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July 3, 2024

Our president admits to being an old man who has slowed down a step or two. Ever since last week’s debate, most people understand that a Tele-prompter and fawning press munchkins are typical components of the Biden family repertoire. But does it really make any difference?

Since Americans now have a half-century track record of fighting wars using Other People’s Kids, most of us lack any sense of command or its unique responsibilities; such contingencies typically occur at Oh-Dark-Thirty when the available choices are Near-Certain Disaster and We Don’t Know Yet. Even more embarrassing: the very personal dilemmas arising for the lucky few chosen to carry out those commands, often with their lives hanging in the balance.

With our attention firmly fixed on the Glorious Fourth, few Americans will recall that today is July 3, the 161st anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. The previous night, Confederate General Robert E. Lee agonized over the day’s reverses at the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den and particularly Little Round Top, linchpin of the Union left flank. Surely there must be a way to compel Union attention to its threatened flanks –while mounting a devastating attack on its weakened center. Surely that firebrand George Pickett with his hand-picked brigade commanders and 12,000 men would break the Union lines just as Lee’s armies had always done before!

Serving as Dean of the National War College, I led my students – many unfamiliar with ground combat – across those once-bloody fields –demonstrating how Pickett’s soldiers covered a very wide-open mile, unshielded from massed Union artillery eagerly searching for gray-clad targets. With every Rebel step, more and more guns engaged their lines from every point of the field. As the shell-shocked survivors reached their objective, Union infantry concealed behind stone walls and fences, stood and fired volley after volley into what remained of the hapless Confederates who made that gallant but spectacularly ill-advised charge.

It had already taken President Lincoln two years to build an Army where infantry, artillery and cavalry were trained to work as a team, an evolution that would require two more years to complete under the tenacious leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant. Over and over, Grant repeatedly described those battles as “The nearest-run thing you ever saw.”

So what does that have to do with our current commander-in-chief, Joe Biden? For one thing, war is still a terribly desperate game, just as its leading strategists and practitioners have always insisted. For another, even on his best days, Mr. Biden is not only unskilled in war but is notorious for his facile approach to strategy. In his powerful memoir Duty, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates brutally singled him out: "I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,”

And only days before the infamous Hamas attack on Israel, Gates published a widely noted Foreign Affairs article which began, “The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever….no one alive can remember a time when an adversary had as much economic, scientific, technological and military power as China does today.” Arguing for greater unity and a shared consensus on national security, Gates concluded, “Even the closest of our allies are hedging their bets about America. In a world where Russia and China are on the prowl, that is particularly dangerous.”

With military illiteracy a defining problem of the American culture, most of us have little idea of the risks the nation takes when an ill-informed amateur somehow occupies the Oval Office. Would Joe Biden, for example, be physically or mentally capable of answering those 3AM calls on the scrambler phone? If he is not, then who commands, with what forces, by what means and to what ends? As you may or may not have noticed: There is an ongoing revolution in military affairs in which the President sits atop a trans-global “kill chain.” Those linkages connect him to sensors, systems, satellites subordinate commanders and even trigger-pullers sworn to carry out his orders. Now maybe President Biden is no Robert E. Lee but would you really expect our wonderfully lethal combined arms team to even comprehend the return message of “Hold, please, while we page the President’s press secretary?”

Or even worse: “Sir, please hold on Line Two for Attorney General Garland?”

Colonel (Ret) Ken Allard is a former Vietnam-era draftee, a West Point faculty member, Dean of the National War College and NBC News military analyst.

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