“Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example”

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That was one of President Obama’s opening lines in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, suggesting the nation’s elected officials embrace mission success just like the U.S. military does. The Joint Chiefs of Staff leapt to their feet – along with Congress – to endorse the notion. There’s a veneer of truth to the President’s observation, but it’s pretty thin — even if it sounded good.

The military isn’t a democracy – orders tend to be given, and followed, unlike Congress – and cost-efficiency has never been one of its strengths. U.S. troops came home from Iraq last year because Obama ordered them home. Yet the President plainly was hoping to piggyback some of his future on the back of a military force that he has pulled out of Iraq, is pulling out of Afghanistan, and dispatched to Pakistan to dispatch Osama bin Laden with extreme prejudice.

In fact, Navy Admiral William McRaven, commander of the Special Operations Command, sat overlooking the chamber with First Lady Michelle Obama. He played a key role in the bin Laden raid. They were joined by two other military personnel: Army Sergeant Ashleigh Berg of Malibu, Calif., whose husband is in Afghanistan on his third combat tour; and Air Force Colonel Ginger Wallace, an intelligence officer and one of the first open lesbians to serve following the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” four months ago.

Retired Navy Captain Mark Kelly was also a guest of the first lady as his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords – gravely wounded in a shooting a year ago – watched the President’s speech from the chamber floor, before she retires from the House on Wednesday to continue her rehabilitation.

Obama ended his speech by reflecting on the bin Laden raid:

Which brings me back to where I began.  Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops.  When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight.  When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.  When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind.

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden.  On it are each of their names.  Some may be Democrats.  Some may be Republicans.  But that doesn’t matter.  Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates – a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.

All that mattered that day was the mission.  No one thought about politics.  No one thought about themselves.  One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission.  It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job – the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs.  More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other – because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.

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