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The Proper Etiquette in a Military-Civilian Debate

A field commander is not supposed to question the war objectives given by civilian authorities. For example, one is not supposed to say, we need to have a surge in Iraq, rather than Afghanistan. That choice is for the President to make, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, and the rest of the Pentagon.

But a general in the field is allowed to raise questions on the issue of tactics. Once the President has said," I want such-and-such done in country X, and I'm giving you Y troops to do it," a general has every right to say, "I don't think Y troops will do it. I need Z, a larger number." That's his job.

During World War II, the Germans were about to lose back the Crimean peninsula to the Soviet Union. The German general in charge wanted to evacuate, and save the troops, but Hitler wouldn't let him. So the general cleverly raised the question, if the enemy cuts off the land route, can we re-supply by sea? That was the Black Sea, where Germany had no navy, and Romania, its ally, had only transports. 

Hitler replaced, but "re-assigned," the general with full rank and pay and appointed another more to his liking. The second general assured him that Crimea could be held for "quite a long time." It fell a month later, when Soviets cut the land route and the Germans couldn't effect sea re-supply. But everyone involved saved face.

It could be that press leaks or other surrounding circumstances cost General McChrystal his job. In that case, his "tactics" are to be faulted. But his strategy of questioning the President's tactics was well within his rights.