U.S. President Barack Obama summoned Gen. Stanley McChrystal to the White House on Wednesday, where the general offered his resignation. ((Evan Vucci/Associated Press))

The conflict between U.S. President Barack Obama and the top American commander in Afghanistan has brought a new focus to discord between military leaders and their political masters, while also renewing interest in a legendary clash dating back almost 60 years.

Obama ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his post Wednesday, after summoning him to the White House over remarks made in Rolling Stone magazine that have been interpreted as undermining Obama's leadership. Though not directly critical of Obama himself, McChrystal described as "painful" the period while he waited for the president to commit to resources in Afghanistan.

Some of McChrystal's associates made sharp, direct jabs about key players in the Obama administration.

The episode is one of the most public conflicts between a president and a military commander since Harry Truman sacked Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the country's commander in the Korean War in April 1951.


U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal made comments in a magazine article that have been seen as sharply critical of the Obama administration. ((Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press))

Many Canadians are not old enough to remember that episode, which reminded Americans that the U.S. president also serves as commander-in-chief, and thus outranks all other military officials.

Truman's decision to strip MacArthur of his command shocked many Americans, although others saw it as inevitable, given that MacArthur — an icon of the Second World War — had personally issued an ultimatum to China, without having obtained permission from his superiors.

Discussion of MacArthur's firing has been revived this week, in light of the Obama-McChrystal controversy. But Truman was far from the only U.S. politician to have engaged with the military leadership.

John F. Kennedy, notably, clashed with his generals both before and after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco in 1961 in Cuba, and again over U.S. policy in Vietnam.

In Canada, conflicts have been far less flamboyant, but have nonetheless sparked political debate. It was an open secret, for instance, that Rick Hillier, the former chief of defence staff, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not see eye to eye.

Hillier kept his powder dry while he was still in uniform. "Disagreements are part of our life," he told CBC News in April 2008, as he announced his plans to retire, and simultaneously downplayed the significance of reports that some powerful Tories had wanted to push him from the job.

But in his subsequent 2009 memoir, A Soldier First, Hillier revealed that he had struggled with the Prime Minister's Office, senior bureaucrats and the federal cabinet in doing his job. "Sometimes our war felt like it was in Ottawa, not Kandahar," Hillier wrote in his book.