General Stanley McChrystal, the most senior military commander in Afghanistan, was summoned to the White House in 2010 and sacked by President Obama following a candid interview in Rolling Stone magazine. What does this demonstrate? Well, one conclusion is all is well. Here is proof that the military is subordinate to politics, just what a healthy democracy needs. Another conclusion is they are both subordinate to the media. This is also probably healthy also. Journalists got the President sacked in the Watergate scandal. Rolling Stone Magazine are probably very happy though. It’s a triumphal moment for the leading counter cultural monthly to take a general’s scalp.
What did General McChrystal do wrong? Is it really news that a bunch of soldiers when relaxing in a bar bitch about politicians? Is the public really shocked? There has been a scene like that in almost every war movie. It’s so commonplace that it can’t be news. A soldier fighting a war thinks the politicians on the other side of the world are out of touch. That’s such a cliche…
So what did he do wrong? This was a catatactic blunder. It was a level confusion, a breaching of the barrier between the private man and the public role. In this case, the individual is on level one and the public office is the meta-level above it. There is no problem with an individual having those thoughts. There is a problem with the leader of the armed forces disagreeing with the President in public. Rolling Stone is also guilty here. General McChrystal did not call a press conference and announce to the world his misgivings. His aides were making in appropriate jokes getting drunk in a bar in Paris. We have all done that. It was Rolling Stone who took it across the barrier from the private to the public.
You may say it is foolish to air your true feelings when there is a journalist lurking around. Its only a small step from there to believing that public officials should routinely lie to the press. That is not a good result. The real fault lies with us – the reading public – and the need to view the category of ‘public role’ as more important than the human one. Surely this was a case where the context of the comments was a vitally import qualifying factor. They got ignored as the categorisation process crossed the catataxic boundary between the human level and the public level.