Hugh Rawson Headshot

Never Ever Retreat

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The United States has begun withdrawing forces from the Pech Valley in Afghanistan, an area once considered to be critical in the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But this is not a retreat, mind you. As Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, U.S. commander for eastern Afghanistan, told The New York Times, "People say, 'You are coming out of the Pech'; I prefer to look at it as realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people."

Gen. Campbell is operating in a grand military tradition. Armies -- and this doesn't apply just to American armies -- hardly ever retreat. Rather, they rearrange their lines, make an adjustment of the front, gracefully retire, engage in mobile maneuvering, or effect a change of base. ("Change of base" was Gen. George B. McClellan's preferred euphemism when he began backing away from the Confederate capital at Richmond on June 26, 1862.)

Retreat also can be avoided by breaking off contact with the enemy, disengaging, or conducting a retrograde movement or withdrawal. Thus, the attack by South Vietnamese troops on Laos in 1971, which began with a euphemism -- an incursion as opposed to an invasion -- also ended with one. As Frances FitzGerald reported in Fire in the Lake (1972), "It was not until some of the commanders on the ground threatened to take the troops out and the retreat had already begun that the order for withdrawal was formally given."

Then there is the redeployment, which has been justified in much the same way as the realigning of forces in Afghanistan. After President Ronald Reagan ordered Marines in Beirut to be evacuated to ships offshore, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said "It's not really a pull-out at all. It's a redeployment to a place where you can be more effective" (New York Times, Feb. 8, 1984).

Avoidance of retreat by the military minded is of considerable antiquity. Speaking of Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia from 274 to 239 B.C., the historian A. R. Burn said, "He was also probably the first man to call a retreat a 'strategic movement to the rear'" (A Traveller's History of Greece, 1965). Gonatas -- a nickname, meaning "kneecap," from the piece of armor that covered it -- was a sharp man with words and did not always deal in euphemisms. He also deserves to be remembered for his reply to a poet who suggested that he might be divine: "The man who carries my chamberpot knows better."

Today, retreat actually has been banned from official American military vocabulary. The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, amended as recently as Jan. 31, 2011, defines more than 6,000 words and phrases, but entries in the Rs skip from restraint of loads to restricted area, without a stop in between.

No retreat.