Best Defense

Is there such a thing as a great retreat?

It is a military commonplace that the greatest military results come not at the moment of victory, but in attacking the ensuing retreat, when the foe is tired, demoralized and disorganized.

Napoleons_retreat_from_moscow

 

It is a military commonplace that the greatest military results come not at the moment of victory, but in attacking the ensuing retreat, when the foe is tired, demoralized and disorganized. As Churchill put it in lecturing one of his generals during World War II, “It is the moment when the victor is most exhausted that the greatest forfeit can be exacted from the vanquished.”

This makes me wonder if anyone has ever done a methodical study of great retreats. What are their characteristics? Are there examples of generals who pulled out so well that they snatched future victory from the jaws of present defeat? (For example, the British withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940—except I think the evidence favors the theory that Hitler paused because he still hoped for an armistice from England.) Chosin Reservoir strikes me as a model of how to retreat, and especially how to retain cohesion in dire circumstances. Are there other instances of that?

Anyway, it strikes me as an interesting subject, and an area where I haven’t seen a lot of study. Especially among military officers, likely because no one wants to be “that expert on retreat.”

Can anyone recommend a book on the subject? I looked around and couldn’t find one.

Image credit: Adolph Northen/Wikimedia Commons

 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola