The Blog

A Failure To Communicate

5:05 PM, Sep 28, 2009 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It is not a good sign that General McChrystal has spoken only once, and by teleconference call, with President Obama during the past 70 days. This would suggest that the commanding general of allied forces in Afghanistan is at significant odds with the White House, and close to resigning his command; or it might suggest that the White House and its national security apparatus are deliberately keeping their principal military advisers at a distance as they ponder their political options.

Either possibility is unwelcome news in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is also highly unusual in the history of relations between senior commanders and their political chiefs. President Lincoln was in constant written and telegraphic communication with his successive senior generals in the Union Army; and decades before the invention of the automobile, took the trouble to consult in person with General McClellan after the Battle of Antietam, and with General Grant at Richmond. For that
matter, on the Confederate side, the regular contact between General Lee and President Davis fills a thick volume edited by historian Douglas Southall Freeman.

Move ahead a century and you will find near-daily written and personal communication President Roosevelt and his chief of staff, General Marshall, as well as his naval chief Admiral King, and a regular two-way correspondence with his chief European (General Eisenhower) and Pacific (General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz) commanders. FDR met with Ike in North Africa--where, in 1943, he offered him command of the Normandy invasion--and with MacArthur and Nimitz in Hawaii in 1944.

President Truman famously traveled to Wake Island to meet with General MacArthur to discuss strategy in Korea, and President Johnson not only monitored events in South Vietnam on a near-constant basis, talking directly with advisers, Cabinet officials and commanders in the field, but met repeatedly with the two successive U.S. commanders (Generals Westmoreland and Abrams) in Washington and in the Pacific, as did President Nixon.

To be sure, the invention of more sophisticated communications technology, as well as advances in transport, have made contact between presidents and their military commanders considerably easier than they were in the Civil War. Which makes General McChrystal's relative isolation from his commander-in-chief all the more astonishing, and troubling.