Respecting tough choices

In a column in last Thursday’s News (“McChrystal, Negroponte must answer to students,” Jan. 15), Andrew Bard Epstein GRD’ 19 criticized General Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador John Negroponte. He questioned the decisions they made in their careers and their role in teaching at Yale. He called on students in their seminars to take these men to task for their alleged misdeeds. In writing this column, Epstein demonstrated a remarkable naïveté, doing a disservice to his fellow students and disrespecting these two long-standing public servants.

Although Epstein excoriated the two men for some of the more notorious decisions they may have made over their careers, he did not include in his column any discussion of the contexts in which they were made. Even if we are to assume all the allegations are correct, are these the kind of actions for which one must be called to account? General McChrystal led a major U.S. operation that oversaw the capture or killing of hundreds of terrorists and insurgents. There is collateral damage in war. It is awful, but is more tragic than unjust and has been a reality of every hostile engagement. The specific incidents Epstein described — being doused with water and made to stand in front of an air conditioner, being kicked until vomiting, punched until passed out — are potentially troubling if true. But, in the same century as the 9/11 attacks or the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Syria, these allegations hardly constitute “the greatest crime of the 21st century.”

I’m not saying all of either man’s actions were perfect, but what I am saying is that we live in an imperfect world where real leaders need to make tough choices. From the comfort of Yale, it’s easy to take the high road and criticize anything and everything that falls in a gray area. But imagine this scenario: You are tasked with protecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women in your nation’s uniform and millions of civilians in a given territory. You have reports that there is a suspected suicide bombing soon that will likely take many lives, both soldiers and civilians. You have an uncooperative captured co-conspirator who has critical information about the attack. What do you do? Would you permit someone under your command to yell, threaten, beat up or pour cold water on the prisoner in order to save the lives you are tasked to protect, or do you do nothing and let innocents die at the hands of terrorists?

These questions, and much more difficult ones, are what men like McChrystal and Negroponte deal with in service to this country. Speaking with those who have made those tough calls can help Yalies, many of whom will assume similar positions in the future, decide what to do when we are faced with our own stomach-churning options.

Epstein is wrong to criticize the place of these men in teaching in the Ivy League. As a history major, I am ashamed that someone getting a doctorate from my department can make such a simplistic and naïve argument against the virtues of learning from those “men in the arena,” whose faces were, as Teddy Roosevelt would have described, “marred by dust and sweat and blood.” Letting a bias cloud your learning and research by dismissing a source out of hand is exactly what a historian should not do.

Epstein’s conclusion is right when he says we should question these men of action and achievement who made difficult decisions on massive scales, but we should do so respectfully, to learn from them, not to debase their actions or their records. If your class is discussing the ethics of American intervention in Central America, it is reasonable to ask Negroponte about his specific experiences in the region. But if you’re discussing Thucydides in Grand Strategy, it is unproductive to interrupt discussion and take him to task for something that is completely outside the parameters of the syllabus. And if you do find the chance to ask them a pointed question or two, do so with humility and the recognition that these decisions were made in an imperfect world by men with real-world experience who didn’t have the luxury of hindsight.

Sam Sussman

Jan. 19

The writer is a junior in Davenport College.