The recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has got me thinking about other Generals who have fallen foul of their political masters. Its by no means a new story – we only need to think back to the ‘frocks and hats’ arguments during the First World War.
During the Korean War President Harry Truman was forced to sack the Supreme Allied Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was seemingly untouchable, having been a formed head of the US Army, Supreme Commander in the Pacific War and Commander of the occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur publicly criticised Truman’s policies, and wanted to extend the Korean War to mainland China. He also apparently wanted to use nuclear weapons. This was unacceptable to Truman, and he was advised by his cabinet colleagues and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that MacArthur should be relieved. Yet MacArthur remained a national hero, and Truman’s poll ratings nosedived.
During the Second World War Winston Churchill made a habit of sacking Commanders, particularly in the Middle East. Both Wavell and Auchinleck fell foul of Churchill’s lack of patience, even though both were probably doing as well as they could have done in the circumstances. The problems with Britain’s Army were not confined to its Generals, after all, and it would not be until later in the war that Britain’s Army would mature from its weak state of 1939. But this was not enough for Churchill.
Although Montgomery initially pleased Churchill with his victory at Alamein, he received criticism for his perceived slowness in Normandy. A powerful lobby at Supreme Headquarters actively sought for Monty’s sacking, and it was only through the ardent support of General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Monty was not dismissed. Even Churchill could be hostile to him, for example after Montgomery banned Churchill from visiting his HQ in Normandy. Brooke persuaded Montgomery to write and apologise, thus saving his job.
Matters with Montgomery came to a head after Arnhem. There was deep mistrust between Montgomery and his American counterparts. For his part, Montgomery did not help matters with an outrageous press conference he gave shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, belittling the Americans. Eisenhower was very close to asking for his sacking, before Brooke managed to smooth things over. It seems that the large part of Brooke’s job was to act as a buffer between Churchill and his Generals.
In more modern times, General Sir Richard Dannatt was effectively blocked from being promoted to Chief of Defence Staff by Gordon Brown, due to a number of statements critical of the Government. Although Dannatt was right in his comments, it could be argued that he should not have made them. Given his post-retirement support for the Conservative Party, the line he took while still in command of the Army does seem un-constitutional. There is a long held convention that Generals do not get involved in politics, they are civil servants as much as any other Government employee.
While Generals are often held up as national heroes, and to themselves and their men they are the closest thing to god, McChrystal’s sacking is a reminder that there is a bigger picture – just as in any line of work, it doesnt pay to criticise your boss in public!