President Obama marked Memorial Day with a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and spoke about U.S. troops who have recently lost their lives. “In Iraq, three Americans have given their lives in combat on our behalf,” Obama said, “and today I ask you to remember their stories.”
While it was easily missed among the holiday solemnities, that simple phrase—“in combat”—represents an important departure from the Orwellian way the Obama administration has discussed its wars in the Middle East. In fact, it represents a departure from the almost comical doublespeak the Pentagon employed that same week, when it denied that U.S. troops are in combat against ISIS in Syria, despite photographic evidence to the contrary.
Agence France-Presse published photos showing American soldiers in the Syrian village of Fatisah, close to the anti-ISIS front lines. The men in the pictures are easily identifiable: they’re outfitted with U.S. uniforms and weapons, and one visibly sports an American flag patch. In a report issued with the images, a Syrian rebel leader named Baraa al-Ghanem is quoted as saying American troops are “present at all positions along the front. …They are taking part on the ground and in the air.”
Not so, said Washington. You might think you’re seeing pictures of U.S. troops in combat, but you’re wrong.
“Our forces in Iraq and Syria, their instructions, their mission, is clear that they are not at that leading edge,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. “This is a fluid situation where the forward line of troops can be moving,” he added, in an apparent attempt to create some verbal wiggle room.
Cook’s spin is a product of the Obama administration’s long insistence that Americans are fighting ISIS only indirectly, serving as advisers and trainers to local forces but prohibited by the rules of engagement from engaging in offensive operations against ISIS.
In practice, though—as these photos once again confirm—that distinction has been approximately nonexistent. A recent Pentagon report on U.S. action in Afghanistan found troops expressing frustration over this dangerous sort of confusion. “It’s not a strategy and, in fact, it’s a recipe for disaster in that kind of kinetic environment,” one said. After his unit repeatedly asked for more clarity on what they could and could not do, the “only sounds audible were the sounds of crickets…though those were hard to hear over the gunfire.”
Another Special Forces member similarly recalled, “How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?’”
The motive for this spin is the absurd fiction that the United States has completed the combat portions of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the latter of which was ramped up again just a few days ago.
This lie allows President Obama to continue claiming that he ended these wars, and allows Congress to continue evading its constitutional role as arbiter of American foreign policy. It means we don’t debate large-scale military interventions because we pretend they aren’t happening. As a result, the imperial executive goes to and stays at war far too frequently and on far too ill-examined a whim.
But maybe President Obama’s Memorial Day clarity marks the beginning of a new era, in which we acknowledge combat for what it is, don’t play word games for the sake of politics, and follow our own constitutional rules of war.
Maybe this brief flash of honesty heralds a forthcoming resurgence of congressional responsibility and humbling of an out-of-control executive branch.
Maybe it’s a sign that the war on terror will finally be subjected to some boundaries of time, cost, and geography.
Or maybe we’ll continue on as if nothing’s changed—aimlessly, deceptively, recklessly at war forever.