President Obama and General McChrystal

Disclaimer: It is possible for a psychologist to analyze someone only by working with him personally as a patient. For this reason, my comments about public or historical figures are intended only as illustrations of general psychological principles that apply to the human condition and an expression of how one psychologist views the world.

In my last Blog, I discussed the concept of the “agitator in the factory being a man in rebellion against his father.” This same concept could be applied to the interaction between President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal, a sequence of events that was exhaustively reported in the news.

Military authority could be described, psychologically as being based upon a powerful and rigid system of paternalistic control by higher ranked individuals over lower ranked individuals. This is the usual structure that is found in military organizations throughout history.

The relationship between the President of the United States, and Generals of the U.S. Military is clearly structured in military terms of authority, command and control.

I was drafted for military service when I was a graduate student in psychology at UCLA. I clearly remember that we were asked, in basic training, to name our Commander-in-Chief. None of us knew the answer, but I assumed that it was some high ranking army general on base at Fort Ord, or some member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington D.C. I was astonished to discover that the President of the United States was in fact the Commander-in-Chief of all of the U.S. Armed Forces. This explicit specification reflects the determination of the Founding Fathers to establish firm civilian control over the military.

General Stanley McChrystal was called on the carpet by President Obama, and ultimately ousted from his command because of his failure to respect this quintessential American principle of complete military respect for civilian authority.

Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is titled: “Contempt Toward Officials” It states: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

Certainly we know that General McChrystal, like any officer of the U.S. military is aware of this rule, which is a specific application of the general rule that requires all enlisted men or officers of lower rank to respect the authority of higher ranking officers.

So why would he make such public verbal blunders as “Bite me” for Biden, etc? I know nothing at all about General McChrystal’s personal background and would not presume to “analyze” his personality based upon news reports. But a psychologist would say that such a foolish lapse of judgment in such a bright, accomplished, successful and knowledgeable military man is unexpected, to say the least.

These events could serve as an example of the kind of mistakes we all make, though they are played out on a smaller stage for most of us. In general, we find that uncharacteristic lapses in judgment are not the result of conscious planning, that they appear to be irrationally determined, and that they are based upon unconscious motivation. (Sigmund Freud discussed this issue long ago in his “Psychopathology of Everyday Life.”)

Without having any specific knowledge about a public figure’s personal history, a psychologist does know that every human being, including General McChrystal and this Blogger, shares one common experience: we have all started as helpless, ignorant children in relationships with parental figures who were, by comparison, wise, knowledgeable and powerful. And we all have struggled in growing up to achieve a level of knowledge and power equal to or greater than our parents.

Mark Twain captured the essence of this struggle against parental authority in the following observation. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Many a foolish word has been spoken, and many a foolish action has been taken, that has been motivated by powerful unconscious thoughts and feelings related to this common human experience of struggling against our parents from the position of ignorance and helplessness of childhood.

In this case, the shockingly unexpected statements that have put General McChrystal’s military career in jeopardy may be related to the historical parent-child dynamic experienced by all of us as described above. Could his unfortunate indiscretion be related to an unconscious need to rebel against the father figure represented by civilian authorities above him? There is no way of knowing whether this dynamic, or some other motive, sources of stress, or other unknown psychological factors account for his mistake.

But we do know that he has put himself in the position of being referred to as the “Runaway General” precisely because he failed to restrain himself in his public utterances as is required by his position under civilian authority.

My Blog on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” will be forthcoming.