Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:26 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:26 | SYDNEY

Should generals ever resign in protest?

31 January 2012 18:24

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Over the Christmas break I read the recently published 'Manstein: Hitler's Greatest General' by the erudite Major General R.A.M.S. 'Mungo' Melvin. What appealed to me was the account of Manstein's conflict with Hitler.

Manstein was probably the pre-eminent operational-level general, fighting mainly on the Eastern Front, and referred to as one of the military geniuses of the 20th century. He continually clashed with Hitler over the operational use of military force as the Soviets gained supremacy and pushed towards the German border.

His popularity was such that he was spoken of by those that conspired against Hitler as the man they would like to have had as part of their conspiracy. Manstein is reputed to have said, 'Prussian field marshals do not mutiny', which meant that he survived the aftermath of the failed 20 July 1944 plot against Hitler.

The issue that regularly arose for Manstein was not so much mutiny but whether he should resign in protest at the restrictions placed by Hitler on his operational use of the armies under his command. Hitler justified these restrictions on strategic grounds but all Manstein could see was the destruction of the German armies in the east and the loss of the war.

This re-examination of history achieved modern relevance for me because the issue of resignation came up last week in reference to a most modern commander, General David Petraeus. His reasons for not resigning were remarkably similar to those used by Manstein in 1944.

In his own post-war, post-Nuremburg memoir 'Lost Victories', Manstein commented that an argument against senior officer resignation was that a senior military commander 'is no more able to pack up his bags and go home than any other soldier' and 'the soldier in the field is not in the pleasant position of a politician who is always at liberty to climb off the bandwagon when things go wrong or the line taken by the government does not suit him. A soldier has to fight where and when he is ordered'.

The Petraeus parallel emerged from an apparently well-researched extract in the Washington Post about the negotiations leading up to Obama's Afghan drawdown. The extract came from a recently published book by Paula Broadwell called 'All In: The Education of General David Petraeus'.

The extract addressed the period 2009-11 when President Obama considered and then announced the withdrawal of the 33,000 surge troops from Afghanistan. His final decision was to withdraw 10,000 surge troops by the end of 2011 and, against the advice of his generals and his Secretary of Defense, to withdraw the balance by the end of the US summer in 2012.

I have expressed the view that President Obama made this decision for self-serving political reasons — the US presidential elections at the end of 2012. The consequence was to be that the President denied his generals the full 2012 fighting season with the majority of their troops, thus significantly increasing the risk of failure in Afghanistan.

Many, including the extraordinarily influential General Jack_Keane, who was also a mentor to Petraeus, advised Petraeus to resign because President Obama's decision 'not only protracts the war but risks the mission'. In the extract, Petraeus is reported to have emailed back: 'I don't think quitting would serve our country...More likely to create a crisis. And, I told POTUS I'd support his ultimate decision. Besides, the troops can't quit...'

It was this last statement about the troops that caught my attention because it was the same as used by Manstein. At the time, Petraeus had been nominated as Director CIA and in his confirmation hearings he repeated his view:

Our troopers don't get to quit, and I don't think commanders should contemplate that, again, as any kind of idle action. That would be an extraordinary action, in my view. And at the end of the day, this is not about me...This is about our country. And the best step for our country, with the commander in chief having made a decision, is to execute that decision to the very best of our ability.

Of course the two situations are vastly different. For Nazi Germany, it was a war of national survival. For this president, Afghanistan is a remote campaign which, in his view, does not directly threaten US essential interests. And of course the two national leaders, Hitler and Obama, are not comparable in any meaningful way at all. But the importance of alignment of national policy through strategy to the tactical level is as important as it ever was. And if there is a clash, it is the general that steps down.

Having not taken his generals' advice, it is now indisputable that the war in Afghanistan is Obama's war. But I wonder if Petraeus, for all the responsibility that he had as commander in Afghanistan, made time to read the newly published Manstein book.