"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Obama's Wars': A Good Read About Bad Wars

Obama's WarsObama's Wars by Bob Woodward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this book is perfect: Obama’s Wars. Bob Woodward gives us a detailed account of President Obama taking ownership of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama also takes charge of internal strife between bickering branches and rival departments of our government and military.

Obama’s Wars is not a fun or exciting book, even during its most engrossing passages. But I can see it being a worthwhile read even for a person who skims a few chapters, becomes overwhelmed by the political complexity, and then gives up reading it. At least that person might come away with greater empathy for our leaders. (We could all use a bit more empathy in this nation.) The world of international relations is a messy one. Suffice it to say, if you think the war in Afghanistan is or should be solely about defeating al Qaeda, you are grossly uninformed.

My primary frustration with Obama’s Wars, though not necessarily a criticism of it, is the degree to which Mr. Woodward remains detached from his subject. I feel a bit sheepish admitting this. But there were times I wished Woodward had held my hand a bit more in terms of providing thematic subtext. Yes, I can tell that General X said something that upset Diplomat Y during a secret meeting. But I don’t fully grasp how it relates to the larger issues, let alone the interpersonal ones.

Nonetheless, I came to understand how President Obama’s cerebral nature is a much needed strategic boon but often a tactical stumbling block. Though, as I’d hoped, the book provides a favorable portrait. Woodward's research largely vindicates our President as engaged, hardworking, astute, and a much-needed antidote to the hotheaded cowboy mentality that got us into these wars.

I also developed a tempered appreciation for our nation’s generals, including the oft lionized General David Petraeus and the controversial General Stanley McChrystal. In the book, these men come across as extremely driven and devoted leaders, even when they find themselves at odds with the President. This isn’t a one-sided, absolutist account of who is right and who is wrong. In other words, this book is great reporting.

Ultimately, I found Obama’s Wars very sobering. It reveals how dangerous our world is—a place where geographic borders have become less relevant, but where the personalities in charge remain fiercely nationalistic, even tribal (and no I don’t just mean the Taliban). So I’ll continue paying my taxes and giving to non-profits. And I’ll keep trying to be a person who doesn’t deserve to be attacked and not one who is quick to make war. Because war—that is, politics through violence—always ends up ugly, even when prosecuted by the best of humans.

Note regarding the hardbound edition: This book includes two extremely helpful sections: 1) A Glossary; 2) A Cast of Characters

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