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Don’t Be So Quick to Listen To America’s Retired Generals on Ukraine

Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Don’t Be So Quick to Listen To America’s Retired Generals on Ukraine: Americans have always loved military leaders, especially generals; the 1970 movie Patton, about the life of the United States’ greatest World War II commander, is still popular in America. When the current crop of active and retired generals speak today, it is unsurprising that most in our country reflexively accept what they say at face value. Especially as their assessments and advice relate to American vital national interests in the Russia-Ukraine War, however, such trust should be reassessed.

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The majority of today’s retired generals, frequently appearing on television news programs and being quoted in top publications, have an abysmal track record. We would be wise to consider what they say with far more skepticism than is currently the case.

Respect the Position, but be Objective

It certainly isn’t a surprise to anyone that the American public would listen to what a general or admiral might say. Today, less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military. Barely 10 percent of those service members ever see combat. So in a country of 335 million souls, a minuscule .0003 percent have combat experience of any sort. When looking at a talking head on television who served 30 to 40 years on active duty – and once wore one to four stars on their collar – it is natural to conclude that they are the subject matter experts in warfare and should be listened to. 

Unfortunately, sometimes those who have been elevated to the highest levels are far from the best, and as a check of the record confirms, they can often be wrong on consequential matters. I personally observed many general officers in the U.S. Army during my nearly 21-year military career and saw, first-hand, how several top Army leaders showed sometimes remarkably bad judgment. Some outright deceived the American public, hiding known failures.

At no point did I see one of these officers reprimanded for their failures, censured for their errors, or held to account for their dishonesty. Though American leaders in World War II did not hesitate to fire or punish generals and other military leaders for failing to produce in combat, it is now rare for any general to be held accountable for professional shortcomings (other than for moral misconduct or being toxic leaders). 

Watching Generals from Within

For example, when I served as a Major in the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program at Fort Bliss, TX from 2007-08, the director was a one-star general, James L. Terry. As I wrote in a January 2008 analysis in the Armed Forces Journal, the FCS program – then the premier Army modernization project – was fatally flawed and in need of immediate reformation if it was to produce an improved army in the future. I was far from the only one to point out such errors, however, as the Government Accountability Office routinely identified shortcomings.

Nevertheless, none of the most egregious flaws were ever corrected. In April 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates effectively canceled the FCS program, citing many of the same failures I had identified almost 18 months earlier. After nearly a decade of effort and the loss of $20 billion, the Pentagon failed to produce so much as a single operational prototype combat vehicle. 

One might expect that the leaders of the program were reprimanded for the failure, but to the contrary, in the aftermath of the program’s cancelation, Gen. Terry, who at the time was a one-star general, was given the prestigious Legion of Merit award, promoted to a second star, given command of the elite 10th Mountain Division, and later given a third star, being elevated to the post of Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan. 

As I wrote extensively in 2012, following my return from my second combat deployment to Afghanistan, many of the senior leaders lied to the American people, claiming successes where none existed. The Washington Post followed that up in 2019 with an explosive expose “At War with the Truth” further documenting how generals and other U.S. leaders had deceived the public about the war. All those claims of mendacity were confirmed, of course, when our disastrous 20-year military fiasco collapsed before our troops could even complete the withdrawal in August 2021.

Accountability in High Ranks

No general was ever held accountable for their part in the military failure. Virtually every general ever assigned to Afghanistan gave glowing, positive reports, both to the media and to Congress. Yet their uniformly rosy claims were always wrong. As the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction detailed last November, the rot of the mission had been known for years, yet was never corrected – or admitted by our generals and admirals.

When we now hear general after general on television give their opinions on the war between Russia and Ukraine, when they provide suggestions as to what the U.S. should do, it would be wise to closely scrutinize their assessments rather than accept them at face value. A few recent claims reveal why skepticism is in order.

“Whether we like it or not,” former general Keith Kellogg told Fox News on Christmas Day, “we are a proxy to” Ukraine’s war against Russia. Kellogg advised the president to tell Putin that the U.S. will “provide enough military support for the Ukrainians to defeat the Russian army in the field, to have them leave Ukraine.” Retired Army general Ben Hodges said that Ukraine had already “achieved irreversible momentum” and that there were “no bright spots on the horizon for Russia”

Former general David Petraeus said Russia can’t win and that there is “nothing (Putin) can do” to stop Ukraine from winning. Former general and national security advisor H.R. McMaster went so far as to starkly claim that Putin was at the precipice of facing “really the collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine.” Based on this unified view of nearly every retired general officer on TV news today, one might expect the war is about over and Ukraine all but the winner. Yet the Ukrainian leadership is far more honest about the Russian opponent and about Kyiv’s prospects.

In a recent interview in The Economist, the commander of Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhny, said that Russia’s mobilization of hundreds of thousands of additional troops had been successful, that the Russian troops were fighting effectively, and that he expected a winter offensive. Western intelligence sees evidence that Russia is preparing for large-scale combat. 

Analysis of General Statements

What should be clear from observing the battlefield is that after eleven months of fighting, regardless of how many losses Russia has sustained, they still hold nearly 20 percent of Ukraine, Russia still has a major advantage in artillery fire and precision missiles, they have severely degraded the energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine, making it very difficult for Kyiv to support its army in the field. The bottom line is that it is far from certain that Ukraine is going to win its war, and it is possible Russia will launch a successful winter offensive.

Those such as Kellogg advocating more aggressive American involvement beyond supplying defensive arms have to answer some tough questions. First, how does it improve American security to risk getting drawn into a war with Russia? Putin has many times argued, including recently, that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons if its territory were threatened. 

Moscow presently considers the illegally annexed provinces of Ukraine as Russian land. It doesn’t matter if we consider the claims fraudulent or not, Putin believes those territories as Russian. If Ukraine, supplied with Western arms, ammunition, and intelligence begins to drive Russian troops out, the chances of Putin resorting to nuclear weapons will rise significantly.

America’s vital national interests are simple but very important: preventing any escalation of the war beyond the borders of Ukraine, ensuring that our European allies shoulder more of the burden for supporting Ukraine, and avoiding any appearance of providing security guarantees for Kyiv, whether explicit or implied. 

Believing that Russia is a perpetually weak state and can’t defeat Ukraine – as a number of U.S. retired generals routinely claim – is not justified by the observable progress of the war. Therefore, we need to be very cautious about taking retired generals at their word who claim the U.S. should openly engage in a proxy war with Russia. It is foolish to ignore the escalation risks – especially nuclear escalation – for the benefit of a non-treaty ally, especially when our security is otherwise not at risk. 

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A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

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Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.