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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

By sacking General McChrystal for humiliating the presidential team in a rock magazine, Barack Obama reasserted the American Founding Fathers’ principle: ‘The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy.’ Quite right too: the military must be subservient to (civilian) state control.

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

By sacking General McChrystal for humiliating the presidential team in a rock magazine, Barack Obama reasserted the American Founding Fathers’ principle: ‘The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy.’ Quite right too: the military must be subservient to (civilian) state control.

By sacking General McChrystal for humiliating the presidential team in a rock magazine, Barack Obama reasserted the American Founding Fathers’ principle: ‘The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy.’ Quite right too: the military must be subservient to (civilian) state control.


The Roman republic collapsed in the 1st century bc because this principle was compromised. That the political top dogs also led the armies raised the danger that the nominal ultimate authority, the Senate, could be overridden by popular assemblies. As Romans expanded their empire, overworked troops looked to their generals for a fair reward for service, especially at discharge. Generals, obviously, were keen to oblige. The result was that soldiers owed their loyalty to them and not the state. Power-seeking dynasts like Sulla (who started it all in 88 bc), Pompey and Caesar took full advantage and effectively held the republic to ransom in their own interests. The whole system collapsed.

Ancient Greek democrats, by contrast, kept an iron grip on their commanders. Nicias was one of the elected generals at the time of the proposed Athenian expedition to Sicily (415 bc). In Assembly he expressed his distaste for whole idea. But his opponent, the youthful Alcibiades, whipped up enthusiasm with a gung-ho rant. Nicias claimed the cost in manpower and resources would be intolerable, but only encouraged a confident Assembly even more. Halfway through the campaign, Nicias wrote home asking to be relieved of command because of kidney disease. The Assembly refused. It all ended in total catastrophe. The point is that Nicias knew, if he disobeyed or failed the people in any way, he was dead meat.

In the ancient world, only results counted. So it was usually defeat that ended generals’ careers. But even though he supported McChrystal’s strategy, Obama still had to sack him after his idiotic and hubristic public attack. Imagine what the Taleban would have made of it, had he not! Besides, after his abysmal handling of the BP affair, it was a chance to show he was ‘tough’. But what would he have done had he not been lucky enough to have a general as flexible and competent as Petraeus at hand to save his bacon?


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