It was the month that America sacked another commander in Afghanistan. Great torrents spewed forth onto the web ... and, to be perfectly honest, it made me question the value of instant-punditry and fall out of love with the web just that little bit. Daft, I know - the web has revolutionised the way I do my research. Even the Bodleian library now lets you order your books off the stack online - and they normally wait a century or so to see how newfangled innovations bed in. But there's really nothing like Google Reader to make me feel even more stupid after half an hour's reading than I was before.
And so, speaking of books, that's what I've spent most of the month doing - disconnecting a little (not all the way) from the attention-sapping RSS feeds and from short-form writing. It's been fun. In particular, I got caught up in the relationship between social science and counterinsurgency theory way back in the 1950s and 1960s. I've even been reading some French stuff - all about guerre psychologique. Apparently there are some French counterinsurgency theorists other than Galula and Trinquier. Who knew?
I still dipped into the McChrystal debate, of course, as did my friends at KoW. The Faceless Bureaucrat said it best. The byline I wanted to read on the affair, though, was that of General Sir Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff of the British army, and now an advisor to the Conservatives in government. He obliged - but I was left disappointed. Here's Sir Richard:
Disagree with your superiors by all means. Alanbrooke and Churchill frequently banged the table at each other. I did not see eye to eye with the last government in 2006. However, I wrote [Defence Secretary] Des Browne a detailed letter outlining to him my concerns, as a precursor to a lengthy discussion, and all this was well before I began to make the case in public that we needed to resource our operations properly or risk failure.
To a point, perhaps. In fact, disagreement over resources wasn't what really got the attention of Dannatt's bosses. Here's the section from the Daily Mail interview that sparked all the controversy:
Sir Richard adds, strongly, that we should "get ourselves out [of Iraq] sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems". [...] "I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing around the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them."
Sensible stuff, perhaps - but that, of course, was not government policy at the time. This was a controversy about strategy, not merely resources.
Nor is the McCrystal sacking just about distinction between professional and personal expression, which is how Sir Richard puts it. Dannatt may himself have had very polite and dignified relations with his bosses, but that was essentially irrelevant once he went public with his dissent.
Both disputes, then, are about public and private expression. It's not that McChrystal and friends should have used more genteel language to express their disagreement with their civilian overseers, though they should, but that they should have kept altogether schtumm in public. This is about the responsibilities of those who set policy as against those who are charged with implementing and advising on it. Where they disagree with strategy, commanders can argue in private, and then, if that doesn't satisfy them, quit.
So, another day, another commander; the carnival spins on, on a computer near you. Back in the library though, Lucien Pye is developing an sophisticated model of social attitude change in insurgency, based on his questioning of surrendered Malayan Communists. Under him on my pile, Émile Durkheim and Peter Paret are waiting. And once I get through that, perhaps, some Christopher Coker. Bliss. Normal blogging will doubtless resume soon.