A Time to Leave

You missed your chance to go to war, so now what?

A young captain was considering his options. As a lieutenant he deployed in support of a relatively small campaign at the time, and did not see much action. Soon after his nation launched a much larger campaign in another country that instantly became the United States’ main effort. His West Point classmates were jockeying for positions on the front lines and staffs of the various commands so as not to miss the big moment. Dutifully he sought a position where he hoped to prove himself in the crucible of war. The gods of war had other plans for the young officer, as he found himself relegated to a backwater post performing administrative duties in support of the war, but far away from the action. Now a captain, he pitted his career in the army to date against the offers of employment and advancement in the civilian world and found the army came up short. He decided to leave.

Another young captain had spent months training and preparing himself and his unit for combat, but the big day never came. He graduated from West Point with plenty of time to deploy overseas and lead soldiers in battle. But it seemed that every time he thought he was about to go, the deployment shifted to the right. The last time, major combat operations ended and his unit fell off the patch chart entirely. It was wholly counter intuitive that a soldier who was willing and eager to go to war would be denied the chance and it ate him up inside. He faced a shrinking force, slashed budgets, and a nation eager to forget the trials of war and bring the nation back to a peacetime mentality, shirking any further overseas adventurism. The captain had a decision to make.

The third and final young officer had spent his time at the academy as the war was winding down. He often considered his future service, and the rising discontent with the government’s handling of the situation. Upon his commission, the war was over for America but he still resolved to give the army his best effort. This in the face of incredible adversity, as a generation of combat leaders dominated the ranks and the force struggled to transform itself despite opposition from both the inside and outside. The army was coming off what many believed to be an unequivocal loss and morale was incredibly low as the best and brightest left for greener pastures or burnt out early and left holding feelings of bitter resentment. His uneventful lieutenant years led to uneventful captain years as he moved from one type of unit to the next. Throughout it all, this captain remained determined to excel, though why sometimes seemed a mystery.

These young officers have much in common. The early parts of their careers saw bitter disappointment as the wars in which their nation was engaged drew to a close, with none of them having taken part. They entered a force faced with budget cuts, sagging morale, questionable civilian support, and in desperate need of transformative change. No doubt each in his own way looked the uncertain future with trepidation and apprehension. Each in his own way navigated through years of boredom and frustration all the while consciously or unconsciously having experiences that shaped and molded them. What none of them could have known, especially as they navigated through their early years was that eventually they would be called upon to guide the military and serve as a rallying point for the nation through periods of extraordinary crisis and uncertainty.

“General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865” by Mathew Brady (1823–1896) — recolored by  COLORIZEDHISTORY  // Harry Warnecke’s victory portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, right after the end of World War II.  © 2012 Daily News, LP.  // “ GEN Petraeus Aug 2011 Photo ” by Monica A. King; DoD photographer — US Military.

“General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865” by Mathew Brady (1823–1896) — recolored by COLORIZEDHISTORY // Harry Warnecke’s victory portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, right after the end of World War II. © 2012 Daily News, LP. // “GEN Petraeus Aug 2011 Photo” by Monica A. King; DoD photographer — US Military.

The careers of William Tecumseh Sherman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and David H. Petraeus were forged in the fires of wars that were unimaginable to many of their generations, and for posterity. Yet none of them reached the pinnacle of their (military) success until late in their careers, well beyond the average wear out date for officers with no combat experience hailing from a what had been a peacetime army. Fortunately, we will never know what would have happened if Petraeus had let his ambition wane, if Eisenhower had let his resentment overcome him, or if Sherman had decided to remain a private citizen. Similarly no officer who has commissioned in the last few years will know what they can become if they decide to quit simply because they feel their glory years have already passed them by.

No doubt many recently commissioned officers and recently enlisted soldiers wonder what the future holds for them. A new entry into the military today was somewhere between preschool and elementary when the events of 9/11 happened — the memory of that day is fading with each passing generation. The face(s) of Al-Qaeda have been captured, killed, or driven underground with their ruin being spread across information outlets worldwide to make them seem akin to the boogie man. America has fought long, bloody wars in strange lands, withdrawn, and shown little appetite for further adventurism, even in the face of heinous acts of brutality and blatant aggression by new enemies. Domestically the political process seems broke as the legislative and executive branches attempt to score cheap political points off one another. All the while pundits, politicians, and private citizens have lamented the handling of the conflicts, the lack of strategy, and have decried America’s supposedly waning influence.

To men like William Tecumseh Sherman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and David H. Petraeus this all must be familiar. Each grew up and came to thrive in similar climates of adversity and discontent. Perhaps if each had been told when they were a junior officer that one day they would lead armies and have a nation depend on them they would have scoffed in disbelief, dismissing it as the application of hot air to an under-inflated ego. Regardless, each continued to contribute to the profession of arms as best they could under the circumstances (even Sherman, who did leave the service, but was never far or long from it). They drove themselves to excel academically and professionally, they found mentors, they read and wrote, and they studied and later championed methods of warfare previously ignored or disparaged by the regular army. When given the reins each saw their wars for what they were, and tailored their approaches to achieve victory.

But first they made the decision to serve when all the chips seemed down and the deck stacked against them. They were not omniscient, they could not have foreseen the role they would each play — even then they could have rejected that role and let slip the baton to more willing hands. Yet they persevered, and did not quit on the army even when the army seemed to quit on them.

Young leaders today who feel they have missed the big game, or did not get their fair share of playing time should consider carefully what they would be leaving behind. Each of the services are embarking on exciting periods of evolution, as they try to define their places in the future and develop new doctrines and innovative techniques to match. And rest assured, there will be another chance — there will be a time when America sends her sons and daughters into battle again. America is still preeminent, and its obstacles are many and its enemies implacable. Who is going to lead into the next century? Who are you going to emulate — who is the next Sherman, Eisenhower, or Petraeaus? Maybe it’s you.

Don’t quit and find out.

Nathan Wike is an officer in the U.S. Army, and an associate member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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