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

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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.

Written By

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.



  1. Friend

    January 11, 2023 at 4:54 pm

    Well the Ethnic Americans of the MAGA tend to favor El Chapo and Vagner as their preferred armies of choice. Which basically means that they want KGB to take ownership of the aircraft carriers.
    The creation of Ethnic American is crucial to the establishment of the ownership of das Kapital in the United States. There is no legal basis for the ownership of capital in the U.S. without the rule of the Ethnic American.
    Now, in order to facilitate the creation of the Ethnic American, the core provision is to establish the Ethnic American Church. This will be done by El Chapo, along the provisions of the Republican Party.
    The image of Ethnic American Church will be transferred from the image of the Russian Orthodox Church under the instruction of the MAGA

  2. David Chang

    January 11, 2023 at 5:43 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    People should reject the strategy consulting companies which serve to atheism political parties. Although they call themselves think tank, they always bring wrong war and wrong financial policy to all people, they are like the German General Staff. But before leaving, Mr. von Neumann is baptized and repent. May God grant him peace.

    They are anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics and law scholars, they call themselves scientist, and their sin that makes socialism warfare is from ancient Europe and Asia atheism philosophy.

    God bless America.

  3. Walker

    January 11, 2023 at 6:35 pm

    The irony of a retired Lt Colonel asking us not to listen to retired Generals and instead listen to him.

    Like everything this guy says, not well thought out.

  4. David Chang

    January 11, 2023 at 6:48 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Nation or State church is forbidden by the article 1 of Ten Commandments, people in the world should not worship nation or state, but Martin Luther establish nation church and help people to makes War, so every people and every church should obey Ten Commandments.

    God bless America.

  5. Steve

    January 11, 2023 at 7:03 pm

    Davis: “ It doesn’t matter if we consider the claims fraudulent or not, Putin believes those territories as Russian.”

    Putin also believes all the former Soviet Union should be part of Russia, and Eastern Europe under its thumb. Better to stand up to Putin now, when all it takes is U.S. & NATO aid to Ukraine, then wait until he moves for the Baltics, which are NATO territory the U.S. is pledged to defend. Or would Davis then argue that the Baltics, like Ukraine, aren’t really worth defending?

    Just as we shouldn’t automatically defer to someone a retired General, retired Lt. Colonels who have been wrong from the start of the Ukraine War don’t deserve any deference.

  6. Kelvin Clarke

    January 11, 2023 at 7:28 pm

    So essentially, Daniel Davis is recommending what?
    According to him, the US national interests are two fold: limiting the war to Ukraine and not providing any security assurances to Ukraine. His rationale is that retired military pundits are unreliable and that Russia is more likely to use nuclear weapons if threatened with defeat. There is an element of plausibility about both of these ideas, although it is certainly untrue that military pundits supportive of weaponising Ukraine are necessarily wrong or that it is even remotely likely that Russia would actually use nuclear weapons at any conceivable stage in Ukraine.
    While it is true that many would support limiting the war to Ukraine and not providing security assurances, Davis does not elaborate as to what that would mean. Does he mean that Ukraine will ultimately lose the war anyway and that American involvement will cause a loss of face? Does he mean that the current situation will stabilise like the situation in Donbas prior to February, 2022? What does Davis consider to be the end game?
    Because Russia’s endgames are clear. Either victory or defeat. Everyone in Ukraine and Eastern Europe knows this as fact. If Russia wins, Ukraine will be brutalised, murdered, raped, abducted and humiliated without any bounds. The countries surrounding Ukraine, NATO countries, will be subject to intimidation and plausibly deniable violence, if not actual invasion into the future. Europe will be insecure in the face of Russian success for generations, threatened by all of the dangers that Davis advocates avoiding in Ukraine.
    The USA and all of her Allies, have every reason to see Ukraine as their strategic issue.

  7. Kevin Sweet

    January 11, 2023 at 7:37 pm

    If you believe the Nuclear Threat coming from the Kremlin you are the one not thinking.
    Unless you believe that Putin and his military are suicidal.
    Consider what would happen in Russia resorted to nuclear weapons….NATO and the U.S. would have no choice but to declare war on Russia and would go on to destroy Russia’s armies in a conventional war all the while letting Putin and the Russian people know that if they hit NATO or U.S. forces with a Nuclear weapon we would respond in same.
    Add to this China and India would turn on Russia immediately, Russia would face worldwide outrage utterly alone and with no real future.

  8. CharlieLimaKilo

    January 11, 2023 at 8:39 pm

    Every officer above the rank of major or lieutenant commander had better acquire political skills. You don’t get to be a general officer by being politically complacent. It sounds like the author may have missed a class or two on the subject. Regardless, any astute reader of current political news cannot fail to wonder about the competence level and motivation of our current crop of flag officers. One thing, though, is very apparent: they are very much political animals. Upon retirement, most will be highly paid ‘consultants’ for the defense industry and corporate media. Smh. I have little faith in most of them, either.

  9. H.R. Holm

    January 11, 2023 at 11:01 pm

    So, Walker, tell us—-just whom amongst those rah-rah Ukraine war-rooter retired generals *is* well-thought-out—-and just how?

  10. Steve

    January 11, 2023 at 11:33 pm

    An intelligent assessment. Despite their years of service, many in leadership appear more adept at playing politics than winning battles. How many servicemen died in Vietnam because Gen. Westmoreland played the part of successful general and continuously lied about the war’s progress?

  11. J.Stevenson

    January 11, 2023 at 11:39 pm

    Agree with Walker. The author would rather have America and the West just turn a blind eye to the most egregious assault on territorial integrity since the Cold War.. oh Russia has nukes so we must let them do what they want. By that logic, every second rate nation will be starting nuclear weapons programs, as it’s now the only sure way to safeguard one’s borders. Great ideas Daniel Davis.. how you got a book published is beyond me.

  12. Fan of Supeman

    January 11, 2023 at 11:52 pm

    Sure, despite rank think critically.

    A couple of geopolical points (ie, US interests primary) Davis did not address: 1) US has donated apx. 10% of our annual defense budget to Ukraine. Combined with increasingly biting sanctions, this has resulting in a radical degradation of the Russian army. By contrast, starting with Carter, spurred by Reagan, the US spent trillions on the arms race that helped end the cold war. US investment in Ukraine is a bargain.

    2) Who are Putin’s allies? Iran North Korea, and extremist Republicans. Ukraine’s allies, pretty much the rest of the world.
    3) Should the war expand to Nato, Russia would be crushed. They are losing to Ukraine.
    4) Should we fear a nuclear launch on the US ensuring Russia’s own demise? I suppose part of the answer is whether you embrace democracy and self determination with the passion of our founders…”give me liberty or give me death.”
    5) Climate change is our greatest existential crisis. It can only be overcome with global cooperation. Allowing naked aggression to defeat international law will upend the global architecture (championed by, and highly advantageous to the US) needed to solve this existential crisis.

  13. Brad Arnold

    January 12, 2023 at 2:58 am

    Given how pro-Ukrainian this website is, the article is sacrilege. The US “blob” is pro-escalation, and examples of inane mission creep are plentiful. Russia’s “police action” ought to be viewed primarily as a financial attack on the West. You will get a blank stare from those Generals, but the ground truth is not the best way to understand the Ukraine dynamic. Ukraine is a money pit, but the real target is Western countries mortaged to the hilt during the good days and being unable to cope with the bad days. Turns out in a liberal democracy, the craven politicians borrow whatevery they can to win the next election. Go figure.

  14. Enfield

    January 12, 2023 at 4:19 am

    It is impossible to win a war against a superpower. It is totally pointless to try to convince today’s people to believe in such things, at least those that have a military background. Surely there are many who want to believe in fairy tales without knowing what it means if a superpower loses a war.

    The leaders of the free world have tufted everyone in the West to believing in a miracle that liberates all the peoples of the world but for some unknown reason this liberation is moved into the future in daily basis.

  15. Whodunnit

    January 12, 2023 at 6:08 am

    I’m always happy to see an article from comrade Davies. Not so much the article itself – blah, blah, blah, blah, Ukraine can’t win, blah, blah, blah, blah – but the comments from the crazies that he seems to be able to pull out from the woodwork.

  16. Michael Droy

    January 12, 2023 at 7:07 am

    “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. ”

    Some seriously bad Maths here. 1.3m in service now, 10% is 130,000 or 0.03% of population (100x as many).
    That ignores reserves and National guard who may get called up to visit say Iraq.
    And that is now. Pretty much all Americans get to leave the military eventually (US is not Ukraine). If typical service is 10 years (probably much less) then there are probably 5 times as many who have served in the military as there currently are. Actually a lot more since many will still be around who went to Vietnam (19% of the age male group) and some who served in ww2.

    So out by a factor of 500x to 1000x

  17. Michael Droy

    January 12, 2023 at 7:15 am

    I’d like to think that the Colonel is actually telling us some truths that the DOD don’t want us to know.
    But we have seen before that he is as on message as anyone else.

    Rather he is just pushing the official line and the official line has changed. We had Ukraine was doing great in April to actually it isn’t so clear in June to Ukraine doing fantastically from September to December. This was clearly being said by Ukrainian leaders, and so this is what was being parroted by off the record DOD staff talking to press.

    Colonel Davis was in line with the off the record voices and Kiev. The Generals daren’t say that (because they earn so much from MIC) so they were obviously wrong.

    Truth is that this has been a nightmare, Colonel Davis is lying just as much as Kiev (if less than the generals). The situation this January is truly awful.

  18. EMIP

    January 12, 2023 at 7:41 am

    Generals are only people and just as prone to make errors in judgement as anyone else. They run the gamut, from ex-Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commandant of the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad, to Navy Rear Admiral Robert Gilbeau convicted of a felony charge of lying to federal investigators about his relationship with a foreign defense contractor at the heart of a sweeping bribery and fraud scandal.

    With regard to the war in Ukraine, we should not lose sight of the fact that Ukraine has (or rather had) a 2022 population of 39,701,739, a 8.8% decline from 2021 which was 43,531,422, a 0.86% decline from 2020. Whereas, the population of the Russian Federation in 2022 was 144,713,314.

    Rather than rely on the words of generals who sometimes have “a tendency to fight the last war”, I would have preferred to go with the sage advice of a proven statesman such as former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger. Who, NINE YEARS AGO on 5 March 2014 wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post titled To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End:

    “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them … Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up.”

    Had Dr. Kissinger’s advice been followed, tens of thousands of lives on both sides would have been saved and the possibility of nuclear escalation would not be a consideration.

  19. Jon

    January 12, 2023 at 8:56 am

    I love half this article, and dislike the other half. Stellar point on the effectiveness of our upper leadership in the military, and so concerning that we may be making the same mistakes that could lead to a Russia-like embarrassment should we ever get involved in a real, major war. On the other hand, this appeasement of Putin needs to be handled very carefully, lest he learn to use the threat of nukes to get his way in the future.

  20. Wilko Schutzendorf

    January 12, 2023 at 9:41 am

    Don’t listen to the generals.
    Listen to Mr. Davis … the guy who wrote that Ukraine needed a miracle to retake Kherson.

  21. David Chang

    January 12, 2023 at 5:24 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Ukraine socialism warfare is old-school war, just like the early and late Vietnam socialism warfare. It should be written in history textbooks of all countries, so that young people will understand the lies of Communist Party, Democratic Party, and SPD.

    SPD, Communist Party and Democratic Party always claim that they love peace and protect human rights, but in Ukraine socialism warfare, Biden and Putin want to make decisive war in Ukraine. While Zelenskyy ran for Ukraine president, he agree with Biden’s policy: support abortion and prohibit people from having guns. But now he should agree that people could have guns, should repent to God and obey Ten Commandments.

    Moreover, the sin of Vietnam socialism warfare. Some America soldiers believe that they will LIBERATE people in Vietnam. Therefore, there are PLA in the US military, the constitution thought of U.S. military in charge of intelligence is the same as PLA.

    Then, Democratic Party declare war on Soviet Russia in the hearing of House. Democratic Party who opposed war in the late Vietnam war, become the violent Democratic Party again. Democratic Party work hard to cut the defense and nuclear budgets for many years, oppose veterans to serve as police, but now they push us to war.

    Democratic Party and Communist Party are happy to promote war, but they usually stay away from battlefield, they want others to die for them. So Rep. Tulsi Gabbard shall know that no people is good, but God is true and righteous.

    God bless America.

  22. Tim

    January 12, 2023 at 8:17 pm

    I agree w/ mr Davis that we should be skeptical of former military leaders and their opinions on the invasion of Ukraine. However I have to disagree w/ his conclusions that popular opinions that Ukraine will win the war are wrong. Certainly Russia has more population and resources than Ukraine and could ultimately overcome the Ukrainian defenses. But at this stage, Russia has proven itself incapable of organizing personnel, supplies, weapons, strategy and tactics to do so. With continuing western sanctions and failure to reform the Russian military, it’s chances at victory are slim at best. The opposite is more likely – Ukrainian military resupplied by the west, continued mobilization of a population dedicated to reclaiming their country, their success is more likely tho it’s heavily dependent on western resupply.
    Secondly, mr Davis also states that America’s vital national interests are 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. That perspective is a bit short-sighted. Americas vital interest is a friendly and democratic Europe – and a war of aggression where Russia brazenly invades and attempts to take over a country bordering several nato countries is very destabilizing, and threatens their existence thru direct threats or indirect threats attempting to destabilize their governments. Supporting Ukraine is vital to shoring up our Allie’s and partners in Europe.

  23. Eric Bjorgan

    January 18, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    The mujahideen beat the USSR in Afghanistan. The North Vietnamese beat the USA in Vietnam. The Taliban beat the USA in Afghanistan. Korea you can maybe call it a tie? Superpowers do lose wars, while retaining their nuclear capabilities in reserve.

    EMIP: Ukraine was never a member of NATO. Russia’s propaganda says they are fighting NATO. In reality, this is a colonial war where Russia wants to retake the lands formerly claimed by the USSR (against their will).

  24. Clifford Nelson

    January 21, 2023 at 12:41 am

    Thanks again for a good article. What so many do not understand is that getting to general rank involves being a good politician more than anything else. Marshall was put in charge of the Army because Marshall was a straight shooter and would tell Roosevelt the truth.

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