boothby who has already resigned, arranged the media embed with reporter Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone, who was already working on an alarmist-sounding feature entitled “The Runaway General.”

As Hastings describes in his article, much of his interaction with Gen. McChrystal and his staff, the self-dubbed “Team America” was far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, but rather in relaxed settings – a Paris hotel suite and an Irish pub nearby named Kitty O’Shea’s. Arguably they were too relaxed. Among many shocking revelations, Hastings claims the general and a staff member referred to Vice President Biden as “Bite Me”, while another referred to National Security Advisor and retired Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Jim Jones as “a clown.”

Knowing that Gen. McChrystal had a penchant for pushing the limits of authority as evidenced by public ridicule of Mr. Biden’s thoughts on the Afghan strategy last year at a London speech, allowing an entertainment magazine reporter with such close access over a nearly two week period was an appalling rookie mistake.

The swagger and salty talk displayed by Gen. McChrystal and his inner circle are not uncommon for military staffs in war zones. What was remarkable however, was the level of contempt combined with profound lack of judgment in allowing a virtually unknown reporter with whom they had no sustained relationship to such unfettered access.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel with ad hoc “strategic communications cells”, senior military leaders might want to go back to basics while looking to their uniformed public affairs officers to provide answers for emerging challenges.

J.D. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a retired Navy Commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09 as the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere.

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J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.