06/28/2010 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McClellan, MacArthur, McChrystal

Barack Obama is not my commander-in-chief. No president has been or ever will be, for I'm a lifelong civilian. The Constitution is unambiguous on this: the president is commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces -- not the United States. But many of my noncombatant brethren believe otherwise. They insist on referring to the president as "our commander-in-chief." Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald calls this "the single worst expression in American politics." He may be right. It smacks of imperiousness. In a well-functioning republic, elected officials are held accountable for their actions. But a soldier may not openly question and criticize his commander-in-chief. Which is why presidents invoke the title in controversial and unpopular matters of foreign policy and national security. The intent is to dampen dissent. A citizenry which considers itself subject to military discipline is less likely to speak out and protest, for fear of appearing insubordinate and disloyal.

We saw this with the last administration. George W. Bush painted himself as more a warlord than a public servant. In fact, he broke precedent by donning a flight suit for his stunt landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. This was the first time a sitting president had put on anything remotely looking like a uniform since George Washington led troops against the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. Even former Generals Grant and Eisenhower wore civilian clothes. And they never returned salutes. They knew it was inappropriate. This is no longer the case. Now presidents are expected to salute when boarding and departing vessels and aircraft, or, as Obama did recently, greeting the caskets of dead servicemen. The practice is relatively new; it started in the 80s, under Reagan -- like Bush, someone who understood the reality-nullifying power of a good photo op.

Militarizing the presidency obviously undermines the principle of civilian control, which the McChrystal kerfuffle brought to the forefront. Similarities and differences have been noted in the sacking of two other high-ranking Macs: George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur. To refresh my memory, I consulted Shelby Foote's history of the Civil War and David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman. McClellan and MacArthur were theatrical megalomaniacs who viewed Lincoln and Truman as their social and intellectual inferiors. Lincoln had a thick skin; he tolerated McClellan's rudeness. He cared only about results. But McClellan refused to engage the enemy unless specifically ordered to do so. Lincoln finally fired him after the Battle of Antietam, when McClellan failed to pursue Lee into Virginia. Truman got rid of MacArthur for the opposite reason: he was too eager to fight. After the Chinese entered the Korean War, MacArthur panicked; he recommended the unleashing of Chiang-Kai-shek's army on Formosa against the Communist Chinese, the dropping of atomic bombs on Manchuria, and the strewing of radioactive wastes along the river separating China and the Korean peninsula. When the Pentagon turned him down, he sent a taunting ultimatum to the Chinese, derailing negotiations for a ceasefire. Still, Truman and the Joint Chiefs were reluctant to act. The final straw landed when MacArthur approved of a Republican congressman's incendiary statement that "if we are not in Korea to win, then this administration should be indicted for the murder of American boys."

Lincoln feared that the army would mutiny if he relieved McClellan of command; the troops were quite fond of the little general---probably because he avoided putting them in harm's way. Truman didn't have to worry about a coup, but for a while it looked like he would be impeached. Sixty-nine percent of the American people supported MacArthur. A TV audience of 30 million watched the general's farewell address to Congress. "We heard God speak here today!" a Republican congressman shrieked afterward. Seven million came out for his tickertape parade in New York. But the fever broke a few weeks later, when the Joint Chiefs testified to Congress that they fully supported Truman's decision. I'm no Truman fan. If he had ordered MacArthur to halt at the 38th Parallel, a status quo ante bellum would have been established and the Chinese would not have had to intervene to save Kim-Il-sung's regime. The Korean War would have ended two and a half years earlier. Millions of lives would have been spared. But bringing MacArthur home was one of Truman's finest moments. It reminded the top brass that a constitutionally elected civilian outranked them all.

Of course, Stanley McChrystal was no McClellan or MacArthur. Everyone had heard of those generals. Before this week, how many people could identify McChrystal? What we've learned about him is alarming. Michael Hastings's article in Rolling Stone depicts a reckless and immature man who may have risen too far too fast. In ten years, he went from colonel to four-star general. He claims to sleep only four hours a night, run seven miles every morning, and eat one meal a day. If this were true, I doubt he'd be alive. But let's take his word for it. It would explain his strange behavior. He needed to be recalled not for what he and his advisors said, but for his determination to be superhuman. He's more Massengale than Damon. Let me explain. Once an Eagle, a novel by Anton Myrer, is required reading at West Point. It follows the careers of two army officers, Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale, from World War I to Vietnam. Damon is a mustang, which means he enlisted as a private and later earned his commission. Massengale is a West Pointer with family connections. While both become generals, Massengale always stays one star ahead of Damon. Damon is gronded, Massengale suffers from a superiority complex. He surrounds himself with sycophants who treat him like Achilles reborn. I'm not saying McChrystal is Massengale. There's some Damon in him too; he seemed to genuinely care about his men and responded personally to their concerns. But he forgot that he's human and dispensable. In Hastings's article, McChrystal is quoted as saying that he would rather have his ass kicked by a roomful of people than go to dinner with his French allies. "Unfortunately," he continued, "no one in this room could do it." Last week, he met with a skinny black lawyer who kicked his ass without breaking a sweat.