Gen. McChrystal was not the first general to be dismissed by a president and due to the U.S. military and political systems, he won't be the last.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal was not the first general to be dismissed by a president, and he won't be the last.
There is a natural tension between political authorities and military commanders, for better and for worse.
Only time will tell what the political repercussions will be for the Obama administration and the war in Afghanistan.
When Barack Obama removed Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his post as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Wednesday, the general became just another example in a long line of military commanders who have pushed too hard against presidential control -- and lost their jobs because of it.
McChrystal's dismissal came after Rolling Stone magazine quoted the general and his staff making disparaging and insulting comments about Obama and the president's security team. The article described McChrystal as a man who, albeit brilliant, "speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official"-- even when he disagrees with his superiors.
While the exact details of McChrystal's case reflect a unique moment in time and a complicated set of foreign affairs, there is a long history of conflict between presidents and military officials. From Vietnam to the Persian Gulf to World War II, presidents have tried to focus on the big-picture goals of war, while troops have often felt that people in Washington were out of touch with what was really happening on the ground.
"There's a natural tension there, because you rarely have a civilian commander-in-chief who knows as much about military operations and military affairs as generals do," said John McManus, a military historian at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
"If you've been a general, you've put in 30 years in the Army, you've gone to all the top schools and you've led combat, it can be hard to take orders from someone you consider a novice," he said. "You're going to have clashes there. I suppose it's inevitable."
Much of the conflict stems from what successful politicians and senior commanders tend to have in common: Strong personalities, lots of confidence and big egos. Political differences also come into play.
Historical examples are abundant.
"I think everyone is going to run immediately to Douglas McArthur," said Brian Linn, a military historian at Texas A&M University in College Station.
During the Korean War, Gen. McArthur openly opposed Harry Truman's orders to scale back American operations, going so far as to blatantly disobey orders and move troops forward. To maintain control, Truman felt he had no choice but to fire McArthur in 1951.
Among other notorious examples, James Polk canned Gen. Zachary Taylor after Taylor took too much authority in making an armistice with Mexico during the Mexican-American war in the mid 1840s. And Abraham Lincoln booted Gen. George McClellan during the Civil War in 1862 for not being as aggressive as Lincoln had ordered him to be.
Sometimes, conflicts between presidents and generals are more subtle, but tensions are almost always there, McManus said. During the Vietnam War, for instance, Gen. William Westmoreland was constantly chafing under restrictions imposed by Lyndon Johnson's administration. And there was endless bickering between George H.W. Bush's administration and top military commanders during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.
"I could talk from now until Friday about examples in World War II," McManus added, "which is thought of as the good war in our society."
While its themes are not new, the McChrystal case points out some of the strengths and weaknesses in how America has chosen to identify itself. Ever since George Washington transitioned from top Army commander to first president in 1789, the U.S. has intentionally avoided becoming a military state. The commander-in-chief is a civilian, and he has the last word -- even in war.
So, when generals act defiant, presidents often remove their power, sending a message to the nation about who's in control, while also creating tension between the government and the military.
But there are checks and balances, history shows. A dismissed general often becomes a political rival against the administration that let him go. Both Douglas McArthur and Zachary Taylor ran for president after losing their high-profile command posts, and Taylor won his race. Time will tell whether McChyrstal will help fuel future Republican campaigns.
"The American system is set up so that civilian authority is in charge, but civilian authority recognizes that there's a clear military and political cost to taking action," Linn said. "You don't have people irresponsibly replaced because there's a cost to it. The tension itself is a good thing."