Obama’s Wars: How The Commander in Chief Handled His First Term
As human cost of war becomes more evident, young veterans give commander-in-chief high marks for withdrawal
NEW YORK CITY -- Within days of President Barack Obama’s election to the nation’s highest office four years ago, then 23-year-old Deron Moore was leaving his post at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan, to return to civilian life in Tampa, Fla., where he attended high school.
Moore, a native of the Bronx in New York City, and admittedly apolitical, went from employment at a Chuck E. Cheese in early 2005 to a job servicing engines on naval fleet ships as a member of the world’s greatest military power. But in 2008 he was back in Tampa slinging pepperoni pizzas for toddlers.
“I ain’t gonna front -- after I got out of the military, I’m working back at my old high school job at Chuck E. Cheese. I was embarrassed,” said Moore, now 27 and working at a retail establishment in the Bronx. “People were looking at me like, ‘You seriously served four years and you’re back here?’ ”
Despite finding aspects of the return to civilian life demoralizing, Moore and many of his comrades in arms don’t begrudge the nation’s first African American president credit for how his administration transformed the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Having inherited the unprecedentedly lethal wars from predecessor George W. Bush in 2009, Obama shifted the military's focus from high-casualty ground missions against al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents to targeted drone strikes and security force training operations. He oversaw the 2011 capture and kill of Osama bin Laden, the man believed responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the nation. Significant expansion of veterans’ benefits and initiatives to get jobs for inactive troops -- highlighted in impressive public relations campaigns involving first lady Michelle Obama -- became the pathway for many civilians and businesses to support the on-going war effort during Obama's first term. And, as promised during his first campaign for election, the president withdrew all combat troops from Iraq in 2012, and is expected to do the same in Afghanistan by 2014 should he be reelected to the White House next week. But some observers have Obama going from being the poster child for anti-war Democrats as a U.S. senator – having voted against authorizing the Iraq War in 2002 -- to a centrist who compromised on principles at the foundation of his billing as the “change” president.
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Thus, the war in Afghanistan, which Obama did say during his first campaign that he would expand, is almost as unpopular with the American public as the Vietnam War was in the 1960s. Lack of cooperation by Congress has kept Obama from fulfilling a campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, where al-Qaeda and Taliban war prisoners are held. And Obama’s accelerated use of drone strikes gets mixed reviews among service members and the public.
The use of drones has especially drawn backlash as questions have arisen over the authorization of strikes on American citizens found to have aligned themselves with U.S. enemies overseas. For example, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was the 16-year-old American son of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda operative killed by a drone one year ago. The son was killed in a separate strike two weeks after his father's death. When cornered about the administration's use of the drone strikes, Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs said the teen “should have [had] a far more responsible father,” the Huffington Post reported.
According to a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, “in 17 of 20 countries, more than half [of people] disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”
However, those supportive of the strikes have argued that it means fewer U.S. troops in harm’s way. Former army infantryman Leo Dunson, 27, said he is supportive of anything that achieves fewer U.S. casualties.
“With the use of drones … more troops don’t have to die,” said Dunson, a California native who served two back-to-back tours in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. “At the end of the day we don’t want to see our brothers and sisters dying. I mean, I can’t even count how many memorial services I went to in Iraq.”
Troops, whether reserve or active, admit that they did begin to question Obama's mission when memorial services for fallen soldiers became a weekly activity. Many buckled under the task and extended tours of duty, with the suicide rate for war veterans at an all-time high. Veterans’ benefits have improved, when compared to the Bush years, but aren’t nearly as helpful to many as advertised.
“[Obama] is captive to conventional military thinking,” said war-documentary-filmmaker and journalist Brian Palmer in a phone interview. “Obama is, in a way, a conventional politician [whose war strategy is impacted by] his general centrism, his desire to reach compromise, and awareness of his place in history and potential for a second term.”
Palmer spent time embedded with infantry soldiers in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, and produced the documentary “Full Disclosure,” which takes a look at the impact of war on young troops deployed in the Middle East.
And when it comes to troop morale and opinions about the war effort, Palmer says it’s unwise to generalize about the men and women tasked with doing the job.
“As we crept into the late 2000s, [troops I had grown close to] ... had just detached themselves from the politics,” Palmer said.
That’s exactly how Dunson described the morale of his comrades during their tours in Iraq.
“The active duty infantryman that’s sitting on the ground in Afghanistan right now…he’s saying, ‘I want to come home,’ ” Dunson said in a phone interview from Las Vegas. “When I was there in Iraq, I didn’t care what [politicians were talking about.] I wanted to go home. I’m getting shot at every day, I’m dang near about to die, I don’t know if I’m going to see my family ever again or my kid ever again. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the United States ever again.”
Dunson said Obama deserves credit for saving scores of men and women from the seemingly perpetual war machine.
“Obama should just be proud that he got us out of the war phase of it, where we were just going out every night trying to kill people -- because he didn’t start the wars,” Dunson added.
To date, 4,422 U.S. military service members have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and more than 2,130 have died in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), according to Department of Defense figures. More troops have died during the Obama presidency than during the Bush administration's eight years. The number of troops wounded-in-action neared 50,000 last month. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the wars are on track to cost taxpayers as much as $4 trillion -- should they end as Obama has promised.
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Foreign affairs experts and intelligence officials offer mixed reviews about Obama’s handling of the wars. Killing bin Laden and his unflinching use of drone attacks on other targets in the region, all while drawing down surge troops from the deadliest theaters, are seen as examples of Obama’s superb “strategic judgment,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institute, in an assessment of U.S. war strategy for Politico. But despite the success of the bin Laden raid in Pakistan, two years into Obama's presidency, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency criticized the administration’s war assessment, claiming that Obama ignored warnings of deteriorating security and vulnerability to Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan in order to benefit politically from a promised drawdown of troops. Republicans, including GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have accused Obama of politicizing the war in the lead up to his reelection bid.
Alvin Johnson, who was an 18-year-old weapons specialist on the Yokosuka naval base when Congress declared war on Iraq in 2002, says he was one who questioned the wisdom of Obama’s deadline announcement.
“I think that was definitely a bad decision,” said Johnson, now 28 and living in New York City's Brooklyn borough. “When we finally got Osama bin Laden, [President Obama] held a press conference. We didn’t announce [the raid] a week ahead."
Dunson added that he and others serving in Iraq didn’t see how the U.S. could claim victory regardless of any withdrawal announcements.
“I’ve seen that the progress that we made didn’t mean anything, as long as we’re not there to enforce it,” Dunson said. “Now that we’re not there to hold our boot on their neck…it’s back to chaos and war.”
While reports of deadly Islamist violence have dominated many of the post-Iraqi occupation news headlines and in the security force training operations in Afghanistan, the Obama administration, in announcing its 2012 transition agreements with the Afghan government, communicated a view that it would not be held responsible for stability after it hands over control to local forces.
And as more U.S. forces are withdrawn, one of the biggest tasks ahead for the president and the country is ensuring that those returning from war have what they need to adjust and thrive at home.
The president and Mrs. Obama have made supporting inactive troops and their families a priority. Through its initiative Joining Forces, the Obama administration has incentivized private sector hiring of veterans and, through Congress, expanded a number of benefits for veterans returning home, including the post-9/11 G.I. bill that helps veterans pay for school, housing and the costs of recovery and living with life-altering physical and mental injuries.
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Johnson attended culinary school on the G.I. bill in 2008 and currently works as a chef in a Manhattan hotel restaurant. Dunson is attending school in Nevada, while also pursuing a rap career under the stage name “Sgt. Dunson.”
Johnson and Moore’s 28-year-old naval base colleague, Jevad Bell of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is a reservist currently using the G.I. bill to attend college. Last year he was deployed on a security detail in the United Arab Emirates. Bell wishes there were more opportunities for service members to kick-start their educations while on active duty. That way, he says, veterans won’t be starting completely from scratch when they return home.
Moore plans to use his G.I. bill for school soon, but isn’t sure yet how he’ll build on his experience as a naval ship machinist. He feels, however, that too little emphasis has been put on career development for people like him who went into the service hoping the experience would open doors to new opportunities.
“I’m not placing all the blame on the government,” Moore said. “There were certain things that I could have done to set myself up better. But you can only do so much by yourself. You also need that helping hand.”
The Obama administration has made frequent announcements about companies willing to help with that transition. To date, American businesses like Microsoft, Comcast, and Sears have hired more than 50,000 veterans and their spouses, and pledged to hire at least 160,000 in the coming years, according to a White House progress report on the Joining Forces initiative.
Palmer says the servicemen he kept in touch with from his documentary have mixed reviews about the support they’ve received after returning home.
“I don’t know of anyone who has had a smooth adjustment,” Palmer said. “I’ve heard people say good things about particular hospitals and doctors. There has been a push to limit costs, limit exposures, [and] visibility [of the cost of the wars]. Tragically, that is applied to people who have fought, killed and been wounded for this country.”