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December 1, 2009

The Surge: Now You Know

Obama-Afghanistan-West-Pt.jpg Getty-Obama-West-Pt-Surge2.jpg

From watching the audience pans during the telecast and then looking at stills, the problem with Obama’s Afghan escalation speech was evident in the room. Between the distractibility of the cadets, the flat expressions and the cocked heads, Obama’s description and rationale for the surge didn’t engage the audience — being those with the most on the line.

It’s either that … or what we’re seeing from these kids is anxiety and the look of fear.

Anyway, I thought that rather than retreating behind a military audience, which is where Bush ended up living for most of the last two years of his second term, “being the change” — if Obama really thought his rationale would hold up — would have dictated taking this speech to Peoria — or better, back to Elkhart.

(8:45 pm – slightly revised)

(photos: Chris Hondros/Getty Images. Caption: Cadets watch U.S. President Barack Obama speak in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point December 1, 2009 in West Point, New York. President Obama delivered a crucial speech at the renowned military academy, during which he outlined his plan to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, before transitioning forces out of the country beginning in 2011.)

  • Rachael

    The NY Time made what I believe is an extraordinary editorial decision in including this image in its coverage of the speech:
    The white, unsmiling cadet actually has his back to the commander in chief. It could have been a very brief moment (he may have just shaken Obama’s hand himself), but the effect of it is to imply disengagement and lack of respect by the military for Obama.

  • Rachael

    Sadly, I believe the pictures of the bored cadets also underscores the low intelligence of these “elite” future military officers. Not only are they seemingly unable to engage in the higher level thinking in Obama’s speech, but they are already programmed to take orders rather than consider larger issues regarding purpose, national identity, allocation of resources, etc. The military has increasingly had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill its ranks.

  • DennisQ

    The “higher level thinking” you find in Obama’s speech sounds to me like the usual neocon war talk. If I were sitting in that audience, I would have the same muted expression of dismay that many of the cadets have. They’ve heard all that stuff before – we were attacked on 9/11, yada yada . . . and they might have been expecting something brilliant and new from President Obama.
    Denying Al Qaeda a safe haven does not seem a plausible reason for continuing a failed war. I don’t know what safe haven means in the context of an enemy that’s not concentrated anywhere. Al Qaeda’s not an army – they’re a group of individuals who believe in jihad – an idea. There were no Afghans among the 9/11 attackers. Do we know that any of them had ever been in Afghanistan?
    These young West Pointers know they’ll serve three combat tours before their military commitment is up. No wonder they look glum.

  • John Powers

    I don’t agree about the cadets low intelligence, or “bottom of the barrel” for one moment. Atrios (Duncan Black) Twittered something to the effect that it was the first time he flet like Obama didn’t even believe his speech. Everyone knew what was going to be in the speech, and it’s hard for anyone to feel good about it.

  • Rachael

    I didn’t mean “bottom of the barrel” disparagingly, though I could have chosen better words. The military has lowered its standards and the number and quality of applicants obviously decreases during an extended time of war.

  • Rachael

    The West Point crowd is not a peace loving-war-as-the-last-alternative bunch. They are men and women of war looking for marching orders. Nothing more. Any justification will do. Just keep it very very simple.

  • nordmend

    those are brainwashed teenagers we’re looking at. poverty and propaganda are what drives recruitement, and there but for the grace of god go you or i.
    check out this article “the marines’ factory of war”,1518,664557,00.html and then look at the picture again.

  • BerkeleyMom

    These cadets are all looking at something that puzzles them. Looks to me like Obama was getting upstaged by somebody to his right. Who was sitting over there?

  • Breanna

    Their uniforms instantly reminded me of an Image from Star Trek. Everyone at the Military Academy is dressed like the young kids that join the Federation to fly on the Enterprise (Am definitely not a star-trek junkie, but saw the 2009 movie). The United States stands as the world’s policeman just like the federation does in space. Perhaps the terrorists are Romulans and Bin Laden is Nero…

  • Aurora

    So young, so so young.
    Wish some news site would list the ‘applause lines’; I heard maybe 6, all in the last 15 mins of the speech. Did not get a sense of hostility between Pres. Obama and his audience; guess we all indeed perceive through our personal filters.
    Am reading Jon Krakauer’s story on Pat Tillman; highly recommend for the resonances to this current situation.

  • different clue

    I am no expert to be sure, but I doubt the West Point cadets are “bottom of the barrel” or “low standards” or anything else. It is a very selective school with thousands seeking to get in each year. It is not like recruits joining the Army at the enlistee-level. If somebody has actual evidence to the contrary,
    I am perfectly willing to stand correctible.

  • Mani Sitaraman

    1. It is a moment in time, we don’t know what they are reacting to.
    2. There is a serious possibility that one or more of these ‘faces’ may die fighting in Afghanistan before 2011.
    3. The absolute disengagement of the American public from their dutiful military continues to astonish me. “Bottom of the barrel” indeed. These are some of our best and brightest. War may well be a crime in the eyes of pacifists (for perfectly good moral and intellectual reasons). But the men and women doing the fighting are not the ones responsible for war. They never have been.

  • Zoey & Me

    Obama promised us change and real change is announcing he is withdrawing all troops from the region, including Iraq. What the “boys” heard last night was the same old same old. It could have been Bush up there justifying another $30 billion for a lost cause. Big yawn. Don’t blame the cadets. . . they are a reflection of America. I was nodding off too.

  • lucaites

    Maybe so within the ranks. But surely not at West Point.

  • Books Alive

    I understand Secretaries Clinton and Gates were both there, and while I didn’t see them when I was watching, I noticed a number of high-ranking military in the audience. Perhaps the Cabinet members were seated at the edge of the stage, as you suggest.

  • Wes

    To the pompous asses!!!
    I would put these young men and women up against anyone (their college peers) in a debate at any time. Preferably after an easy 2 mile run and some physical training. The stress levels they have to endure are a hell of a lot higher than the average college. What time did these candidates have to be seated? My understanding is 4:pm. The speech was not until 8:00. You owe them an apology!

  • lucaites

    I agree with point three … to a point. They rarely make the final determination. But we should never lose sight
    of the fact that we could not fight wars without the people willing to do the fighting — for whatever reason. And
    so it is mistaken to assume that they don’t share in some of the responsibility. The tragedy is when we go in the
    exact opposite direction — as post-Vietnam — and assume that they carry the lion’s share of the burden.

  • Hariman

    I see kids, many of whom are justifiably worried about what they are hearing. Aurora put it beautifully, “so young, so young.”

  • anon

    I definitely don’t agree with the idea that West Point cadets are the “bottom of the barrel” or that loosened standards (which def is happening for enlistees) is also at work here. The military academies are very selective.
    I think it’s more a situation where young people are realizing how their lives, and futures are crossing with history. This increase will be them. All their preparations and work will point them to lead other soldiers in Afghanistan. Some will die. They know this and knew all this going in. But now they have the President here in front of them confirming it all.
    I’m pretty sure that this brought it to a new level of real for them. Also I bet (based on the orientation of the photo) that a good chunk of media were off to the side that they were looking at. These are young people getting confronted with their future on a national stage and many are probably craning their necks wondering if you’ll be able to see their faces in the photos of the event. It probably felt a bit surreal.

  • George Hickey

    You beat me to it DennisQ. I had just copied and was about to paste “the higher level thinking in Obama’s speech”
    What higher level of thinking? This is the same old picture in a new frame that got us into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is estimated that there are 100 members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The last number I read was we had 1200 troops in Afghanistan for every Talib. Obama is continuing Bush’s use of secret prisons, and eventually we will learn-using torture; he continues the loss of our civil liberties via the patriot act and the military commissions act.
    He is refusing to honor his obligation under the UN Convention Against Torture (to which the US is a signatory) to investigate and prosecute, if called for, the Bushies. He is using the supreme court to suppress photos that are evidence of war crimes. He continues the Bush Administration’s policies of hand outs to wealthy banks and corporations at our expense. He has cut secret deals with big Pharma. He is about to hand us health reform that is reform in name only; and will be a huge set back for abortion rights. He is forming a commission to look at social security benefit cuts.
    Sure, sure!! He’s better than Bush. You can say that for him: he’s a little bit better than Bush. but not enough for me. For me -it’s new boss same as the old boss. I have seriously considering un-registering to vote so as to no longer participate in this sham. But then I would be giving up the minuscule shred of influence that I have.
    Bush started the wars and destroyed the economy. But, for me, he’s history now. the wars (and war crimes) and economy are now Obama’s, and I don’t like how he is handling his wars and his economy. I had such great hopes for Obama. His supporters excuse his continuation of the Bush presidency by saying that he’s had to adjust to the realities of governing. Bullshit!

  • thebewilderness

    It is my understanding that political sponsorship is necessary to go to West Point. So these would be the politically sponsored best and brightest who are willing to wage war.
    I would like to know what they are looking at. They are clearly looking at the same thing. What? Did someone act out?

  • g

    I think this is reading way too much into a brief snapshot moment. As someone pointed out, this audience had been seated for some four hours.
    These are young people, and young people are not used to sitting and listening to speeches, sermons or lectures with complete and total attention – as any professor or minister will tell you. Reading something into a second-long sidelong glance is folly.
    As the spouse of a person who gives speeches at events where I am a guest, I have to tell you it takes a lot of discipline to sit in an audience when the camera is on you and appear totally focused and engaged in every word that’s coming from the dais. I do it because it would be poor form for someone to see Mr. Speaker’s spouse yawning.
    These kids are actually quite discplined, compared to their peers in academia or general audiences (think about the last graduation ceremony you attended) – they seem to be breaking form only by their eyes while keeping their expressions neutral. I’m surprised that anyone could say they’re unintelligent.

  • George Hickey

    Entering West Point requires an above average intelligence, an exceptional academic record and excellent physical conditioning. We may not approve of their career choice but these are exceptional young people. And, while I do not approve of America’s constant war making, we do need a good military with highly competent leadership.

  • George Hickey

    Correction: Make that 1200 troops for every member of Al Qauda

  • Julia Grey

    They were probably given The Word before the President arrived: “No reactions, positive or negative. Sit still. Maintain.”
    Nobody in military officer training wants demerits.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    I appreciate your point, also made by a few others above, about the photo(s) being more incidental. That’s why I started off the post saying the pictures referencing how closely I was watching the audience pans through the entire speech. In this case, the Getty photos, I believe, are truly representative. (I had marked up a third one from a different angle the NYT published showing similar traits, with more glances in different directions, but left it out because it was from longer distance.)
    Given the intense seriousness and huge (military) magnitude of Obama’s talk — which, at approximately 35 minutes wasn’t that long — and given that the students freely expressed themselves through applause near the end, when Obama finally through in some rhetorical flourishes, I find the distractibility (and much evidence of nodding off, interspersed with the otherwise deeply engrossed and even riveted looks) legitimate and significant.
    At this point, my best take is that Obama’s speech couldn’t have been more blunt in its implications and quite scary to what has also been mentioned as a sea of very young faces. I almost always find reality a tall order. Fearful looks, “can’t bear to look,” “don’t want to look,” looking at or for anything else to fix on, and even checking out seem like reasonable responses being in that “line of fire.”

  • Julia Grey

    Don’t read too much into military school cadets nodding off. They don’t get a lot of sleep. When you’re that tired, you can fall asleep without even realizing it, and it’s not because you don’t want to listen or because you dislike or disrespect what’s going on in front of you.
    We used to call our main lecture hall “The Master Bedroom.”

  • Rachael

    At West Point. West Point would certainly have a smaller pool of applicants in year eight of an ongoing war. Without question.

  • Rachael

    and you need to get a life, preferably after an easy 2 mile run and some physical training.

  • Molly

    At one point, there was a wide shot of the front of the room from the back of the room. Someone with a white shirt and dark pants was moving along the row of seats as Obama spoke. I bet that’s what they are tracking.
    As to the nodding off, I figured it was because the room was warm and it was right after dinner. ZZZZzzzzz……

  • jtfromBC

    Obama loves his rhetoric, and his speech on the Afghan surge was topped by a rhetorical flourish:
    “Our cause is just, our resolve unshaken”.
    He is of course wrong on both counts.
    “Karzai comes directly from the Bush camp and was put in place because of his role with Unocal in developing the Trans Afghanistan Gas Pipeline project. That remains a chief strategic goal. The Asian Development Bank has agreed finance to start construction in Spring 2011. It is of course a total coincidence that 30,000 extra US troops will arrive six months before, and that the US (as opposed to other NATO forces) deployment area corresponds with the pipeline route.”

  • lucaites

    I don’t mean to be churlish, but do you have any evidence to support that … without question? And I’m not sure I follow the assumption. Do you mean to suggest that the very nature of the war would discourage folks from applying? If so, I’m somewhat skeptical of the claim. Many who would apply for a career in the military would not be opposed to war on its face–though I can imagine that they might oppose a particularwar–and so I wouldn’t think that this would work as a generalization. But again, I’m curious as to what you base the conclusion on. Thanks. JLL

  • lytom

    Perhaps all is pointless and the same question comes up again and again “where have all the young men gone?” All Obama’s words are not worth anything, but the horror they are making.

  • mad_nVT

    Doesn’t seem that these cadets would be worried about death in Afghanistan, so I don’t see the “anxiety and the look of fear.”
    For any one of these guys (male and female) the odds of getting killed in battle is very, very low. And they are young people in their early twenties, so of course they don’t plan on being injured at all, not even on the radar.
    If they are worried, it is not worry for personal safety.

  • Hans D. Stroo

    The disdain you all show for the Officer corps is disgusting to me. You all can grouse about how these people are the bottom of the barrel, and nothing could be further from the truth. They have some of the most brilliant teachers and undergo some of the most demanding curiculuum of anyone. If anything, it would appear that these cadets are less brawny and more brainy than generations past.
    Either way, some of you come across like unhinged liberal scumbags, and from the United States military I have one loud and clear message: go suck a knife.

  • Wes

    I am saddened that your response was to lash out. I have a life. I am a disabled vet. I do not know what can be said that can make you see that the cadets are not your enemy. You assert that the qualifications to get into West Point are less rigorous over time, or that the curriculum is made easier as war goes on? That is an absurd statement. That is like comparing the academy to the…. what was it? The Connecticut firefighter advancement exam? These men and women are leaders. They are above average to say the least. The very characteristics that founded this country and are pioneering space. Once again, I mentioned how long they had to sit before the speech. I guess it makes no difference to you. You are in-mature and in so many words have proven that you are pompous.

  • Johnson
  • Proud Liberal 1947

    To say I was disappointed at the location for the Military Industrial Complexes win on the War for Profits, then sit their and listen to the same speech given yet again almost verbatim was disheartening.
    One thing I can say after the location and the speech given I do know now and can say with Confidence that the military Industrial Complex in running the War.
    Nothing the Media says or the Administration says can convince me other wise.
    If this speech had been delivered to America in a AMERICAN CITY NOT a Military Academy with the Troop cheap PHOTO OP of the pass, the reference to fear Mongering 9/11 yet again, and if that speech would have contained the same enthusiasm as hos past speeches I would have believed him. I have been sold down the river to satisfy the Military Industrial Complex and Socialized Corporate America. Prove me Wrong.

  • Ashley St.Claire

    “The Surge”
    December 6, 2009 by
    “The Surge”
    The war in Afghanistan is also a continuation and expansion of the corporate welfare policy of the Bush administration, which interestingly is not only wholly accepted by President Obama, but is raised to a higher level (surge). The more private contractors sent to Afghanistan, the better for the bottom line (surge) (profit). The more the merrier. Bush or Obama, as always, the interest of the corporate elite is paramount.
    The decrease in violence in Iraq was not a result of President Bush’s strategy of sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq (surge), that President Obama is so desperately trying to duplicate, but it was mainly a result of the U.S. government’s payment of about $10 a day to about 70,000 Sunni insurgents.
    During his speech to the nation explaining his reasons for the Afghanistan “surge”, the president said:
    “So, no, I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. … In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.”
    I thought I was listening to President Bush. Word for word the same message, but, a different messenger, one who is more articulate. He also used Bush’s tactic of scaring the American public, the danger to America “is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat”. The only thing missing from his speech was that, he didn’t use the threat level colors. It is too early in his presidency; we might still see him use the threat levels in the future.
    The president’s troop” surge” in the Afghanistan war has made his Conservative Republican friends temporarily happy, but members of his own political party and the American citizens at large are not supportive of his so-called “surge”. While America is facing a massive unemployment, millions of citizens without health insurance, the country burdened with cumbersome and chocking growing debt, to say the least, the president’s choice of the Afghanistan “surge” at this particular moment, seems to be unwise.
    Professor Mekonen Haddis.

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