Advancing in Another Direction: The Difference Between Retreat and Defeat

In late November 1950, at the height of the Korean War, United Nations troops under the command of Major General Oliver Smith were encircled and attacked near the Chosin Reservoir by a vastly larger Chinese force. Facing total annihilation if they tried to hold their ground, Smith’s men instead executed a fighting withdrawal, puncturing the Chinese lines on the eastern side and escaping to the Port of Hungnam.

On December 4, Smith defended the choice to skedaddle before questioning reporters, saying, “Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely advancing in another direction.” At the time, these words were widely mocked and derided as yet another example of dangerously self-deluding military doublespeak, akin to the later utterance by a U.S. army major in Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the village to save it.” But military experts have since come to Smith’s defense, arguing that, although his explanation was technically inaccurate—the troops under his command at the Chosin Reservoir most certainly did retreat—it was true in spirit.

Smith had three options when he found his 30,000 U.N. soldiers surrounded by 120,000 Chinese infantrymen. One was to surrender. Another was to stay and fight to the last man. Both of these options were forms of defeat. In choosing instead to retreat (or, if you prefer, to effect a fighting withdrawal), Smith avoided defeat, and that’s what he was trying to make the press understand with his famous remark.

The expression “live to fight another day” conveys the positive strategic function of retreat. Many times in the history of warfare, a major retreat has been effected by the side that went on to win the war. Examples include George Washington’s nighttime escape from Brooklyn during the American Revolution, the Allied evacuation of Gallipoli in World War I, and Mao Zedong’s yearlong retreat from Chinese nationalist forces in 1934 (known as the Long March). As these examples demonstrate, retreat can be a winning move, but the objective truth of this reality is one thing, getting retreating soldiers to believe and embrace it quite another. And that’s where the hidden brilliance of Major General Smith’s epigram lies.

Anyone who understands the art of war will tell you that morale is a critical element in a fighting force’s performance—every bit as important as weaponry and supplies, strategy and tactics, logistics and communication. I have no doubt that, whether or not reporters believed Smith’s men were “advancing in another direction” rather than retreating, the men themselves did, and because they did, the withdrawal went well. Their leader wanted them to see themselves as fighting to escape defeat or surrender and live to fight another day, not as running away with their tales between their legs.

The principle at work here applies to lots of other things besides warfare, including endurance sports. Just as military commanders prefer to win every battle at minimal cost, endurance athletes prefer to have things go smoothly in their training all the time. Both preferences, however, are unrealistic. Despite their best efforts, military commanders sometimes find their forces surrounded by vastly superior numbers of enemy combatants. Similarly, athletes sometimes encounter rough patches, injuries, illnesses, and other challenges in their training. What matters is how they respond, both tactically and emotionally.

In endurance training, the equivalent of fighting to the last man is stubbornly pushing through rough patches, injuries, illnesses, and the like—brave but doomed. The equivalent of surrender is giving up in frustration, another form of defeat. And the equivalent of retreat is resting or reducing the training load or getting extra sleep or making some other adjustment calculated to maximize the likelihood of a positive final outcome of the process.

Too many athletes wrongly view such adjustments as a kind of defeat also, lumping them together with self-sabotage and quitting. And because they do, they either stand their ground and get slaughtered (metaphorically speaking) or surrender when they would be better off retreating and living to fight another day, or else they go ahead and retreat but do so with a bad attitude, feeling defeated. If I’m describing you, then you need to do for yourself what Oliver Smith did for his troops at the Chosin Reservoir, reframing retreat as something positive.

Someday, God willing, I’m going to write a book called The Little Book of Running Mantras. When I do, it will include a chapter titled “Advancing in Another Direction.” As a coach, I believe that Smith’s fine phrase is highly useful as a self-reminder to runners and other endurance athletes who struggle to embrace “retreat” in their training. Tuck these words away, and deploy them whenever you’re tempted to fight to the last man or surrender instead of retreating, or when retreating threatens to harm your morale. Remember George Washington, and Mao Zedong, and the Allies, and know that, when you take a few days off or make some other sensible adjustment in response to a training setback, you are not going backwards, you are advancing in another direction toward your ultimate goal!