As a group, generals tend to be relentlessly positive. The pre-eminent U.S. soldier of recent years, Gen. Colin Powell, USA (Ret.), likes to remind us that, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” War and military operations are hard enough, but gloom and defeatism only make things harder. In combat, a morale edge sure helps. It is not by accident that Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy’s outfit, the U.S. Army’s famous 15th Infantry Regiment, has as its motto, “Can Do.”
As the more skeptical Mr. Murphy (he of the law, not Audie) reminds us, a great deal can and will go wrong in all human endeavors, especially war. But dwelling too much on potential problems surely will paralyze a military leader. Such hesitation spreads like a choking miasma. It stymies subordinate commanders and confuses the rank and file. Half-hearted attacks fail. In contrast, the side that knows its business and hangs in there for one more hard push often carries the day. That last winning surge can come from the will of a general who seizes an opportunity by seeing even a cracked, dirty glass as half-full. Winning in battle is all about positive action.
Sometimes senior commanders must size up the situation in minutes and pull the trigger. Under those conditions, seeing a chance and taking it may work just fine. At other junctures, particularly at the strategic level, there is time to consider conditions more fully. When regarding any strategic glass du jour, it is wise to recognize the real water level and not kid yourself, your peers or your bosses if it is lacking. An optimistic outlook helps a person find opportunities, but sometimes those opportunities just are not there, no matter how much anyone hopes for them. There is a responsibility for even the most positive people in uniform to tell superiors, military and civilian, the limits of “can do.”