US Army Rangers and graduates of the Ranger School are made to memorize and internalize the Ranger Creed. One of the last stanzas is as follows:
“I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.”
An infantry officer before I became an Army doctor, I graduated from Ranger School and tried to live my life by the famous creed. Two years ago, many Americans looked in horror at the debacle that unfolded in Afghanistan as the security collapsed in Afghanistan and the last refuge of potential safety was the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. As the situation deteriorated, then MG Christopher Donahue was sent to take charge of the security at the airport during the evacuation.
MG Donahue graduated from West Point in 1992 and served in a variety of conventional and special operations units including the famed Delta Force. Although I did not personally know him, I feel compelled to provide the benefit of the doubt that as a company and field grade officer deploying with Delta Force that he performed honorably. As the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, he was tasked in mid-August 2021 to deploy to Kabul with soldiers from Fort Bragg (now Liberty) as part of the ironically named Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. On 30 August 2021, just before midnight, he was famously photographed on a night vision camera walking up a USAF C-17 ramp as the “last American” to leave Afghanistan. Remaining critical equipment was destroyed and the aircraft took off and ceded the airport and everyone left behind to Taliban control.
MG Donahue is now LTG Donahue. He was promoted to LTG in 2022 and his official Army bio lauds his command of the 82nd Airborne Division and his part in Operation Freedom Sentinel. Debate continues regarding the upper echelons of military and civilian leaders whose obviously poor decisions and ethics led to the debacle. Does LTG Donahue deserve analysis and potential blame?
While Donahue wasn’t responsible for the end game decision making that resulted in the Kabul nightmare, he was responsible for security forces on the ground at the time and was the highest ranking general physically assigned to the airport. He was undoubtedly read in on the situation and plans for evacuation. After all, he was a former Delta Force commander and division commander with high level security clearance.
The military bragged about evacuating 124,000+ from Kabul by air. The troops on the ground justifiably performed well by doing their duty as expected. Lower level officers and soldiers should never be critiqued for following legal orders. Generals, however, especially ones who supposedly lived the Ranger Creed, should not be afforded such courtesy.
After the last plane left, the military and state department gave wildly varying figures for how many AMERICANS were left behind. Estimates ranged from 100 to well over 1,000. Ex-military and patriotic Americans worked with underground networks and successfully did what Donahue and others failed to do – get AMERICANS out of Afghanistan. As recently as April 2023, US Senator Marsha Blackburn reported that:
“On August 31, 2021, when Biden ended the evacuation operation, there were anywhere from 4,000 to 9,000 Americans left in Afghanistan. Around 175 Americans are still in Afghanistan today, some held captive by the Taliban. What a disgrace. On his way out the door, Biden also handed the Taliban at least $7.2 billion of American weaponry, including aircraft, vehicles, and guns. Some of those weapons are cropping up in other countries in the hands of militants.”[i]
Worse, there were unconfirmed reports that then MG Donahue ordered as many as 50 Afghan refugees off of a USAF cargo plane to make room for a Taliban vehicle that was to be taken back to Ft Bragg/Liberty as a war trophy. The 50 Afghans were left behind to suffer their fate at the hands of the vengeful Taliban.[ii]
Critics may say that he was “just following orders.” This defense works for privates and captains but not for generals. Donahue had to have known he was leaving not only loyal Afghans that would be punished and/or executed behind but also AMERICANS. Whether he agreed with this or not, he took charge of the mission and at that moment he joined the group of senior leaders responsible for abandoning AMERICANS. In short, he owned the events that transpired during and after his short tenure in Kabul.
In 1993, Rangers and other conventional and special operations personnel heroically rescued stranded Americans in Mogadishu. Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they did the same and risked their lives to rescue US servicemembers and civilians captured or at risk of capture. Something happened by 2021 that made generals such as Donahue think it was now acceptable to leave AMERICANS behind. It is as if the Ranger Creed has no significance anymore; just a relic of a bygone era when words such as loyalty and honor were moral imperatives, not meaningless fluff on general officer reports.
MG Donahue was rewarded for his efforts. After leaving AMERICANS behind and pushing Afghans off of planes, he was promoted to LTG and is now the 18th Airborne Corps Commander at Ft Bragg/Liberty. His famous picture from 30 August 2021 is still regarded as heroic by many.
The missions I went on in Iraq and Afghanistan were undoubtedly not as dangerous as the ones he went on when he was a younger officer. However, like almost everyone around me, we went on missions with the belief that if attacked, our military would move heaven and earth to get out, alive or dead. “I will never leave a fallen comrade” is a powerful creed that makes soldiers fight harder knowing that their military leaders won’t abandon them. Many US servicemembers (active duty, government, contractors, etc) executed this core ideology during the wars. They did so without regard for personal safety or for their life because to do so would let fellow countrymen down. The creed meant something. At the present time I have doubt that generals would do the right thing if I was recalled to active duty and deployed to combat. Even the inkling of political expediency superseding military ethos frightens me.
Throughout history, soldiers have fought harder knowing that they would be rescued if jeopardized in combat. If they died, they did so knowing their military would do its utmost to retrieve their bodies. Conversely, mass surrenders usually happen when soldiers lose hope of relief from other military units. This is one of the fundamental reasons that the Ranger Creed was created in the first place.
Modern generals won’t risk the creed anymore because doing so likely puts their promotion and standing amongst fellow generals at risk. It may even put a lucrative post-military job in peril. Moral courage is becoming an undesirable qualification for promotion it seems in the new modern military. I pray the 18th Airborne Corps doesn’t go to war in the near future. Its commander does not seem to be up to the moral task of standing up for the Ranger Creed. Doing the moral and correct thing could risk a 4th star.
John Hughes, MD
West Point Class of 1996
Veteran of Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan
Member of STARRS.US
President of MacArthur Society of West Point Graduates