Whatever may happen to General McChrystal, it is useful to review how others have used military history to make sense of this episode. What we’re witnessing here is the invention of a narrative and the selection process that will determine which historical analogy will prevail; thus, we who make our living from historical analogies, or who rely on them to explain events, must pause and pay our respects.
The disclosures by Rolling Stone of General Stanley McChrystal’s disparagements of the administration (actually, mouthed more by “unnamed aids”) has set off the usual meme-hunt as bloggers, talking heads, and the general punditry reach deep into their trope bag of historical analogies to pull out some narrative that conveniently has it all: a description of the problem as well as a solution.
Historical analogies are useful in many ways: they not only explain, but explain with confidence, as the history they purport to convey has already happened; thus, its “lessons” are engraved on the pages of history books and thereby transformed into secular Writ.
After diligently searching the net, I have discovered that the following analogies seem to be the most popular. Here let me confess to gaming you, the reader. I’m offering you a fixed plot (the Rolling Stone article) but allowing you to select the ending as well as the “meaning” of the MyChrystal episode via the analogy of your choice. To quote McChrystal’s boss, General Petraeus, “Tell me how it ends.”
McChrystal as MacArthur/Obama as Truman. This is the most common historical analogy and has been embraced by commentators of every partisan stripe. There are several reasons for this: First, it’s the most recent of these big events (excepting the termination of McChrystal’s predecessor about which the still-Obama enthralled press had little to say.) Second, there was a popular film and a TV series and many books published about or describing this episode, thereby increasing its usefulness to pundits. Therefore, because the Truman/MacArthur episode was recent in time and recently the subject of mass familiarity, commentators are naturally drawn to its memes that are instantly recognizable to their audiences. Few pundits score big points by citing obscure historical events or absolutely anything that requires a translation.
Ending: Left and Right alike endorse the vindication of the great Constitutional principle of military subordination to civilian authority. For partisans, Obama, having been criticized for lacking passion, will now be seen as a passionate Harry Truman. McCrystal is fired. Obama gets to make stern-but-passionate speech.
McChrystal as Patton/Obama as Eisenhower. This analogy also draws on simple narrative: Patton slaps soldiers in Sicily; complaints reach Eisenhower; political pressure grows on Eisenhower to fire Patton. But Patton is too valuable to the war effort; thus, Ike prescribes a humiliating punishment, “cleans Patton up” and eventually returns him to duty.
Ending: MyChrystal made to wear a dunce hat; Constitutional principle is sort of vindicated; Obama loses some of his left wing base but may gain more with in independent voters. He will make a speech about how the war is too important to be caught up in personality conflicts.
McChrystal as McClellan/Obama as Lincoln. This has actually shown up among the punditry, although for it to be a genuine analogue, McChrystal would have to be scheming to run for the White House in 2012, and/or writing letters to important Republican politicians undermining Obama administration policy, and/or inadvertently creating fears that he intends to march on Washington with OEF troops and establish a dictatorship.
Ending: McChrystal is relieved, and leaks are put out that cast him in the role of McClellan and Obama as Lincoln. Neither holds water, but with 24 news cycles, memes only have to true for a day. Obama makes a grave speech.
McChrystal as Joe Hooker/Obama as Lincoln. Here President Obama becomes the one influenced by the “better angels of his nature” and not the Stanton-influenced President that actually believed McClellan would march on Washington. Hooker was notoriously indiscreet, and had actually suggested that one cure for the administration’s incompetence was to march on Washington and establish a dictatorship. Lincoln saw through Hooker’s bluster, and when giving him command of the Army of the Potomac, famously said that if Hooker produced victories, he, Lincoln, would worry about the dictatorship.
Ending: This is close to the Patton analogy. McChrystal is retained in the interests of producing victories; he will wear a dunce hat, but it will be shorter in height and for a shorter time. Obama gets to make a Lincolnesque speech.
Remember, your choices matter. I suspect that some readers of this piece may go on to become military historians, and one day, may even construct written narratives about the Afghan War. Thus, choose carefully. I wouldn’t want any of you to be forced to admit later that an event isn’t really “like” another event, it’s only like itself. History is hard; the present is harder.