Book Review: “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward – the capitulation of civilian control over American military

by on November 14, 2010 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Election, History, Media, War and Peace

Obama n Petraeus

President Obama and General Petraeus.

Most reviews of Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, focus on the perceived failures and incompetency of Barack Obama, or on the in-fighting between the generals or within the White House staff, or intellectualize on the over-all abilities and shortcomings of Woodward as a chronicler of modern American history. And in doing so, they miss the point.

The point is, Woodward has opened a window for us – the readers, the nation, the world – into how foreign policy decisions are being made in the Obama administration, and how the President reached his decision of sending another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan almost one year ago exactly.

And through this window, we are witnesses to a horrifying reality.  A horrifying reality that unfolds from chapter to chapter, from agonizing moment to agonizing moment where you want to throw the book across the room and to shout out, “Those fuckers!”

But you keep the book in hand, and burn through it.  As the reader, you have a front row seat as Woodward takes you painstakingly from meeting to meeting and from memo to memo during the six month period of “strategic review” of the situation in Afghanistan that Obama ordered soon after he was elected.

This is not a history book, already dusty. This is all very current right now, this is America now, this is how the White House operates, how the Pentagon operates, this is how a war in Afghanistan – seven years in the making when Obama was elected – has been allowed to spin on its own dangling noose by Bush & Co – and how the new president was left with no strategy when he entered the White House. The characters in the book are alive and … still kicking, although some have just departed the White House or are about to.

Today’s news was already described in this book. You knew Secretary of Defense Gates was going to leave the administration, as you already knew that General Jones was leaving.  You already knew about the 3,000-man CIA hit teams going into Pakistan.


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You can see how the “hawks” lined up in the debates within the Situation Room – and how Secretary of State Clinton joined them. You can see how the “non-hawks” assembled, led by Vice President Biden, tried to halt the slide into sending more and more troops, but who were decidely outweighed by the hawks. You can watch how Obama’s thoughts on what should be done in Afghanistan traverse a trajectory continually boxed in by his Pentagon advisers.

And ultimately, the book is a sad commentary on where American has come, and what America has become.

Without too much commentary, Woodward draws us a sketch, not too detailed, but a picture that we can view nevertheless. It’s a sketch of how the Pentagon usurped a sitting democratically-elected president in the 21st century.

Woodward shows us how the generals and admirals lied to, misrepresented, threatened, cajoled, blocked, delayed, manipulated – and ultimately “rolled” the President of the United States into authorizing what they – the Pentagon – wanted to do in Afghanistan all along.  This is the terrifying reality that Woodward portrays.

It is terrifying because we are supposed to live in a country ruled by a Constitution that places civilians over the military. Civilians – in the form of the president and administration advisers and secretaries – are supposed to be in control of how and why the military executes its goals and carries out foreign policy dictates. Not the other way around. But this is what Woodward has given us in his portrayal – the lack of ultimate civilian control of the American military.

This book and its story – despite its shortcomings and Woodward’s biases – are necessary reading for anyone who wishes to understand why we are still in Afghanistan and how we’re dealing with Pakistan.  Read and understand it – and you are an “expert” on US involvement in those countries.

Read it at your own risk, for once completed, you’ll find yourself gnashing your teeth, clenching your fists, and shouting out, “You ………!!!”

Yet, once read, you may also find yourself armed with a new knowledge of just what is happening in your name, in our name. This knowledge will give you an appreciation of how little our former law professor from Chicago was prepared to fend off the onslaught of Pentagon hard heads, and insight into just how little he actually decided in sending more of our sons and daughters off to more war.

And finally, this knowledge will allow you to strap on the appropriate armor that will be needed in re-asserting civilian control over the military and in bringing this country back from its empire-bound journey, and in – truthfully – re-establishing what’s left of our democracy. You’ve got to read “Obama’s Wars.” Now.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John Lawrence November 14, 2010 at 11:33 am
jettyboy November 14, 2010 at 12:36 pm

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” the Who


ss November 14, 2010 at 3:35 pm

thanks for the review. I love Bob Woodward his books on the last potus were nothing short of scary. I was sorry I read them when I did because it was very old news. So will make it a point to read this one very soon Thanks for the review


Ernie McCray November 14, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Woodward has always had the ability to, as Aaron Neville would sing: “Tell it like it is…” And We the People can, in response, “Let out conscience be our guide…” as we turn the situation around.
And a committee I work with, one which is slowly lessening the Pentagon’s grip on our sons and daughters in our schools, ENAC (Education Not Arms Coalition), is asking for people to attend an upcoming Board of Education Meeting at 5:00 on Tuesday, November 30th, where the board is expected to pass a policy we proposed that will regulate recruiting, of all kinds, military or otherwise, in San Diego City Schools.
More information, for anyone interested, is available regarding a more specific time for this particular agenda item at: or Project YANO (Youth and Non-military Opportunities), (760) 634-3604.
This is an opportunity for people to be part of a good sliver of San Diego history when it comes to protecting our children.


Nancy November 15, 2010 at 7:10 am

Wonderful review, Frank, but to be expected as you’re such a good writer. You should send it to The Huffington Post.


dave rice November 15, 2010 at 11:57 am

Nice piece, Frank – been meaning to get into Woodward’s work, always seems something (usually tracking news in the world of the 24-hour cycle) keeps me from reading as many books as I’d like…


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