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Military losses at home and abroad

Mark Mardell | 04:26 UK time, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The president's morning will begin laying wreaths for Veterans Day; it may end with him very much closer to a decision to send more troops to a foreign war.

He's just come back from honouring the dead at Fort Hood - not killed in a war, but almost certainly killed as a result of wars.

As the ceremony began soldiers wounded in the shooting made their painful way down the steps, on crutches, helped by friends, clutching on to the side of stone steps. It must have been even more difficult for the bereaved, walking past the shrines to the memory of the dead. For each, a pair of boots, a gun, a helmet, and a photograph.

President Obama at Fort HoodIt was a ceremony designed to wring tears. A group of solders at roll call, some shouting their presence, then silence when the names of those who died were called. The last post, or taps, as it is called here, is always moving.

This is a ceremony to emphasise the sorrow of loss and to make some sort of sense out of it with talk of heroism and sacrifice.

The president has to fulfil so many roles. The head of state. Commander-in-chief. And the person who sums up the mood of the nation, and who should strike the right tone. What is called here, somewhat tritely, "healer in chief".

There has been a lot of debate, here and elsewhere, about whether politicians and the media have played down possible religious motives of the killer. The president did not: "No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favour.  For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice - in this world, and the next."

If the president automatically adopts roles like commander in chief he may also have to automatically adopt a set of values, even when he is talking in part about a war in Iraq, which he did not support. He talked of the military's greatness, the values they were fighting for "to protect our people, while giving others half a world away the chance to lead a better life". He said no march on a capital, or surrender ceremony would mark military victory in today's wars "in a world of threats that no know borders, their legacy will be marked in the safety of our cities and towns, and the security and opportunity that's extended abroad".

This synergy, protecting the homeland by improving the life of foreigners far away, is the logic of Obama's war. The president will again be trying to decide what practical measures can possibly achieve this later today. It is his eighth, possibly last, probably critical, meeting on strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He will have before him four options. There is one that is proposed by General McChrystal, the others aren't being spelt out, but they all include sending more troops. One senior source told the BBC that whichever option was chosen, the focus would be on protection and training rather than going out and seeking to kill the Taliban.

There's a sense that a decision isn't far away. An announcement may be a different matter. I may be proved wrong later today, but it seems unlikely it will come before the president travels to the Far East, unlikely to be made while he is abroad - and that means we still have nine days or longer to wait.


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