By Jim Denison
President Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” in his first meeting with military leaders after taking office, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The general was even less impressed with Vice President Biden’s opposition to his Afghanistan strategy: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?” he laughed.
By now you’re familiar with the Rolling Stone interview in which the general and several of his staff are quoted as criticizing the president and other civilian leaders of the war effort in Afghanistan. Response was swift.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the man who recommended the general for his command, was adamant that McChrystal “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment” in his comments. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), three of the general’s biggest supporters, called his statements “inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander-in-chief and the military.”
The day President Obama met with the general, The Wall Street Journal carried an editorial that called Gen. McChrystal “a hero — a selfless, fearless and inspiring soldier,” “something of a military genius,” and “one of the fathers of victory in Iraq.” But then it stated, “President Obama should, nonetheless, fire him,” calling his published remarks “an appalling violation of norms of civilian-military relations.” The general himself responded, “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.” After meeting with the president, he was replaced by Gen. David Petraeus.
I have no informed opinion regarding what the president should have done, nor do I think you should care what I think on the subject. My interest in the issue stems from an unnamed NATO spokesperson who called the now-infamous Rolling Stone piece “rather unfortunate, but it’s just an article.”
I beg to differ, for reasons that have nothing to do with the politics of this controversy. Words transform the world. They endure long after actions and events are forgotten.
History is not just written in words — it is the story of words.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — these words birthed a nation.
“Religion is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness” — these words once enslaved a third of the world to atheistic communism.
“I have a dream” — these words moved a nation to enact the most significant civil-rights legislation in her history.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” — these words define and motivate the faith of the Jewish people to this day.
“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet” — these words birthed a religion embraced by a fourth of the world’s population.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” — these words sparked a movement embraced by a third of the world today.
“The righteous will live by faith” — these words from Romans 1:17 led Martin Luther to transforming faith and birthed the Reformation.
Who would have predicted that one of the most decorated war heroes in our history would lose his command not because of an outcome in battle, but over a magazine interview? But James would not have been surprised. Long ago he warned us that “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
We would do well to seek the prophet’s experience: “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught” (Is. 50:4). Jesus predicted, “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:3).
We cannot unring a bell. The words you speak today will echo in eternity. Choose them wisely.