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Afghan war, Fort Hood shooting weighing on President Obama

Critics of the president have said he doesn't understand the language of warriors and too often speaks of military sacrifice rather than military victory. But Obama has tried to head off that kind of criticism by stocking his administration with retired military brass. His national security adviser is a retired general; so are his secretary of veterans affairs and his ambassador to Afghanistan. His intelligence chief is a retired admiral.

Obama has had multiple chances in recent days to polish the kind of rhetoric that goes with being a wartime leader. His remarks at Fort Hood on Tuesday were filled with references to courage, valor, fighting. He disagreed that the Greatest Generation has come and gone: "We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes."

He opposed the Iraq war early and consistently and campaigned on a promise to end it. He also vowed to put new effort into the war in Afghanistan, the training ground of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists. This spring, his administration conducted a review of Afghanistan policy and announced that 21,000 additional troops would be sent to that war zone. The president showed little sign that the decision weighed on his mind or provoked much internal White House debate.

Then Afghanistan degenerated. A national election was shot through with fraud. Casualties spiked. Body bags began arriving home by the dozen.

A new direction

Now Obama is crafting a new strategy, weighing four different options, according to the White House press secretary. Administration leaks point to a considerable increase in the number of troops as part of a broader strategic change.

"He's stepping up to the problem, and he's exercising a degree of skepticism and analytical depth that his predecessor didn't appear to engage in," said Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wrong, Cohen said: Obama's dithering.

"I don't yet have the sense that he's willing to commit that much of his political energy to this, and yet if he doesn't, I do think there's a serious risk of failure," Cohen said.

No decision by Obama will escape condemnation from those who think they know a better way. Hawks will call him a compromiser with no stomach for the fight; doves will say that, having campaigned against one war, he is escalating another.

But even those who disagree with the president's policies will recognize him as a man who thinks through his decisions, reads his briefing papers and studies the lessons of history. Wednesday, before he left Arlington, Obama paused to read the most powerful texts imaginable, the names on grave markers. He stopped at the grave of Ross McGinnis, a Medal of Honor recipient. Born in Pennsylvania, McGinnis, 19, wound up in Iraq as a machine gunner, 1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. An insurgent threw a hand grenade into his Humvee. He threw his body on it, absorbing the explosion. His four platoon mates survived.

Obama bent over McGinnis's grave, but the traveling press pool could not tell what the president was doing, much less what he was thinking.

Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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