"For heaven's sake, who are Congress? Are
they not the creatures of the people, amenable to them for their
conduct, and dependent on them from day to day for their
— George Washington, 1783
His "letters during the war were hot with
anger and indignation" because "his troops lacked shoes, meat,
gunpowder, clothing, barracks, medicines."
— From Catherine Drinker Bowen's "Miracle at
Cancel all Independence Day celebrations. While
it was a great idea in 1776, independence didn't actually happen
because Congress, upset with General Washington's disrespectful
attitude toward the chain of command, asked for his resignation in
Just kidding. Congress wasn't organized enough in
1783 to fire anybody, which was Washington's point. His rightful
indignation, however, got the attention of the other founding
fathers and they did as he asked, creating a constitution that gave
Congress the authority to oversee a national army, thereby giving
the general the authority to run it properly.
Washington is credited with the ongoing concept
of civilian control because he didn't try to turn his military
victory into the presidency of the new nation, supporting a proper
I don't know why that insistence on elections
instead of military coups wasn't good enough, why we also have to
demand that military leaders be polite when dealing with politicians
and bureaucrats. I wish some general had spoken up when Lyndon
Johnson and Robert McNamara were mismanaging the Vietnam War.
Instead the military wanted more troops to be
sent to their deaths in a war that hadn't been declared and had no
defined mission. These draftees weren't allowed to publicly complain
either and had to agreeably obey the chain of command.
Secretary of Defense McNamara gradually became
skeptical about whether the war could be won, but admitted many
years after it was lost that his support was given out of loyalty to
administration policy. Really.
What about his loyalty to the people, mentioned
by George Washington above?
Shouldn't loyalty to administration policy depend
somewhat on whether that policy makes sense?
I "get" the chain of command thing, from watching
it in action as a naval officer's wife during the Vietnam era. Given
my intense opposition to the military draft, I'm sure my husband
held his breath whenever I was having a conversation with someone up
that chain from him, though his superiors seemed to find me amusing.
However, military wives were generally held to the "no public
Interestingly, we were living in Greece, a
military dictatorship where nobody was allowed to publicly dissent.
After fighting the Germans in WWII, the Greeks were caught up in an
even more savage civil war. Though the Communists initially lost, in
early 1967 they were sending mobs into the street to influence the
coming election. The police asked for the assistance of the
military, and in April there was a coup led by a group of
anti-Communist Army colonels.
The Greek people, weary of war, seemed to
reluctantly accept the new order, especially since the colonels
announced their intention to stay in power just long enough to
establish stability. The new military-backed prime minister promised
to return to democracy as soon as possible, and seven years later,
the promise was kept.
By then I had returned to the United States, with
a new understanding that it's much harder in countries with powerful
enemies on their borders, and determined communists within, to
retain freedom than it may seem to Americans on their large,
isolated continent. It was strange to live in a dictatorship, but
valuable to learn that this particular one was better than
alternatives experienced by other countries during the Cold War.
So I don't carry the "civilian control of the
military is a good thing" concept in my head. Countries that didn't
have a military coup can still have a military that works for evil
civilians. George Washington had the only right idea: The people are
in charge, Congress works for them, and, as another
general/president said in his farewell address, "beware the
So, the Obama/McChrystal thing seems silly to me,
in the midst of a genuine concern, which is: What are we doing in
Afghanistan? Why are Americans dying there? What is the mission?
Here is my better plan. Bring our military men
home. Utilize their skills by sending them to the U.S.-Mexico border
to keep illegal immigrants out of our country. While they are there
they can help the Mexican police and army fight the drug cartels,
both by preventing the passage of drugs and guns, and with actual
fighting forces if requested.
Bonus: Keep a contingent of the National Guard in
Boston, to bivouac on City Hall Plaza, patrol the neighborhoods
where kids can't play outside without fearing gunshots, and take
down the gangs there too.
Let Afghanistan run its own county, but make it
clear that if another attack on America comes from there, we will
avenge and destroy. Same thing goes for Yemen, Somalia, etc.
Meanwhile, as Americans, we'll continue to set an
example of freedom, and hope that someday all countries can
celebrate an Independence Day like ours.