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McClellan, McChrystal (and MacArthur)

If you ever need proof that history can teach valuable lessons, look no further than the recent incident that involved President Barack Obama relieving General Stanley McChrystal of his command in Afghanistan. Abe Lincoln had a similar run-in with General George McClellan, and while the circumstances are not quite the same (no Bud Light with Lime on tap, for example), the result was. The general went home.

Greatly admired by his troops, McClellan may have let his “Young Napoleon” reputation go to his head. “Little Mac” insulted his commander in chief, calling him the “original gorrilla,” among other things, refused to see the president on at least one occasion and—perhaps worst of all—failed to win a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular on the home front.

Old Abe didn’t pull the trigger quickly, in part because of the general’s popularity. But the president’s forbearance had its limits; McClellan was out of the Army of the Potomac for good in November 1862.

America’s founders established a civilian commander because they did not want to create a military state, they wanted a republic. Civilian leadership of the U.S. armed forces is not infallible and can be frustrating—but the rights it guarantees outweigh its problems.

As for Douglas MacArthur, well he’s another general who was sent packing by his president. Beyond that, maybe this editorial’s title should suffice as a warning to anyone whose name starts with “Mac” to avoid rising above the rank of corporal.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.