Advice From Two Generals

…on coping with adversity and defeat.

In March 1942, the British General William Slim was appointed to command of a Corps in Burma, which was then under heavy attack by the Japanese Army. Within two months, he suffered a severe defeat, with heavy casualties, and was forced to withdraw his forces to India. In his book Defeat Into Victory, he described the emotional pain of this defeat:

The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted…Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory–for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. ‘Here,’ he will think, ‘I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.’ He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. he will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. ‘I have failed them,’ he will say to himself, ‘and failed my country!’ He will see himself for what he is–a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.

And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these atacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat–they are more than from victory.

(emphasis added)

Field Marshal Lord Wavell, in his book Generals and Generalship, comments on the British practice of testing military equipment by dropping it off a tower and then burying it in the mud for a few days, and continues:

Now the mind of the general in war is buried, not merely for 48 hours but for days and weeks, in the mud and sand of unreliable information and uncertain factors, and may at any time receive, from an unsuspected move of the enemy, an unforeseen accident, or a treacherous turn in the weather, a bump equivalent to a drop of at least a hundred feet on to something hard. Delicate mechanism is of little use in war; and this applies to the mind of the commander as well as his body; to the spirit of an army as well as to the weapons and instruments with which it is equipped.

3 thoughts on “Advice From Two Generals”

  1. Yes David, that is the key. The lessons to be learnt.

    The problem, of course, is with the emotional capacity to distinguish the useful lessons from the self-indulgent rationalizations.

  2. I will note that the lessons General Slim learned had to do with military tactics and strategy. He didn’t use the defeat as an excuse to decide that maybe the Imperial Japanese weren’t so bad after all and it was time to stop fighting.

  3. David,

    I don’t expect, or desire for y’all to simply surrender. But at what point do you conclude that “the people” are sending you a message? Or will it always be just – we need to double down?

    The Republican party has now lost the popular vote for the Presidency in five out of the last six elections. And the one win was a very small one. The partisan in me would urge you to just keep on keeping on. But since I do think that the opposition can always contribute mightly to the outcome – that one needs to be pushed and challenged effectively to reach one’s greatness, I would urge you to dispense with lame-assed military posturing and get down to the serious work of adapting your policies to the real world as it now exists.

Comments are closed.