What is making news is that the Marines in attendence, along with about two dozen Afghan soldiers present, were ordered to leave the room and stack their weapons outside the building before returning to their seats, prior to Panetta’s arrival. According to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who has been in attendence during many such defense secretaries visiting combat areas in years past and meeting with the troops, our soldiers are never asked to remove their weapons prior to such meetings. It’s been suggested that the order to disarm was made because the Afghan soldiers present, being disarmed themselves, would not feel singled out from their American counterparts. Blitzer recalls such past meetings in various parts of the world’s trouble spots where foreign troops present are always asked to disarm.
Well… it turns out that the original order was made by Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, commander of troops in Helmand Province on Tuesday and for some reason the order never made it down to the individual units. So when the Marines showed up and the General‘s order was relayed by Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall on the scene, the disarming process became a somewhat graphic public display.
When questioned by reporters it seems Sgt. Maj. Hall simply stated that “someone just got a little itchy”. Gen. Gurganus later told reporters the decision had nothing to do with the weekend shooting (the rogue soldier who killed the 16 Afghan civilians), and said it was because the Afghan soldiers in attendance were unarmed and he did not want them treated differently than the Marines. Uh… if you say so, General.
“This is not a big deal,” Gurganus said. But he then added that “you’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” referring to Panetta. When it was pointed out that this had not been the custom, Gurganus, who is new to the post, replied, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Ok.. so let me get this straight, General………….. in order to not allow Afghan soldiers to carry weapons into the room (who one has to think that maybe these Afghans would be in the least the trusted of the trusted Afghans over there to even enter a room with a standing secretary of defense; supposedly the cream of those we have been trying to train to serve their own country) we have to disarm the entire Marine contingent present just so the Afghans feel we are not just discriminating against them somehow and that all soldiers present are one big comradeship-in-arms (or, in this case, without arms)?
Let’s go further. You mean to suggest by your comment, General, that “Panetta being one of the most important people in the room”, is somehow in a threat because of that “importance” by a room full of armed U.S. Marines? Are you suggesting, General, that even if you were trying to preserve some comrade image, that those (presumably most trusted) Afghan soldiers were allowed to enter the room with their weapons, that 50+ armed Marines (as it looked from the video) couldn’t keep one eye on those Afghan soldiers’ (sitting in the back of the room) trigger fingers? I mean, the President himself doesn’t have that much protection in a room. Yeah.. the Secretary of Defense is an important guy, to be sure, but c’mon… he’s not the Commander-in-Chief, he’s not responsible for the nuclear launch codes, and it’s not likely all TV programming would be pre-empted for his funeral if something unkind happened to him… which, by the way, was more likely to occur with a room full of unarmed Marines in a combat area.
Here’s the signal you really sent with your haphazard order, General… Panetta is afraid of his own Marines; you are afraid of your own Marines (but thank God, those 12 Afghan soldiers have warm fuzzies for being part of the “group”). If it’s a tradition that the military retain their weapons during these meetings with their higher military and civilian commanders in order to preserve the trust and pride and duty and honor that goes both ways in a chain-of-command, then what does that make you in all this? Just blowing it all off to reporters by saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”, is just a commander implying, “I’m the boss and I don’t have to anwer to you “.
General, in a world where people of authority make some really crazy gaffes all the time… own up to this one. Your troops will still respect you. I have no doubt that you’d never have gotten where you are in your career today had it not been for your dedication and patriotism. But you slipped up on this one.. and I hope the morale of your subordinates stays the course.
There might be a new sheriff in town, General, but I think your star just shifted a bit.