Soldiers and lower ranking officers are supposed to be tactically proficient. This means they can use weapons and equipment effectively and maneuver in small units in battle. More senior officers are responsible for maneuvering larger units and for logistics and other functions to support the units in battle. Senior generals/theater commanders have 1 job – to win the war (or effect a satisfactory strategic outcome). Past American generals who actually won wars understood this well.
“Americans play to win at all times. I wouldn't give a hoot and hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor ever lose a war.”
“And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable – it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment; but you are the ones who are trained to fight: yours is the profession of arms – the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be Duty – Honor – Country.”
“In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten. Then he who continues the attack wins.”
“In each succeeding war there is a tendency to proclaim as something new the principles under which it is conducted. Not only those who have never studied or experienced the realities of war, but also professional soldiers frequently fall into the error. But the principles of warfare as I learned them at West Point remain unchanged.”
Contrast this with “loser” general speeches:
"Whenever you get some phenomenon like a war that is lost -- and it has been, in the sense of we accomplished our strategic task of protecting America against Al-Qaeda, but certainly the end state is a whole lot different than what we wanted.”
-GEN Mark Milley (Chairman JCS, lost Afghanistan)[i]
Losing a war is not a “phenomenon.” Losing a war is a complete failure of a general officer or general officers to do their job. Soldiers do soldierly tasks. Generals win wars, it is that simple.
In medieval Japanese times, losing Japanese generals frequently made atonement for their failure by committing ritual seppuku (impaling oneself on his/her own sword). Later, their head was often removed and impaled on a spike for all to see the losing general’s head. At other times in history, losing generals resigned following the loss. I am not suggesting physical violence in any form against failed American generals.
However, the only “phenomenon” witnessed from 2001-2021 was US generals paradoxically being promoted and praised for losing a war. Names like McChrystal and Petraeus continue to be spoken with names like Eisenhower and other generals who actually won wars. When Kabul fell in August 2021, no US generals resigned in disgrace to “atone” for their failure. No US generals were fired for losing a war. Instead, they remained on active duty. In retirement, they were honored with book deals, awards from West Point, consultation/speech fees, and lucrative board positions on defense firms.
Generals don’t get to pick the wars they are put in charge of. If they think a war is unwinnable due to failed political strategy or other reasons, they should resign in protest. If they continue on, they then “own” the war and the outcome. Sometimes life isn’t fair. It certainly wasn’t fair to the 2,448 servicemembers who faithfully gave everything they had, believing in their country and its military leadership. The Taliban flag was flying before the US invaded. The Taliban flag flies over Afghanistan after the US fled the country in 2021. There is no way to sugar coat the “loss” despite generals’ creativity with Word and Powerpoint.
Many jokes are centered around the object person “having one job” that they failed to do. Unfortunately, with 2,448 US servicemembers forever buried under a marble headstone, Afghanistan is not a joke and never was. Those who presided over the debacle that ended America’s longest war need to be branded with the title of “loser.” Accordingly, they should be unworthy of continued military service, monuments, statues, or other honors to commemorate their failure as generals. Until the US military fixes what was wrong (failed general officer leadership), future military failures will undoubtedly continue to plague America.
John Hughes, MD
Veteran of Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan
Member of STARRS.US
President of MacArthur Society of West Point Graduates