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When to Withdraw?

In a martial sense the term “withdrawal” refers to an orderly pullback from one position to another, the affected units maintaining cohesion, retaining their weapons and adhering to some larger tactical or strategic plan. The word is not normally used to describe the panic-stricken chaos suggested by the word “retreat.” Whereas withdrawal is a reasoned process undertaken to reposition a military force for continued action under more favorable conditions, retreat connotes disaster—units beset by overwhelming enemy forces who flee with little or no planning, leaving behind vital supplies, equipment and even personnel in their efforts to avoid annihilation. Military forces driven into headlong retreat by a competent enemy seldom rally.

An orderly and well-planned withdrawal, on the other hand, ensures a unit will remain intact to fight another day. Take, for example, a naval commander who knows beyond doubt his ship or battle group will not survive an encounter with a superior enemy vessel or force. That commander seeks to preserve his “fleet in being” so it might make a greater contribution in future actions; and despite criticism by superiors, he is ultimately vindicated. Or consider a dictator who withdraws his large volunteer force from a foreign campaign fought in concert with ideological brethren—a campaign obviously doomed to failure. By withdrawing his support from the conflict, he dooms his allies to failure but preserves the troops that will enable him to maintain home rule.

For many military and political leaders the decision not to withdraw in lieu of almost certain chaotic retreat has led only to disgrace, disaster or death. MH