Barack Obama’s Lincoln Moment
What the commander of America's first modern war tells us about our first post-modern war.
Given the alignment of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, the opportunity presents itself to explore some fresh links between the two. President Obama’s admiration for the Great Emancipator is well known, especially through the "team of rivals" approach he imitated in crafting his first cabinet. But both presidents will be known to history as wartime presidents — albeit in very different sorts of conflicts — so it might be useful to consider some of their strategic similarities as well.
Abraham Lincoln served as commander in chief in the world’s first truly modern war. Three key technologies were maturing simultaneously at the outset of the American Civil War in 1861: the breech-loading rifle, quick-firing and accurate at great range; the railroad, able to move massive numbers of troops and supplies swiftly over very long distances; and the telegraph, with which to manage the maneuvering of field armies. Weapons, transport, and information systems — all were in very active play.
Barack Obama serves as commander in chief in the middle of what I would call the first truly "post-modern" war: a great struggle with nations on one side and terrorist and insurgent networks on the other. It is post-modern in terms of the ways in which al Qaeda and its affiliates have flouted accepted notions of warmaking and found new ways to engage great powers and sustain the fight against them for over a decade. They have done so largely by mastering the network form of organization and exploiting the potential of this era’s Internet-driven information revolution. It is something far, far beyond just guerrilla warfare.
Abraham Lincoln had to deal with generals who were devoted to strategic concepts articulated during and after the Napoleonic Wars. In particular, the concept of massing the vast majority of one’s forces in a single area of operations to strike a decisive offensive blow was highly favored by Lincoln’s senior military advisers. Lincoln acceded to this preference, for the most part, during the first three years of the war, and the results, too often, were poor. But by 1864 his growing conviction that the technology of the time allowed Union forces to launch "cordon offensives" all around the edges of the Confederacy led him, finally, to pick generals willing and able to operate in this fashion. As Lincoln described the basic idea of attacking with different-sized forces at many places simultaneously, "those not skinning can hold a leg." His forces did, and the war was over in just another year.
Barack Obama has had to deal with senior military leaders whose formative experiences came in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 — the last large-scale, blitzkrieg-style mechanized campaign. But even during the 96 hours that ground operations took to unfold back then, the tone was elegiac, with a heavy sense that an era in military affairs was coming to an end, even as President George H.W. Bush was talking about creating a "new world order." When the same operational playbook was resorted to a dozen years later in Iraq, the "thunder run" to Baghdad almost immediately gave way to a networked insurgency that was only tamed by the creation of a physical network of small American outposts and a social network that arose by convincing many tens of thousands of insurgents to switch sides.
In Afghanistan, on the other hand, things started out small and networked, but Obama gave way to his generals’ preference for large numbers on the ground, and got only more casualties and a less patient public in return for his surge there. (N.B. to Sen. McCain: It was not the surge of additional troops to Iraq that made the difference there; it was fighting in a fundamentally different way, with much smaller combat formations that did.) Now President Obama is having a "Lincoln moment," readjusting the approach in Afghanistan once more, downward in numbers, upward in terms of the amount of networking with friendly locals. Don’t be misled by all the attention being given to his use of drones. They do too little, too slowly over time. The way ahead, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is the path of the small team, highly networked, better able to locate the hidden enemy and engage him.
After sacking six commanders of his main armies in the Eastern theater of operations, Abraham Lincoln finally found a general willing to undertake a cordon offensive: Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln soon put him in charge of all Union forces, and Grant worked hand-in-hand with his great collaborator William Tecumseh Sherman to bring about victory. To be sure, there were other very fine Union commanders by the end of the war — a long, hard conflict can have a tremendous winnowing effect — but Grant and Sherman were the principal players.
Barack Obama has followed a somewhat similar path, bringing to the fore senior commanders who have more than proved their understanding of the strategic demands of war in this post-modern era. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, in one of his first pronouncements as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke of the importance of crafting a more highly networked military. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, presided over much of the turnaround in Iraq, when the shift to an outpost strategy and the rise of the Awakening Movement turned the tide of battle there. Just a week ago in this magazine, he wrote of a future American force that would be comprised of small, wide-ranging units girding the globe but still able to scale up into a larger concentrated force if necessary. And Adm. William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, has demonstrated again and again that small numbers can regularly prevail when used in networked fashion to exploit the key information- and mobility-driven advantages that add up to his concept of "relative superiority." And these three are hardly alone. Many others have cracked the code of post-modern conflict as well.
For Abraham Lincoln, it was Grant, Sherman, and those who truly understood their approach to modern warfare. For Barack Obama, it is Dempsey, Odierno, McRaven and a generation of very deeply combat-experienced officers who offer up much hope that the American military will master the nuances of post-modern conflict. So perhaps it is worth giving a nod to Lincoln the strategist in tomorrow night’s State of the Union address. For in this very different age, Barack Obama has nonetheless traveled a similar path as commander-in-chief.