Churchill, Obama, and the Sacking of Generals
“It is difficult to remove a bad General at the height of a campaign: it is atrocious to remove a good General.” —Churchill
What can we learn by comparing President Obama’s dismissal of General McChrystal to Churchill’s dismissals of Generals Wavell and Auchinleck, two distinguished commanders in World War II? I hope it will not be another reminder of how standards of conduct have deteriorated.
Differences first. Churchill’s generals were removed for not sufficiently opposing Irwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. McChrystal was not underperforming, and his situation bears more resemblance to that of General Douglas MacArthur, the Korean commander relieved in 1951 by President Truman for insubordination.
Obama’s critics are looking at that distant episode and expecting a wave of revulsion against the President, as there was for a time against Truman. But McChrystal is not MacArthur, and Afghanistan is not Korea. The entire country was for victory in Korea; scarcely half wants to win in Afghanistan, and MacArthur was a war hero of epic proportions. Even then, MacArthur’s popularity was short-lived. “They started raising money to buy him a Cadillac,” Truman quipped merrily years later, “and you know what? He never got that car.”
General Archibald Wavell (1883-1950) was relieved of the British Middle East Command on 21 June 1941. In effect he changed places with General Claude Auchinleck, becoming Commander-in-Chief India and, two years later, India’s Viceroy.
General Auchinleck, known as “The Auk” (1884-1981), was relieved of Middle East Command 8 August 1942. Churchill offered him the Iraq and Persia Command, which Auchinleck declined, later reassuming command of the Indian Army.
In relieving Wavell and Auchinleck, Churchill told them that this was a decision of the Cabinet. Obama’s decision appeared to be a personal one, though there is no doubt that his Cabinet would have approved, for whatever McChrystal’s discontent, such statements by military commanders or their surrogates cannot be tolerated under the established doctrine of civilian control of the military. A more interesting contrast may develop through what McChrystal does now.
Churchill wrote that General Wavell “received the decision with poise and dignity….on reading my message he said, ‘The Prime Minister is quite right. There ought to be a new eye and a new hand in this theatre.’ In regard to the new command he placed himself entirely at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government.” (1) Earlier, Churchill had set out an opinion of Wavell that never wavered: “a master of war, sage, painstaking, daring and tireless.” (2)
A year later Auchinleck, his plans against Rommel reaching an advanced stage, was less inclined to accept dismissal. But, Churchill wrote, he “received the stroke with soldierly dignity.” (3) “It was a terrible thing to have to do,” Churchill added later. “He took it like a gentleman. But it was a terrible thing. It is difficult to remove a bad General at the height of a campaign: it is atrocious to remove a good General. We must use Auchinleck again. We cannot afford to lose such a man from the fighting line.” (4)
Wavell remained in the Army until 1943, when he took the civilian post of Viceroy of India. There he served until 1947. Auchinleck declined the Iraq and Persia Command, believing it was bad policy to separate it from the Middle East. He returned to India, and when Wavell was made Viceroy he reassumed command of the Indian Army, retiring in 1947 after forty-three years of military service.
McChrystal and the British generals departed professing esteem for their civilian chiefs, and vice-versa. Wavell and Auchinleck retired years later after illustrious careers, military and civilian. It is as yet uncertain what McChrystal will do now, but that doesn’t prevent people from making guesses.
“I would assume Gen. McChrystal will leave the Army, although his dismissal from command in Afghanistan does not mean he’s been thrown out on the street,” writes John Eipper of Adrian College. “A book and a speaking tour would make more financial sense. Might a political career await him?” (5)
Let’s hope not.
Wavell and Auchinleck, having been sacked, placed themselves “at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government.” Lord Halifax in 1940, finding his ideas of a peace deal with Hitler rejected by Churchill and the War Cabinet, did not offer interviews to air his grievances—nor would such an act of public disloyalty have occurred to him. George Marshall, a distinguished general who later served as U.S. Secretary of State, had many disagreements with his chiefs. After he retired he was offered $1 million for his memoirs; he declined, saying, “I have already been adequately compensated for my services.”
Apparently the President offered no alternative military appointment to General McChrystal, as Churchill—safe in his own skin and disdaining opinion polls—did with Wavell and Auchinleck, believing their continued service vital to the war effort. We must assume it was not Obama’s opinion, as it was Churchill’s, that “We cannot afford to lose such a man from the fighting line.”
So…will Stanley McChrystal now leave the Army, go on a lucrative speaking tour, write a book with a hefty advance, or go into politics? (If the latter, he might want to take a look at what happened to the bandwagon (disavowed) for Douglas MacArthur.
The lessons taught by Churchill, Wavell, Marshall and Auchinleck about loyalty to one’s chief, and to one’s country, remind us of a standard that was once taken for granted, and is now almost extinct.
Perhaps General McChrystal will defy the odds.
(1) Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. III The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell, 1950), 310.
(2) Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974) VI:6346.
(3) Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. IV The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1951), 422
(4) Harold Nicolson Diary, 6 November 1942, in Nigel Nicolson, ed., Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, vol. II 1945-67 London: Collins, 1967), 259.
(5) World Association of International Studies, 24 June 2010.
One thought on “Churchill, Obama, and the Sacking of Generals”
Times have changed.
In the USA the “What is in it for me?” era became apparent to me during Ronald Reagan’s administration although some roots can be traced to Lyndon Johnson. [But not FDR? -RML]
Then and Now –
World War II – Much was at stake. Hitler needed to be defeated.
In June 1941 Britain was waging World War II without much help from the USA and none from Russia. Even in August 1942 Britain bore the burden.
Iraq and Afghanistan – Is either action really aimed at Bin Laden?
Churchill vs. Obama, GWBush or Truman.
Churchill and Truman had real combat military experience.
Bush avoided combat through the Reserves and Obama has no military experience. Indeed what experience has Obama had at all?