Belmont Club

Saving Private Obama

“President Barack Obama today decisively silenced speculation by America’s generals that US ground troops could return to Iraq in a rare example of the White House publicly overruling the military.” Raf Sanchez of the Telegraph adds,

Mr Obama was forced to repeat his pledge of “no boots on the ground” after General Martin Dempsey told a Senate hearing there may be situations where Iraqi forces need American advisers during combat.

The suggestion angered and alarmed Mr Obama’s liberal supporters and prompted the White House to hastily rule out the possibility of Americans on the front line.

Of course the Enemy may have other ideas and unlike the military, are under no obligation to fulfill Obama’s wishes. ISIS insolence may cause the president to revisit his command decision before the end. But it puts the armed forces in an age old bind. What should they do when ordered to act against their better judgment?  For most of recorded military history subordinates have struggled with this exact situation; serving under commanders whom they were bound to obey yet sworn to serve.

There is a very subtle difference between the two and it is an able commander indeed who can do both.  The well-known case of the First Marine Division at the Chosin reservoir is a textbook example of how to make your commander look good in spite of himself. General Oliver P. Smith of the Marines had been ordered by Douglas MacArthur to advance to Yalu River under the assurances that no significant enemy forces lay before them. General Smith was certain from his reconnaissance reports that the exact opposite was true.  Hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened Chinese infantrymen were in fact waiting in ambush for the division, whatever MacArthur believed.  How could he save his command without being insubordinate?

While obeying the letter of MacArthur’s instructions the wily Oliver Smith decided to create options against the day when he would be proven right.  He did two things. First, he kept his regiments close together for mutual support. Second, he established a set of strongpoints to his rear, including a critical airfield, along which he could fall back if things went bad.

When the storm broke Smith was ready. While the 8th Army to the West reeled under the hammer blows of Mao’s legions, Smith adroitly climbed down the rungs of the ladder he had so thoughtfully provided for himself and reached the coast. In the process he saved MacArthur’s bacon. If Mao had succeeded in destroying First Marines, MacArthur’s reputation would have been shattered forever. Instead, Oliver Smith gave MacArthur a victory instead of the debacle he probably deserved.

Almost equally well known was Patton’s famous offer to march to the relief of Bastogne “in 48 hours” after being informed that the Germans were attacking full-force in the Ardennes.

Gen. Eisenhower, realizing that the Allies could destroy German forces much more easily when they were out in the open and on the offensive than if they were on the defensive, told his generals, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table.” Patton, realizing what Eisenhower implied, responded, “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris. Then, we’ll really cut ’em off and chew ’em up.” Eisenhower, after saying he was not that optimistic, asked Patton how long it would take to turn his Third Army (located in northeastern France) north to counterattack. Patton replied that he could attack with two divisions within 48 hours, to the disbelief of the other generals present. However, before he had gone to the meeting Patton had ordered his staff to prepare three contingency plans for a northward turn in at least corps strength. By the time Eisenhower asked him how long it would take, the movement was already underway.

How did Patton do it? The best explanation comes from another anecdote from the Second World War, from a movie this time: The Battle of the River Plate. Three British cruisers have driven the pocket battleship Graf Spee into Montevideo harbor. One cruiser is so badly smashed that only two were left. The surviving British cruisers patrol dolefully at the river mouth,  waiting for the re-emergence of pocket battleship they are powerless by themselves to stop.

Suddenly a third cruiser, the Cumberland whose last position was a 1,000 miles away appears in the offing. The cavalry, so to speak, has arrived. The astounded and relieved British captains signal Cumberland: “how did you get here so soon?” The reply comes back by signal light.


Anticipation. Patton could march to Bastogne in 48 hours because of anticipation. The US military cannot of course disobey president Obama, however foolish his instructions might be. But like many soldiers through history, they can anticipate; they prepare for situations their commander might not have considered; namely, what if it all goes wrong? For in many cases the problem is how to give a commander in chief what he would probably like, whatever he deserves.

President Obama’s plan to fight ISIS may work. But most probably it will not. In the event that his strategy collapses, someone has to be ready to save his bacon. At least they should have a plan he brilliantly thought of but only saw for the first time ready for his signature.

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