The fall of Admiral Fallon

We don't do politics on this site, and so I have nothing to say about Pennsylvania. Here's LTC Bateman. He doesn't do politics either, albeit for different reasons.

LTC Bob Bateman
Washington, DC

I already established the fact that when things get real political I consider it wisest to gently absent myself. But in some areas of discussion I would be negligent were I to remain so indefinitely. The de facto relief of command of Admiral William Fallon from the command of Central Command, and his subsequent retirement, is one of those cases.

I refrained from comment, until now, for two reasons. First, while Admiral Fallon was still a serving officer, it would technically have been a crime were I to say anything very critical of him in an open forum. (I could do so privately, but not in public.) Though he was not in my chain-of-command, he was still an officer of higher rank, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice has some very clear things to say on that point. The second reason was because I wanted a little time to pass until some of the emotions died down. There was nothing I had to do in the immediate wake of the relief which would change things, and at the time it occurred a lot of people became fairly passionate. Passion is sometimes difficult to interact with. So now here is my bottom line.

The de facto relief of command of Admiral Fallon was good for the nation.

This is an unequivocal statement on my part, so I will need to go into some detail about why I feel so strongly on the topic. At the core, of course, is my understanding of military history as well as the history of civil-military relations in this country since -- well, since before we were a country. Please bear with me and hold your opprobrium until the end. After that, as always, one and all are welcome to open up on my argument with both barrels.

As steadfast readers of Altercation are well aware, I am strongly committed to the concept of civilian superiority over the military. I hold this position despite the moderate countervailing conviction that this leads to some significant inefficiencies during war. In war, “inefficiencies” can be translated as “additional deaths.” But it is, I believe, the price that we must pay in order to be a democracy. As much as that hurts, I accept this. And friends, it does hurt. In very real and very concrete human terms, at the personal level, I assure you that I understand the cost. For my own part I am now approaching double digits in the number of friends and former comrades of mine, who have paid the last full measure in the fighting we have been doing since October 2001. The most recent fell three weeks ago in Baghdad. So I know. Trust me on that point. But history seems pretty clear on this issue.

Understanding my position on Fallon's relief/resignation requires a short diversion to another contentious coalition war the United States fought more than 55 years ago, and an investigation into the mind of command. Specifically, that would be the Korean War (1950-53) and the personality of perhaps the most egotistical, borderline sociopathic, and simultaneously brilliant and ignorant military leader this nation ever produced: Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur was the son of a Civil War hero who became a professional Army officer. He came of age and started his studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point just as the Spanish American War began and his father was leading a division in combat in the Philippines. Upon graduation in 1903 he started upon what promised to be a good, if unglamorous, career. In the First World War he was an exemplary officer, leaping from chief of staff of a division to brigade commander, then to division commander. And he was no “chateau general” in this period either; he earned two Purple Hearts and would suffer problems with his breathing (due to gas attacks) for the rest of his life. But then, at some point between 1922 and 1930, he changed. He may have been stiff and proper before that point, but somewhere along the line he picked himself up a whole dufflebag of ego.

In 1930 he was appointed as the Chief of Staff of the Army, and even while occupying that top spot, he was dabbling in partisan politics at the highest levels. According to Eisenhower (who was then a major, and MacArthur's aide) he made no bones about his Republican affiliations and may even have been maneuvering to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination while serving.

Flash forward 20 years.

MacArthur is by now a five-star general, and while Japan technically already had an emperor, the fact was that MacArthur was essentially the real emperor of Japan and most of the Pacific, with his “palace” being his headquarters in the Dai Ichi building in Tokyo. Then Korea explodes, the South Koreans and our own grossly unprepared troops are nearly booted off the peninsula, and things are looking pretty grim.

This was the point at which even I must cede the fact that only such a self-centered, completely egotistical, god-complex-infected megalomaniac as Douglas MacArthur could have conceived of and pulled off what was essentially the most audacious and fantastically successful operational maneuver in all of human history -- the landings at Inchon and the envelopment of the North Korean Army.

In any event, after Inchon the U.N. forces started moving north, and that is when things started going south for MacArthur.

As the U.N. allies moved closer and closer to the Yalu River on the border with newly communist Mainland China, MacArthur started to issue what was essentially his own foreign policy statements. Some of you might note that this is sort of supposed to be the purview of the president and his Department of State. Minor detail, apparently, to MacArthur. He knew better.

At the same time, our still nascent intelligence community was picking up signs that the Chinese communists, who could only be considered “rabidly paranoid” on their best days, were getting quite nervous about the U.N. forces approaching their border. MacArthur disregarded or discarded all of this as well. He knew better.

Then he started giving public interviews in which he discussed the possibility of his bringing a few divisions of Chinese Nationalist forces up from Taiwan ... or dropping a string of nuclear weapons along the Yalu to “seal” the border. Do I need to mention here that none of these ideas were aligned with, or even vetted by, the president? He was moving past the ability of the administration to control.

Called home to the States for a consultation with President Truman back in 1949, before the war broke out, MacArthur actually demurred. He couldn't “afford” the time away from his command post. In late 1950, though, as his troops were moving north, he acceded to meeting the president halfway, sort of, on the island of Guam. MacArthur flew 1,700 miles; Truman flew 7,000. Truman told him, in no uncertain terms, who was the president and who was the general. MacArthur sucked up in person, then went back to Japan and did what he damned well pleased.

The media matters, but savvy operators can reduce it to little more than a mouthpiece. Nobody lives in the national spotlight for more than 20 years without learning what they can, and cannot, say in front of a journalist. MacArthur's final point, therefore, was no mistake. Given what amounted to a gag order in December of 1950, by late March he was once again making statements of a political nature from his Tokyo command post. By April 10, Truman had had enough. A press conference was convened at 1 a.m. in the White House, timed so that MacArthur could not pre-empt the president one more time, and MacArthur's relief from command was announced.

So there we have the foundation. It is a classic case study in the relationship between civilian authority and the worst of the military. Now back to the present.

Admiral William Fallon, by his public statements to a de facto reporter, expressed what had apparently previously been his private opinions which he had given to the civilian authorities over him. That is a key word there, “private.” Some of these opinions, he offered to the reporter, ran contrary to some positions apparently in favor within the Executive. Other news reports suggest that he was also in contrast with the Executive about the course of operations in Iraq. Either way, the effect is the same. In short, in this age of instantaneous global communications and news, a senior "flag officer" was once again establishing his own de facto local foreign policy. That is wrong.

I need not dive into other lesser examples of such breaches which did not quite result in reliefs (Colin Powell obviously comes to mind) but perhaps should have. The bottom line remains: We in the military are subordinate to you, the civilians, and your elected leaders. We must be. Whig or Copperhead, Republican or Democrat or Bull Moose or Libertarian we in uniform must not ever be allowed to establish our own military-centric foreign policy. In private we may argue our heads off, if that is our position, to those elected and appointed civilian authorities, but that is as far as we can go. That, ultimately, was the central sin of Admiral Fallon. Had he confined his critique and commentary to the private ears of the President and his advisers, I would likely (also in private) be his greatest supporter. But when you talk to a reporter and your position is so divergent, you are effectively speaking to the world and setting your own policy for the United States.

Our democratic republic was designed to prevent exactly that situation. In 225 years that original logic has not lost its force.

You can write to LTC Bob at

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Don Hynes
Hometown: Portland OR

Your posting of imprisoned scholars is of tremendous importance. The first quality of an open society that fascism attacks is THOUGHT, free or otherwise. The last eight years in the US has been an assault on reason, as Al Gore wrote, and our defunct leadership under the weeping eyes of the treasured gift from France in NY harbor has allowed every ignorant tin horn east and west to slam the door on any opposing voice. The first sacrifice is always to what “they” know is most important: THINKING. Though there's precious little of this left where it does occur we all need to get off our butts and cheer, and so to you Eric, thanks and kudos!

Name: Charlie K.
Hometown: DC

Look, I'm a proud atheist just like John W. of Sugar Land, TX. And I agree that the Founders were keen on keeping gawd away from politics and political power. The consensus approach seems to have been, “check your ontology at the door, please.”

But I wouldn't push the claims about the deists at the switch in the late 19th Century too far. Jefferson (and other proponents of a secular state) owed more than a lot to Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration famously excluded both papists and atheists from a secular state (the former for bowing down to a foreign prince and the latter for not being trustworthy oath takers). Locke mentions nothing about Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, but it's a fair bet that his tolerance may not have extended that far, either.

In other words, the Founders were “deists” , tis true, which seems the etymological equivalent of “theists” , which is to say “not atheists” . And they seemed more than a little suspicious of anything but Protestants (eh, and maybe Unitarians).

Name: Ted Dahl
Hometown: Berkeley, CA

Bill Scoble wrote in about the problem of having a song get caught in his head for days. I have found the answer to be a “reset song.” It should be a song that you don't mind but isn't necessarily your favorite. It helps to know all of the lyrics. I take the time to sing it (in my head) through all of the lyrics and refrains, and that usually does the trick.

There was a time in '90's where I had to go through my reset song twice in order to banish some Britney Spears confection, but it generally works the first time. My reset song is “Swingin' On A Star” in full Bing Crosby mode.

Let me chime in as a gay man and reader of your blog since the MSNBC days, that I have never found you to be homophobic. “Little Roy,” on the other hand ...

Name: Rick Kane
Hometown: Locust Grove, Virginia

To Altercation:

Listening to Joe Jackson being played on British Forces Radio while stationed on a small U.S. Army installation in Northern Germany in 1982 was one of the many pleasures of that tour. My wife and I danced to “Memphis” and “Steppin' Out” at our wedding in 1983. Joe lives in Berlin now, which is my second favorite city after Chicago. Joe also did a great cover of “Around Midnight” on the Thelonious Monk tribute album.