Yesterday, ML Cavanaugh offered a hearty endorsement of American generalship. He argued that “successful commanders must always travel a dark road of despair to get to the dawn that attends strategic gains. From Pershing to Petraeus, the natural optimism required for this difficult path is a large part of what has made America’s top supreme commanders effective and victorious.” He concluded that America was “better off with generals imbued with the right touch of ‘indefatigable optimism.’ Because without this trait, America would be doomed to defeat after defeat—indeed, the country likely wouldn’t even exist.”

Cavanaugh’s faith seems misplaced, and perhaps even dangerous. Even a cursory survey of contemporary American military history reveals no lack of general officer optimism. General officer optimism in Somalia was paired with mission creep and eventual defeat. Wesley Clark expressed his optimistic view of the utility of airpower while the United States came perilously close to a ground war in the Balkans. The optimism of Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez nearly proved disastrous in Iraq. And the “indefatigable optimism” of our generals in Afghanistan has made it seem as if victory was around the proverbial corner for a mere seventeen years. While the generals’ optimism may not have been the proximate cause of the Army’s woes in these instances, it would seem that, at a minimum, unrestrained optimism has a downside.

Why Cavanaugh settles on the word “optimistic” isn’t clear. In his many examples, he describes military leaders who were steadfast, determined, committed, and faithful, but it is hard to imagine them as optimistic. Instead, they were more likely quite grim. Was Washington “feeling or showing hope for the future” as he convened firing squads to deter desertion and ordered the hanging of mutineers? He may not have given up, but optimism seems too cheerful. If by optimistic, Cavanaugh means that military leaders must have a certain grim determination, then we might agree, but optimistic seems like the wrong word.

Now, perhaps Cavanaugh means leaders must not be oppressive or moody. After All, Schofield’s definition of discipline is clear:

The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. . . . The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander.

But again, this does not mean optimistic. If anything, leaders who walk around with cheerful attitudes not appropriate to the dire circumstances common to war rarely inspire confidence. Who wants to follow someone who seems unaware of the challenge ahead, detached from reality, or above them?

Perhaps this is why rousing speeches about war are rarely optimistic and cheerful. Churchill talked about choking in one’s own blood. Shakespeare presented Henry V as rousing his men, stacking bodies in the breach and shedding blood together. There is something about describing the true cost of what’s to come and the uncertainty of victory that steels mens’ souls, with which optimism cannot compete.

Optimism and hope for the future are surely good things, but in war they are too abstract—too far away. Soldiers might join the military for abstract reasons, be it love of country or in defense of the tribe, but they tend to stay and fight for the people in the mud next to them. Leadership is not about spunky optimism in hard times, but acknowledgement of sacrifice and the grim realities of war. There is nothing glorious or optimistic about the dirty, miserable existence of a soldier. As T.R. Fehrenbach reminds us, to win, nations  must put their “young men into the mud.”

James Warner Bellah captured the grim reality of war well, when he said, “A dead soldier who has given his life because of the failure of his leader is a dreadful sight before God. Like all dead soldiers, he was tired, possibly frightened to his soul, and there he is on top of all that never again to see his homeland.“ Recognizing this is what should motivate leaders.

Henry V, or at least Shakespeare, seems to understand this. Although his rousing speech to his men begins with an appeal to high-minded ideals, it ends with a grim reminder of the tangible cost. Instead of optimism, the king inspired his men with an admission of reality and pledge to suffer together. He does not even promise victory, because “war is a contest of wills” of which the outcome is never certain. Soldiers tend to shy away from leaders who talk as if success is assured, almost as if such thinking is more likely to lead to a rout than a victory. War requires determination and a willingness to suffer, not optimism.

The grimness of it all is built into the military profession. One might even say that pessimism and cynicism are part and parcel of military leadership. In his seminal work The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington made it clear that the military ethic was one not of idealism, but of pragmatism and cynicism: “As between the good and the evil in man, the military ethic emphasizes the evil. . . . The military view of man is thus decidedly pessimistic. Man has elements of goodness, strength, and reason, but he is also evil, weak, and irrational. The man of the military ethic is essentially the man of Hobbes.”

The realism of Huntington’s military ethic is an essential element of the profession’s part in civil-military relations. Civilian leaders are always prone to pursuing wars for high-minded causes, so it will always fall to the military professional to remind them of the true cost of war.

Take, for instance, the runup to the Iraq war. While President George W. Bush was rallying the nation and building a coalition of the willing to wage preventative war and make the world safe for democracy, his policy advisors were advertising a short war to Congress and the American people. Paul Wolfowitz went so far as to claim that the Iraqis would “greet us as liberators” and there was therefore no reason to expect a long and difficult occupation. By comparison, Gen. Eric Shinseki was downright pessimistic in his appraisal of the cost and length of the impending conflict. During testimony before Congress, Shinseki did his duty and told the uncomfortable truth—victory was possible, but at considerable cost. Shinseki retired as chief of staff of the Army soon after the war began, clearing away those that had stood in opposition of the slimmed-down Rumsfeld-Franks invasion and occupation plan. The runup to Iraq, although dramatic, was not unusual in the fact that politicians downplayed the risks and drummed up the rewards.  Shinseki knew his duty and had the courage to execute it even when doing so meant certain doom for his career. At the time, Paul Wolfowitz called Shinseki’s assessment “wildly off the mark,” but history proved that a military leader’s healthy pessimism and cynicism were critically important.

Informed decisions are at the heart of civil-military relations. In a free society like ours, citizens have a voice and a choice. The only wars compatible with our political arrangement are those wars tied to the defense of the nation. Neverending wars for empire or glory cannot work. Even distant wars portrayed as advanced engagements in an existential but distant conflict tend not to work. In short, if national power is a product of national will, the only wars that are possible are the wars that must obviously be fought, no matter the cost. A sure way to determine if such a war is actually necessary is to lay out in gruesome detail the true nature and cost of the war. America does not need optimistic generals; it needs cynics—leaders who will paint the situation in the worst possible light. If things end up better than predicted, we are all better off for it. But if they end up worse, we suffer a great deal.

In essence, the essential characteristic of a general officer is to be a cynic. A general must prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But preparing for the worst means truly grasping how dark the darkness is, and how terrible things could be. More importantly, it requires an expectation that it will be that bad. Only then could a general officer reasonably be expected to prepare for the worst.

Military leaders are also the most familiar with the the true cost of war, so they must communicate it to the people for whom they work. This is not because victory is impossible, but because victory is often so costly. It always seems simple on paper, but as Clausewitz reminds us, in war the simple things are hard. Every battle comes at a terrible cost: lives spent, blood shed, minds broken, families ripped apart. The trauma of war is often so much more than can by tabulated in blood and treasure, as veterans can always attest. If our nation’s warriors are not going to remind the American people just how terrible war really is—just how hard, ugly, and miserable it is—who will? Optimism before these battles seems wrongheaded.

“Indefatigable optimism” during a conflict seems just as problematic as a lack of realism before the start. How does one tell the difference between optimism and naivete? And indefatigability itself can be problematic when combined with unrealistic optimism. As some have pointed out, there is no one more dangerous to our profession than those who are stupid and diligent. It is possible for military leaders to lose in war. That they must remain steadfast when they do does not mean they should be optimistic or indefatigable.

In the end, Cavanaugh’s endorsement of optimism, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, seems self-defeating. And this will come at a high cost, but not to the optimistic general, sitting back in his command post. At worst the general officer will be passed over for promotion. No, the cost will come in the form of the blood and guts of the fighting men and women of this nation. America’s sons and daughters deserve to be led to victory by grim, dark generals who know the true face of war but who have the stomach to face it when necessary.


Maj. Ryan Leach and Maj. David Danford are instructors in the Defense and Strategic Studies program at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton, DoD