The most powerful moment of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address—perhaps the most powerful moment of any State of the Union address in recent memory—came when President Obama spoke about Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. Remsburg, Obama explained, “was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.” At first, Obama continued, Remsburg “couldn’t speak; he could barely move.” But now, after “dozens of surgeries” and “hours of grueling rehab every day,” Remsburg has “learned to speak again and stand again and walk again.”
When Remsburg’s father helped him to his feet and the young man waved awkwardly, a large gash visible down the right side of his skull, the entire audience turned to face him. They applauded for nearly two minutes, far longer than I’ve ever heard at a State of the Union. Obama himself clapped, then gave a thumbs up sign, then saluted, then clapped some more. Some in the audience openly wept. It was among the most remarkable political moments I have ever seen.
Except that it wasn’t political at all. The entire reason Democrats and Republicans came together so unreservedly was that Obama didn’t use Remsburg’s ordeal to say anything about the war in Afghanistan, or about how America should conduct itself on matters of war and peace. The only lesson he drew was that Remsburg, like America itself, “never gives up and he does not quit.”
Which was, frankly, bizarre. Because while Remsburg himself has clearly shown incredible determination in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles, when it comes to the war in which he fought, quitting is exactly what the United States plans to do. Obama said as much earlier in his speech. In lauding America’s exits from Afghanistan and Iraq, he didn’t cite a single thing the United States has accomplished in either country. How could he have? Parts of central Iraq are today in the hands of jihadists, and the carnage there has never been worse. When the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan, one expert recently predicted, “the likely outcome is a civil war, much more fierce and widespread than the one fought during recent years.” The harsh reality is that America did not leave Iraq, and is not leaving Afghanistan, because we accomplished our goals there. We are leaving because we decided our goals of defeating the Taliban and fostering Iraqi democracy weren’t important enough to justify spending billions of dollars and losing more American lives.
They never were. Obama implied as much earlier in his speech when he declared, “I will not send our troops into harm’s way until it’s truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts … large-scale deployments that drain our strength.” Unfortunately, Obama—like many of us—learned that lesson too late. In 2009, he sent 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan despite reportedly harboring grave doubts about whether they would do any good.
It’s true that Remsburg, who was on a jaw-dropping tenth deployment when he suffered his injuries, did his final tour in Afghanistan before Obama announced the surge. But the critical point is that it’s not enough to use Remsburg’s ordeal merely as testimony to the indomitable quality of the American spirit. It was not a natural disaster that left him mute, immobile, and partially blind. The people directly responsible for Remsburg’s wounds are the insurgents who planted the IED that nearly killed him. More broadly, however, the decision to put him in harm’s way was a political one, authored by Barack Obama and encouraged by many of the politicians in the House chamber on Tuesday night. Those men and women owe Remsburg more than applause. They owe him a reckoning with their past behavior. Imagine if the next time a senator on some talk show called for keeping open the option of war with Iran, the host showed an image of Cory Remsburg and then asked the senator why, based on the wars he’s supported in the past, the public should trust him to propose new ones. Imagine if instead of using Remsburg to illustrate a nebulous point about human endurance, Obama had introduced him during the section of his speech in which he promised never to wage another war like Afghanistan or Iraq again.
Such a move would not have prompted two minutes of bipartisan applause. To the contrary, it would have elicited fury from Obama’s hawkish opponents. But in a nation that has all but forgotten Iraq and Afghanistan, it might have reminded viewers not merely of the heroism of our troops, but also of the responsibility of America’s leaders to spare them the horrors of war unless there is absolutely no other way to protect the country. Discussing an injured soldier in that manner would have been risky and polarizing. But in one crucial respect, it would have echoed the very quality in Cory Remsburg that the audience rose to applaud: It would have been brave.