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Elegy to General McChrystal

Elegy to General McChrystal: Reining in Kurtz

Martha K. Huggins, PhD*

American media have likened General McChrystals Afghan War boys night out barroom critiques of US Afghan policy, to Douglas McArthurs defiance of President Trumans Korea/China policy. General MacArthur is not the model for McChrystals transgressions; it is Kurtz, the gone-rogue Joseph Conrad figure, who metamorphosed in Apocalypse Now as Marlon Brandos Colonel Kurtz, a US Army Special Operations Officer who goes mad acting outside military bureaucracy. In Apocalypse Now, Special OPS Captain Willard is dispatched to assassinate Kurtz.

In a twist of this theme, President Obama selected a Kurtz figure, who had been part of an elite assassination team to direct the Afghan war. McChrystal has been let go for national security reasons: His conduct – often in the darkest shadows of military and civilian control – is said to undermine civilian control of the military.

Could a Black Ops military man, who has commanded a US-government death squad (Task-force 6-26) – assigned to assassinate high level al-Qaida operatives (accomplishing this for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) – be expected to operate within the very civil and military bureaucracies that spawned his top-secret off-the-shelf operations? Can a presidential administration claiming a commitment to greater governmental transparency – including ending back-room torture – really be surprised when a military man who headed an interrogation cell dubbed by Newsweek, the most secretive force in the US Military, goes it alone? Such organizations and their legitimated actions–carried out by authorized civilian and military operatives–undermines democratic governance.

McChrystals aides drink-loosened talk against US Executive-level civil and military functionaries is to be expected: Kurtz, allowed to be a rogue operator, continued to go it alone! This should have been clear to the Commander-in-Chief when he appointed General McChrystal to command US/NATO military operations in Afghanistan. President Obama surely recognizes that a Kurtz cannot be reined in, a fact that has served several presidential administrations as long as their Kurtz operatives remained in the shadows. McChrystal failed to serve when, as boys-being-boys, they kicked down drinks with a reporter, turning a French bar into war-torn Saigons Rex Hotel follies.

*Charles and Leo Favrot Professor of Human Relations, Tulane University, New Orleans