The issue of the magazine that contains the article has not even hit the newsstand yet, but the shockwaves are reverberating from Washington to the Afghan capital of Kabul. Relieving a senior military commander of duty is not an everyday occurrence, even within the rigidity of military culture, but the main title of freelance writer Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile, “The Runaway General,” had an air of foreboding. In it Hastings categorized his assessment of the environment in which U.S. Forces Afghanistan Commanding Officer (CO) Stanley A. McChrystal and his staff worked as almost “frat boyish.”

It was an arena where disparaging remarks about outsiders beyond their circle were tolerated or even encouraged, especially the superiors for whom they toiled–dubbed by Hastings as “the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”

After word of his comments in the Rolling Stone article leaked out, the general was, in due course, summoned to the Oval Office and fired, as the global press predicted. Obama’s action is not without precedence. The American Armed Forces are instilled with the concept of civilian authority over the military, a bedrock that perhaps was most notably tested, when legendary General Douglas MacArthur was relieved during the Korean War by President Harry Truman. In the aftermath of this latest replacement, political observers are evaluating the decision and pondering the most important question: how it affects the future conduct of the war.

Dismissing the racial component
Since his election, Barack Obama’s administration has been affected by the shadow of him being the first chief executive of color to occupy the White House. In essence, any characterization of his decisions is scrutinized in terms of whether racial motivation is behind the criticism (or praise).

Before anyone plays the race card, it bears remembering that McChrystal never actually badmouthed the president. The general’s staff’s unflattering and ill-advised remarks were specifically directed at Vice President Joe Biden (“Did you say: Bite Me?”), diplomat Richard Holbrooke (“a wounded animal”), National Security Advisor James L. Jones (“a clown”), and United States Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry (“covers his flank for the history books”). Jones and Eikenberry are retired generals themselves.

McChrystal is an army brat. His father was a career officer who attained the rank of two-star general, and in spite (or maybe because) of this background, the son has always displayed a willingness to thumb his nose at the system.

Young Stanley demonstrated cockiness early on from the pitcher’s mound during sandlot baseball by predicting strikeouts in advance. He continued to swagger throughout his four years at West Point by engaging in such oppositional behaviors as hard drinking and racking up demerits for occasional acts of insubordination. The military academy’s standard response to authority problems is additional discipline, and Cadet McChrystal received his in the form of additional hours of forced marches.

Another possibly telling point about McChrystal’s character may be the fact that he spent much of his career within the ranks of specialized areas like the Army Rangers and Special Ops. Such individuals spend an inordinate amount of their time out on field maneuvers perfecting their soldiering skills, specifically their ability to “find, fix, and finish” the enemy, and they tend to share an outsider’s view of their civilian counterparts and occasionally their colleagues in other segments of the military. This involvement in clandestine operations often comes at the cost of cultivating the bureaucratic niceties and political gamesmanship that are de rigueur for career development of officers.

Triumph and ordeal
During his stint in the Afghan-Iraqi theater, McChrystal’s reputation was sullied by two notorious incidents that occurred under his command. He was implicated in the cover-up of the 2004 death of former NFL star Pat Tillman in a friendly fire incident, and was tainted in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, when one of his units was accused of overzealous interrogation techniques in a 2006 Human Rights Watch report (“No Blood, No Foul”) detailing detainee abuse in Iraqi prison camps.

To his credit, McChrystal’s methods have been recognized for the sharp decline in violent attacks and subsequent reduction of civilian casualties during his tenure as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) between 2003 and 2006. This, in turn, encouraged a shift of Sunni alliance to NATO forces in the Afghan theater. McChrystal’s task force was so effective that they were able to pinpoint the elimination of insurgent leaders while minimizing the killing of noncombatants, including possibly the highlight of the Iraqi campaign–the death of Al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

McChrystal replaced his predecessor, General David D. McKiernan in May of 2009, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates determined that a new strategic direction was needed. Because McChrystal has had a measure of success in waging an increasingly unpopular war, his ouster has raised understandable concerns over the future direction of American intervention in this hot-button area. His own replacement, David Petraeus is a familiar face in the Middle East with tenure as CO of the 101st Airborne Division, Multi-National Security Transition Command, and Central Command, and may have been selected to alleviate fears about this “reshuffling” of the leadership deck.