Once More, Unto The Breach: What Makes Supreme Commanders Successful

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

“Once more, unto the breach,” wrote Shakespeare, a fitting sentiment for an essay aimed at continuing a conversation that has unfolded over several articles, one of which has already alluded to Henry V.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article describing the merits of optimism as a character trait of supreme commanders. In response, Ryan Leach and David Danford co-wrote an essay that disagreed, arguing that, instead, America should seek out cynical generals, or, “leaders who will paint the situation in the worst possible light.”

Leach and Danford should be applauded—whereas too many others are content to lazily launch one-liners from the sidelines or ad hominem remarks on social media, they’ve taken the time and effort to mount a thought-filled response. I appreciate their effort and find that they’ve raised some important points, questions, and anecdotes. But as I read their piece and reflected on my own, I realized that the response suggested the presence of a disagreement where there really isn’t (or shouldn’t be)—and in so doing this might just warp understanding of what successful supreme commanders need to be and do. Continue reading “Once More, Unto The Breach: What Makes Supreme Commanders Successful”

Why America Needs Optimistic Generals

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

It’s not very often that a US commander in Afghanistan sets off a social media firestorm. But recently, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson in his final press conference as outgoing US commander in Afghanistan, was accused of wearing rose-colored glasses or blinders. Others took out their frustration on him for the interminable nature of America’s long war in Afghanistan. One voice even went so far as to indict America’s senior military leadership and wrote that the “indefatigable optimism of [America’s] generals is a national liability.” Continue reading “Why America Needs Optimistic Generals”

Private George Eber Duclo and the Human Experience of War

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Editor’s Note: This is the story of a single Marine in the Great War. His name was Private George Eber Duclo. He was from Manitou Springs, Colorado.

One of our non-resident fellows, Major (P) ML Cavanaugh, lives in Manitou Springs and wrote a five-part series on Duclo for the Pikes Peak Bulletin (April 26 through the May 24, 2018 editions). The Bulletin is largely a print operation and so the series is not easily accessible online, which is why we’ve asked for and received permission to run the whole series as one large essay (with some minor modifications).

Duclo’s life at peace and death at war—one hundred years ago this month—were so compelling that Cavanaugh also penned some words on the experience of learning about Duclo in an essay that ran in the Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2018.

Today, Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy stand near Duclo’s hometown of Manitou Springs. In the most obvious sense, this is where his life intersects with the Modern War Institute—right now, soldiers who call Fort Carson home and Air Force Academy graduates are serving, as Duclo did, in American wars abroad.

But there is a deeper connection. Duclo’s story is one with near-universal echoes that travel far across time and place, resonating in the enduring elements of the human experience of war. Continue reading “Private George Eber Duclo and the Human Experience of War”

Star Wars and American Strategic Myths

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Over the weekend, millions of Americans partook in a powerful strategic myth by heading to see the next offering from the Star Wars franchise: Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Considering its generational range and cultural reach, Star Wars may be the most important story about war since Thucydides wrote The Peloponnesian War. And it’s influence on the military has been profound: from forward-stationed soldiers calling their counter-mortar protection “R2-D2” to former four-star generals letting phrases like “disturbance in the Force” slip into their interviews; a recent, $10 billion Pentagon contract had been nicknamed “JEDI,” while, most notably, the Strategic Defense Initiative, a Reagan-era space-based missile defense program, quickly earned a catchier nickname: “Star Wars.”

While some will inevitably dismiss the films as fairy tales or space operas, their immense grip on the American imagination means that understanding them, and other myths, is important to unlocking American attitudes toward war and strategy. Continue reading “Star Wars and American Strategic Myths”

“Row Well and Live”: A Military Cliche That Deserves to Die

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

“Row well and live” is a perfect slogan if you happen to work at the DMV. But that saying has no place in a modern military headquarters, and to suggest it as guidance to young military officers is inaccurate and inappropriate.

But, somehow, I just keep bumping into this pernicious phrase. Like a zombie extra on The Walking Dead, this motto just stumbles forward, well after rigor mortis has set in, alternating groans between “urghhhh” and “Row well and live.”

I’ve kicked this dead horse before, so I’ll try to be brief and merely throw another shovel-full of fresh dirt on this rotten corpse of an expression. Continue reading ““Row Well and Live”: A Military Cliche That Deserves to Die”

Reel War at the Oscars: Lessons for Warriors from the Red Carpet

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

He’s turning ninety, so he’s seen a lot of war. Even at thirteen and a half inches tall, with a golden body weighing only eight and a half pounds—Oscar’s been around and has some stories to tell.

The little statuette, of course, nicknamed “Oscar” (which may or may not be due to his having resembled someone’s “Uncle Oscar”), is more formally referred to as the “Academy Award of Merit.” Twenty-four of these will be handed out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Sunday night at Hollywood’s annual gathering to applaud great artistic and technical achievement. The competition is fierce among the fifty-ninenominated movies; it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been more real blood on the red carpet beyond James Cameron nearly bludgeoning Harvey Weinstein with his Oscar twenty years ago.

The Oscars also have a distinct martial heritage. The first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role was given to Emil Jannings, in part for his role in the 1928 silent film The Last Command, set during the Russian Revolution, a story that was inspired by a real-life general in the Imperial Russian Army named Theodore A. Lodigensky who fled the communist revolution and opened a restaurant in New York City (Lodigensky would also go on to play an “ex-military man” in several silent films himself). Continue reading “Reel War at the Oscars: Lessons for Warriors from the Red Carpet”

Yes, Unfortunately, Sometimes Militaries Must ‘Destroy the town to save it’

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Fifty years ago this week, during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a US Army major famously remarked to a journalist, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Pilloried for its callousness, one fellow officer who claimed to have been present even said it went “down in history as an example of some of the insanity that was Vietnam.”

Myself an Army major, I know how crazy it sounds to most people. And, yet, while I am on the record as strongly opposed to empty platitudes like “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things” (the military’s purpose is to protect and defend), I also know this infamous quotation from fifty years ago reflects one of the harsh, paradoxical realities of war: sometimes, unfortunately, militaries must destroy in order to save. Continue reading “Yes, Unfortunately, Sometimes Militaries Must ‘Destroy the town to save it’”