Ten Years Ago, Obama Went to West Point to Sell His Afghan Surge

Obama
President Obama with his Surge commander, Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, President Obama went to West Point to sell his “surge” in the Afghan War.  Back then, I wrote two articles for Huffington Post on Obama’s decision to escalate that war and his choice of venue to announce his decision.  Those two articles are re-posted below.

The Afghan War was supposed to be settled quickly, in America’s favor, by Obama’s surge.  Yet here we are, a decade later, still mired in Afghanistan, with America’s generals either talking about several more years in Afghanistan, or several more generations.  How can they be so foolish?

Obama and the Need to Surge (Posted on December 1, 2009)

In telling the American people about his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has selected a venue that at first blush seems to make sense. Yet by choosing the United States Military Academy at West Point, Obama is sending at least three disturbing messages. The first message is a tacit admission to the corps of cadets — and to the American people — that we’re facing a long war of at least five, possibly ten, perhaps even fifty, years. After all, why bother to address the class of 2013 unless these cadets can also expect to be deployed to Afghanistan as platoon commanders in 2014?

The second message is that Obama is more than willing to ape the tactics of former President George W. Bush. Often when Bush had a controversial decision to announce, he did so before a sympathetic audience of assembled troops, surrounded by waving flags and military brass. Critics rightly took Bush to task for speaking so often in front of admiring troops in uniform, thereby evading tough questioning from more critical, less deferential, audiences.

The third, somewhat more subtle, message is that Obama sees the situation in Afghanistan primarily in military terms — that, if there’s a solution to Afghanistan, it’s one that must be brokered or imposed by the U.S. military. If he wanted to stress the importance of diplomacy, for example, one might think Obama would have selected the State Department as a venue; if international diplomacy, one might have considered the United Nations. But West Point it is, and thus more escalation and militarization loom.

Here’s what I’d prefer: The President, speaking honestly and directly to the American people, from the Oval Office. No military trappings. No echoes, whether intentional or unintentional, of Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” speech at West Point in 1962.

West Point is all about “duty, honor, country.” Young, idealistic, and dedicated cadets need no convincing by their commander-in-chief. It’s the rightly skeptical American people who truly need convincing.

By going to West Point, Obama is not just further militarizing his presidency — he’s taking the easy way out.

Obama Goes to West Point: One Week Later (Posted on December 10, 2009)

A week ago, I argued that President Obama sent three disturbing messages in choosing West Point as the site to announce his escalatory plans for the Afghan war. A week later, I’d like to make three further points. First, I believe that the President undermined the grave seriousness of his speech by deciding post-speech to press the flesh of cadets while posing for smiling photos. An urgent call to battle was transformed into a political photo-op. “Grip and grin” photos are best left to times of celebration, like class graduation, rather than to times of grim news of the need to commit more troops to a difficult and deadly war.

Second, the President was right to emphasize that West Point cadets “represent what is finest about our country.” His meaning here was clear: they’re the “finest” because they “stand up for our security.” Having myself taught military cadets for six years, these words resonated with me. But I wish the President had elaborated further because, in spelling out why he considers our troops to be our “finest,” Obama could have reminded us of the enormous burdens — and enormous price — of war.

Put bluntly, by ordering another 35,000 or so American troops to Afghanistan, Obama was ordering men and women, including some of the young cadets from West Point’s long grey line sitting in that very auditorium, to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic — marks them as being among our finest.

The ultimate price these cadets are prepared to pay puts an enormous burden on the judgment and wisdom of their Commander-in-chief. For what president wants to send America’s finest to fight and perhaps die for a lost cause or, even worse, an unjust one?

It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability. But as “pure” citizens, we are not duty-bound to snap to attention and to salute smartly.

Obama, after all, is not our Commander-in-chief: he’s our President, our most senior public servant. We owe it to our troops to challenge him if we believe escalation in Afghanistan is not the best course of action to secure America’s safety.

So, my third point is to remind us of our duty as informed citizens to ask the tough questions of our public servants — even, if necessary, to dissent and protest — precisely because our troops are prevented from doing so by their solemn oath of office.

But I worry that we are not informed citizens, and that because of that fact, and because our personal stake in our nation’s wars is so small compared to that of the West Point cadets, we largely don’t seem to care, or care enough.

In a decidedly unscientific poll, I asked three of my classes, a total of 59 students, if they had watched the President’s speech on Afghanistan. Only one student did (and these were students enrolled in History classes).

So, I worry. I worry about more American combat brigades being sent overseas, a momentous decision capped by a photo-op of our President surrounded by beaming cadets in the prime of life. I worry that so many of my students are seemingly so ill-informed, or so uninterested, about the ramifications of this decision.

But I hope, for the sake of our troops as well as for the Afghan people, that our President somehow got it right, and that the cause for which we fight is neither lost nor unjust.

Addendum: When I wrote this article ten years ago, I said this:

It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability.

In writing this ten years ago, I made an assumption the president’s orders would be lawful.

No military member can be forced to follow unlawful orders, which I would define as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and/or consistent with war crimes. So, for example, LT Calley was ordering as well as committing war crimes at My Lai. No troops had to, or should have, followed such orders. But we know from history and from our knowledge of military command systems how difficult it is to disobey orders, even when they are unlawful to the point of enabling war crimes.

Military cadets are educated on these distinctions; they have to take courses on ethics and discuss these complex issues in the classroom. But it’s much easier to deal with these issues in class, tough as they are, than in the heat of battle.

Things get more slippery if you consider a whole war to be immoral and unjust. If you’re in the military and ordered to participate in such a war, what do you do? You may have an option to resign, assuming you have no service commitment. But often the option is obedience or punishment. And those who are willing to risk and/or endure punishment while taking a principled stance are to be respected, or at the very least not dismissed out of hand.

For me, Chelsea Manning is a true hero. She did what other service members should always do: remembering her oath, she acted to uphold it, irrespective of the cost to her.

But there’s a counterargument that should be considered. What individual soldier has perfect knowledge? In acting, perhaps with one-sided information, are you endangering your fellow troops? Are you truly acting selflessly, or selfishly?

Not every would-be whistleblower is acting wisely or thinking coherently.

These are tough calls where people pay a very high price indeed.

Obedience is needed in the military. Even in the face of death. But obedience is wrong in the face of illegality and immorality. Thus we should elect leaders who respect legality and display morality. Sadly, that is often the very opposite of what we do as a people.

11 thoughts on “Ten Years Ago, Obama Went to West Point to Sell His Afghan Surge

  1. I wonder if you hold to this day to your opinion that members of the military have no place questioning the policies of the government that contemplates sending them off to participate in utterly unjustified wars (undeclared by Congress, of course)? Major Danny Sjursen, recently retired History instructor at the Point, would disagree. He wrote recently (see TomDispatch) that he openly wept before the cadets in the room for his final class taught, envisioning the uses to which they may be put in the Endless War “On Terror.” Lt. William Calley embodied the attitude you expressed as he urged his underlings to keep firing their M-16s until not an infant was still breathing at My Lai. This attitude is precisely what will empower the death of our republic, to be replaced by an empire that doesn’t even try to disguise its nature. And once DARPA has perfected its killing robots, there will be even less opportunity for a soldier to exert his or her conscience. Long live the whistleblowers!

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    1. Greg: In writing this ten years ago, I made an assumption the president’s orders would be lawful.

      No military member can be forced to follow unlawful orders, which I would define as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and/or consistent with war crimes. So, for example, LT Calley was ordering as well as committing war crimes at My Lai. No troops had to, or should have, followed such orders. But we know from history and from our knowledge of military command systems how difficult it is to disobey orders, even when they are unlawful to the point of enabling war crimes.

      Cadets are educated on these distinctions; they have to take courses on ethics and discuss these complex issues in the classroom. But it’s much easier to deal with these issues in class, tough as they are, than in the heat of battle.

      Things get more slippery if you consider a whole war to be immoral and unjust. If you’re in the military and ordered to participate in such a war, what do you do? You may have an option to resign, assuming you have no service commitment. But often the option is obedience or punishment. And those who are willing to risk and/or endure punishment while taking a principled stance are to be respected, or at the very least not dismissed out of hand.

      For me, Chelsea Manning is a true hero. She did what other service members should always do: remembering her oath, she acted to uphold it, irrespective of the cost to her.

      But there’s a counterargument that should be considered. What individual soldier has perfect knowledge? In acting, perhaps with one-sided information, are you endangering your fellow troops? Are you truly acting selflessly, or selfishly?

      Not every would-be whistleblower is acting wisely or thinking coherently.

      These are tough calls where people pay a very high price indeed — and you don’t need me to tell you that.

      Obedience is needed in the military. Even in the face of death. But obedience is wrong in the face of illegality and immorality. Thus we should elect leaders who respect legality and display morality. Sadly, that is often the very opposite of what we do as a people.

      I will post this as an addendum to my piece as well. When I read over my “old” piece from 2009 this AM, it occurred to me I should have qualified that statement more carefully when I wrote it, and your comment this PM is giving me a chance to do that.

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      1. Of course, there’s a “slight problem” here: the entire command structure, and especially the Uniform Code of Military Justice (ha! ha!), are tremendously stacked against any dissent in the ranks, let alone refusal to obey orders on moral/ethical grounds. And the civilian courts? No judge in this country could muster the guts during the American War in Vietnam to rule that those actions in Southeast Asia were unconstitutional, war never having been formally declared. (Not even touching on issue of crimes that could have gotten one hanged at Nuremberg 1946.) This mealy-mouthed, evasive, deceptive (ab)use of language started in 1950, when the war to deny the people of Korea their self-determination was passed off as a “police action” in conjunction with the UN. Then it was on to Vietnam (“temporary” funding by Congress, from bill to bill, for ongoing ops) and now The Global War On Terror, under the rubric of which basically anything goes. What a sad, sad state of affairs here in the supposed Land of the Rule of Law.

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  2. Interesting article on President Hope and Change: >>>Barack Obama used to be the Hope and Change guy. He wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. His campaign slogans were: “Yes we can!” and: “Change you can believe in”. He inspired people to dream big and, at his rallies, exhilarated crowds chanted: “Fired up! Ready to go!”

    But that was a long time ago. Obama is older now and wiser. He realises hope can sometimes be too audacious and he appears to have adopted new slogans to reflect that. “No we can’t!” and “Don’t believe in change – it’s too hard to achieve.” Post-presidency, his rallying cry seems to be: “Simmer down, kids: you’re going way too far to the left.”

    Last Friday, the former president addressed the annual meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy Democratic donors, and praised realism over idealism. “Even as we push the envelope … we also have to be rooted in reality,” he said.

    <<< https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/20/thanks-obama-but-these-patronising-lectures-are-getting-old

    President Hope and Change has not mellowed with age, he is the same old Corporate Democrat he always was.

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  3. “West Point is all about “duty, honor, country.” …. Ten years ago, President Obama went to West Point to sell his “surge” in the Afghan War. … Yet here we are, a decade later, still mired in Afghanistan, with America’s generals either talking about several more years in Afghanistan, or several more generations.  How can they be so foolish?”
    . . .
    Well, Army officers don’t make General rank by keeping their sense of “honor.” They make rank by doing whatever their bosses want done. Only the sycophants survive the competition for a star.

    I wrote about the intersection of Gen. McChrystal, Pat Tillman, the Afghan War, and the late journalist Micheal Hastings in my April 2012 Feral Firefighter blog post “Something to Die For” – “The [Untold] Tillman Story” Between-the-Lines of Michael Hasting’s Book “The Operators” – The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.

    From a variety of authors, I edited critical quotes about the Afghan War “Surge” in pp. 162 – 183 of my Dec. 2012 Feral Firefighter blog post “NEVER SHALL I FAIL MY COMRADES” – The Dark Legacy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal & His Memoir “My Share of the Task”: His Betrayal of Pat Tillman, Command of JSOC Torture, and Failed Afghan War “Surge.”

    Yesterday, I saw the movie “The Report” about the Senate CIA torture report. Coverage of CIA torture has overshadowed that conducted by our military. If anyone’s interested, I wrote about Gen. McChrystal & Admiral McRaven’s role in the chapter, “No Blood, No Foul”: McChrystal’s Command of JSOC Torture 2003-2005, found in pp. 54 – 102 of the Feral Firefighter blog post “Never Shall I Fail my Comrades.”

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    1. I continue to recommend “War Machine,” starring Brad Pitt as a very thinly disguised Gen. McChrystal. And an amazing turn by Anthony Michael Hall as one of his underlings.

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      1. The Netflix movie, “War Machine,” was based on Michael Hasting’s 2011 book, “The Operators. In turn, his book was an expansion of his 2009 “Rolling Stone” profile, “The Runaway General,” which got McChrystal fired shortly after its’ publication (eg. bad-mouthing VP Biden, etc).
        .
        The movie is worth watching, but the book is better. My Feral Firefighter blog post mentioned above, “Something to Die For” is an edited annotation of portions of Hasting’s book. For eulogic quotes about Hastings, see the chapter, “Remembering Michael Hastings 1980 — 2013 RIP” (pp. 16 –32), in my 2013 Feral Firefighter blog post “What Burns Faster, Memories or Flames?”

        For example, “We’ve lost one of the great young journalists of our generation. … He was part I.F. Stone, part Hunter S. Thompson, with the bit of hardened war correspondent thrown in there … an epic shit-disturber … the antithesis of the caviar correspondent. He just loathed everything that establishment journalism stood for … They treated him like a virus in the body of their little club.”
        –Jeremy Scahill (from Micheal Caledrone, Huffington Post)

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