In a speech at West Point in 1962, he lectured the Cadets about their role as military officers, cautioning them to stick to their knitting and avoid participating in controversies that were the province of the civilian leaders:
. . . your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable—it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but a corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment; but you are the ones who are trained to fight; yours is the profession of arms—the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be Duty—Honor—Country. Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide man’s minds; but serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the nation’s war guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict; as its gladiator in the arena of battle. For a century and a half, you have defended, guarded, and protected its hallowed traditions of liberty and freedom, of right and justice. Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long; by federal paternalism grown too mighty; by power groups grown too arrogant; by politics grown too corrupt; by crime grown too rampant; by morals grown too low; by taxes grown too high; by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be. These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution. Your guidepost stands out like a tenfold beacon in the night—Duty—Honor—Country.
A decade before, after more than half a century of active duty, the very popular five-star General was fired from his final military post and retired by the President of the United States because MacArthur publicly challenged the President's decision on the strategy for the Korean War. What was he thinking!? History will likely conclude that he took a risk on the chance that his strategy was correct and that it ultimately would be adopted. (The strategy was to create a nuclear hot zone by exploding nuclear bombs across the northern border of Korea to block a Chinese invasion.)
A very important ethic exists in the United States military -- that the military is subject to absolute civilian control by virtue of the President's position of Commander in Chief of the armed forces, a circumstance implicitly recognized by MacArthur's comments in 1962. While the President's role can be abused by inexpert micromanagement, such as Lyndon Johnson's making tactical decisions during the Vietnam War, that is the President's prerogative -- and he will be held accountable by the people, as was President Johnson.
Which brings us to the current indiscretion of General McChrystal. The military academies teach moral lessons using many techniques -- the case method, strategic studies, essays and counsel of iconic leaders, poems, and quotations such as "Where principle is involved, be deaf to expediency" and "Discretion is the better part of valor." General McChrystal seems to have failed to balance the latter two with the notion that he is subordinate to the Commander in Chief. As a junior officer, he would not have dared to publicly challenge his military superiors as he did with his Commander in Chief. It is no different now that he has four stars on his shoulders. What was he thinking!?
While as a citizen I might disagree with the U.S. government's decisions to send our troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, I strongly support the important principle that the elected representatives of the people, within their Constitutional limitations, should control the federal military, who should salute smartly and say, "Yes sir!"
As I write, General McChrystal is on his way to Washington to face his Commander in Chief. If he is worthy of his four stars, he will retire forthwith. And then he can criticize the President's decisions, as I do, but not before.
[Update July 9, 2010] Paul Hollrah, Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Heritage Institute provides an answer to the question, "What was he thinking!?" See The General and the Community Organizer.