Thanks to K-Lo I learned of Barack Obama’s level of military knowledge:
“I heard from a Army captain, who was the head of a rifle platoon, supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon. Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24, because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq. And as a consequence, they didn’t have enough ammunition; they didn’t have enough humvees.
They were actually capturing Taliban weapons because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief. Now that’s a consequence of bad judgment, and you know, the question is on the critical issues that we face right now who’s going to show the judgment to lead.”
There are a number of misstatements in Barack Obama’s story that call it into question. More troubling than the simple misunderstanding of the often arcane jargon that permeates all the uniformed services is the fact that there was so much in his statement that indicates that Obama does not have sufficient military knowledge surrounding him. That is deeply troubling for someone so deep into the presidential primary process.
Every candidate has weaknesses. John McCain’s is that he is economically inept. However, in recognition of that limitation he keeps Phil Gramm as a close advisor. Now you might not agree with Gramm’s economic positions, but even his opponents must acknowledge that he is a highly competent economist.
Obviously, Senator Obama’s weakness is foreign affairs and military matters. (View the video of Obama’s remarks here. It’s clear from the ineloquent delivery that is atypical of Obama, that he is not comfortably knowledgeable with the subject matter.) So who is his trusted military advisor? Who is the person on his staff who reviews everything he says on these matter? Were there anyone there with even a few years of even mid-level military experience, this story as it was presented would not have passed the smell test.
The truth behind the story is far less damning–if even damning at all. The captain (he is a captain now, but was a lieutenant when all this occurred back in 2003!) didn’t have half his platoon in one theatre while the rest was deployed somewhere else. Instead his unit, as a result of normal personnel rotations, had lost soldiers who had been transferred elsewhere and hadn’t yet been replaced. The Army’s individual replacement system, which makes such a gap in coverage possible, is in the midst of an overhaul toward a unit replacement system. Ironically, the long-overdue overhaul was in large part forced on the Army by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the objections of many senior officers in the service who were wedded to the older system which had been in place for three generations. (UPDATE: Four years ago I wrote an article for Military Review on this very subject. Unfortunately, the article is full of impenetrable army jargon, but the gist of it is a reform proposal much of which the Army actually implemented.)
The remainder of the captain’s complaint was about equipment shortages, including this:
“We should have had 4 up-armored humvees,” he said. “We were supposed to. But at most we had three operable humvees, and it was usually just two.”
The actual complaint is not that they didn’t deploy with enough humvees as Obama intimated; it’s that they weren’t all operational all the time. Anyone with any military experience in any era is familiar with that problem, and while unfortunate, it is just a fact of military life that military equipment breaks often and requires constant maintenance and resupply. Again, also keep in mind that Obama is relating a story that is so old that when it occurred, he was still a state senator in Illinois. Much has been fixed since then–especially the problems with the availability of up-armored humvees.
Finally, American operations in Afghanistan are a massive logistical undertaking, the chief limitation of which is NOT concurrent operations in other theatres, but simply the “tyranny of distance.” Bagram Air Base is more than 600 miles from the Arabian Sea. Much of what comes into Afghanistan arrives by air. As I mentioned on another topic earlier this week, this airlift operation requires a roundtrip flight twice as long as the one from Frankfurt to Berlin that relieved that city from the Soviet blockade 60 years ago. And this aerial resupply mission has already lasted six times as long as the Berlin Airlift. Furthermore, anything which puts our relationship with Pakistan (Barack, are you listening?) puts that entire Afghanistan mission at risk since there is no other route into the landlocked Central Asian country . . . unless you’d also prefer war with Iran.
What we have here is not the alarming story that Barack Obama presented last night. Nor, however, is it a fraud as has been intimated by so many Republican bloggers already. Instead this whole thing is a misunderstanding, the cause of which is that Barack Obama apparently has insufficient military experience around him to explain the “rest of the story” and to present it to him in such a way that Obama can convey his point without being lost in the details. It is that apparent lack of military knowledge, and not the story itself, that I find alarming.
Phil Carter adds some more context. However, amongst his own relevant personal anecdotes is this:
Sen. Obama’s comments last night are eminently believable. Sen. Obama is also absolutely right to use this anecdote as a critique of the administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. It is incontrovertible that the war in Iraq diverted scarce military resources (manpower, equipment, etc.) from Afghanistan to Iraq.
I’ve known Phil since we were both on Active Duty. While the comments as they were re-related by Jake Tapper are believable, I respectfully submit to Phil that his partisanship is showing if he thinks that how Barack Obama conveyed them is accurate.
Firstly, they are not contemporary; the complaint is nearly five years old. Secondly, why his platoon was shorted soldiers was not related to Iraq, but to an arcane Army personnel system that has been in place since the early 20th century. Phil had to know that because we have both corresponded extensively on the folly of the Army’s individual replacement system. Thirdly, the equipment and ammunition shortages are indicative not of the President’s carelessness, but of trying to resupply an operation at the end of an 8,000 mile supply chain the last 1,000 miles of which is by tactical air and then by ground through the most austere and remote environment on the planet.
In Phil’s defense, however, I would add that Barack Obama would be well served to put the former infantry captain and military lawyer in a senior position on his staff to put some qualified military experience around him. Obama desperately needs it.
MUCH MORE: Memeorandum