opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

Obama’s generals

Robert Gates’s book gives insight into the president’s political courage

Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright participated in a briefing at the White House in 2010.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images/file
Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright participated in a briefing at the White House in 2010.

No surprise that those who would harm President Obama have hijacked the message of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. According to Gates, Obama did not doubt his own Afghan strategy when he first put it in place; doubt came later. But who wouldn’t want a commander-in-chief who weighs the evidence and decides whether something is working or not as events unfold? Better that than blindly and stubbornly staying the course.

Gates, in his new memoir, “Duty,” makes the charge that Obama came to doubt his generals and felt they were trying to box him in. Some Republicans have made much of this, as if to say it is somehow wrong for a president not to follow the advice of generals. Many war-time presidents have had trouble with their generals. Think of Lincoln, who went through commander after commander until he finally found a winning general in Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln, too, could have been accused of micromanaging the war.

Harry Truman had the political courage to fire Douglas MacArthur, a general far more popular in the public eye then any with whom Obama had to deal. If the German kaiser and the emperor of Austria had listened a little less to the advice of generals 100 years ago, World War I might have been avoided. If the emperor of Japan had listened to his generals after Hiroshima, Japan might have fought on in a hopeless cause and World War II might not have ended when it did.


Generals always want more troops. It’s a general’s job to get as much force to bear as possible. But war, as has been famously said, is too important to leave to the generals. There are political considerations above the pay grade of general officers. In long, protracted wars it is up to the civilian leadership to decide when throwing more resources into a war is worth it, and when it is not.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In Vietnam, after the 1968 Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s general, William Westmoreland, asked for 200,000 more soldiers to throw into the maw. The civilian leadership said no. Journalists who had been English majors remembered that Shakespeare’s Henry V had said to the Earl of Westmoreland: “I pray thee, wish not one man more” before the battle of Agincourt.

There can be no doubt that Obama’s generals tried to box him in, to force his hand, and he was entirely right to resist it. Counterinsurgency didn’t work in Vietnam. It didn’t work in Algeria when the French tried it. It may not be possible for a foreign army to conduct counterinsurgency against an enemy that can blend in with the general population and has a safe place to hide in another country. That was true in Vietnam just as it is in Afghanistan today.

For my money, Gates was a star in Obama’s cabinet. His speeches in his last years were full of wisdom. He urged proper caution about wars of choice. By his own admission he became extremely involved with the safety and welfare of soldiers whom he oversaw. He agonized over letters to the families of the fallen, and he wants to be buried in that corner of Arlington Cemetery beside the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan. By his own admission Gates suffered something close to battle fatigue in his closing months in office.

I don’t agree with his decision to write a kiss-and-tell memoir when the president he served is still in office and when the war he is fighting is still going on. It was graceful of Obama not to say anything critical of Gates when asked about the memoir.


But the idea that it is somehow wrong for a president to reassess a war when he finds out it isn’t going well, or that it’s wrong for a president to resist pressure from generals is simply absurd. Not to question generals would be a dereliction of duty.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.