Should a Commander Be the Last to Retreat From Battle?

An Army operation in Afghanistan in 2012.

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/GettyImages

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Jon Davis, sergeant of Marines, fought in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, amateur military historian:

No. This sounds really noble, but it is in practice only a different way of murdering your own men.

It really isn’t that difficult if you think about it. The commanders, assuming we are talking about at least field-grade officers, are the strategic thinkers of a battle. They need to survive, because if they fall, the leadership role shifts to someone further down the experience chain, who will most likely not be able to command with as much ability. This, in the long run, will ultimately result in more death and less victory for your side, though I suppose the last guy will be remembered favorably several decades later if they are still writing books in your language. Now, I am thinking in terms of infantry, but really it doesn’t make that much of a difference with the Navy either, in my opinion.

A prime example of this would be Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur. As the Japanese continued their conquest of the Philippines, he was evacuated from the island chain to Australia, while his men were left behind. It was a devastating blow to him personally, but it was the right thing to do. He was instrumental in the future of the war in the Pacific, and if he had been lost, perhaps millions more people (mostly civilian) would have been lost if we had had more inferior generals in charge.

Where this does make sense is in civilian shipping. The captain of a naval vessel is the most experienced, and if a sinking should take place, he should be the most capable of orchestrating the evacuation. He is the center point for all operations of a ship; therefore, it is logical that he should remain on the ship long enough to ensure that all passengers and crew are safely off before leaving. This tradition came to the forefront when the cruise ship in the Mediterranean sunk and its captain fled immediately. He was publicly shamed for this choice on top of sinking his ship.

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