What Obama Should Have Said About Cory Remsburg

The president praised the American spirit. He ought to have also highlighted the risks of long, costly wars.
First lady Michelle Obama applauds injured U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg during President Obama's State of the Union speech. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

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.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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