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Lloyd Austin, the US Defense Secretary in a hearing before Congress said:

The fact that the Afghan army, that we and our partners trained, simply melted away, in many cases without firing a shot, took is all by surprise. And it would be dishonest to claim otherwise.

In other words, he admitted a strategic error in their exit strategy from Afganistan. In fact, the military recommended a small force of 2,500 US troops be kept in the country but were over-ruled by Biden's administration who replied that this would only escalate the war.

Pointedly, he did not say whether the entire War on Terror in Afghanistan was a strategic error. Has a defense secretary ever admitted a strategic error for an entire war? For example, that of Vietnam. Or are these assessments only made by historians and political scientists?

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    Would you only be interested in contemporaneous statements? Or if a defense secretary said that the Vietnam War (for instance) was an error after they had left office, would that be acceptable? Or if a defense secretary who had not started a war called it an error, would that qualify?
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 30 at 8:24
  • I am thinking of someone like Colin Powell in the first case, who said years later that had they been in possession of the full intelligence, the invasion of Iraq would have been a mistake.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 30 at 8:28
  • @Obie 2.0: All of them, the poster can take his or her pick. But I'm predominantly interested in the case where the secretary is still in office. I'm already aware that Robert McNamara, who was defense secretary between 1961-68, according to a NYT review of his 1995 interview realised early on that 'the war was futile' but only admitted that late in life. In fact, in his memour he said 'it was wrong, terribly wrong'. He moved from understanding the war was futile, and so a strategic error, to understand that there was no moral case for the war either. Too bad, he wasn't able to speak ... Sep 30 at 8:36
  • 4
    Headline says “US military”, question says “defense secretary”. Those are two very different things.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 9:45
  • 1
    You haven't “expanded” as much as “contradicted”.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 9:56
5

Probably not, but some came close

My understanding of the question is that it primarily is asking whether a Secretary of Defense who held that office during a war ever admitted that the war itself as a strategic error. That seems unlikely, and some searching was unable to find an example, although that does not prove definitively that it never happened. In the USA, there is a strong pro-military sentiment, and so there is little to motivate a Secretary of Defense to say that a war was wholly a mistake, unless they truly believed it themselves. As of now, only two or three wars of the dozens that the United States has fought are both well-known and generally perceived as complete failures: the wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and perhaps Iraq.

That said, one can find a few examples of people who came close.

I believe that the closest would be Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, wrote the following in his memoirs:

We in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.

In the surrounding context, he does not quite say that the war itself was a mistake, and he mainly criticizes (most) of his own decisions around it, but it is easy to read between the lines and think that he is talking about the war in general.

Another person who somewhat approached this type of statement is Colin Powell, Secretary of State (though not Defense) during the war in Iraq, who defended the decision to invade while implying that it would have been a strategic error if they had known the true intelligence:

“If we had known the intelligence was wrong, we would not have gone into Iraq. But the intelligence community, all 16 agencies, assured us that it was right,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Of course, one might not wish to read too much into this, because he also said this about the invasion of Baghdad:

So I think it was a great success. But the biggest thing was the American people just absolutely fell in love with their armed forces once again.

An additional mention should probably go to James Mattis, who called the Iraq War a strategic mistake in exactly those words, but was not Secretary of Defense until two administrations afterward, and did not make the statements while Secretary of Defense nor near the beginning of the war.

We will probably look back on the invasion of Iraq as a mistake, a strategic mistake

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  • -1: @Obie 2.0: I've already pointed out this situation in the comments above in reply to your questions. Moreover, Robert McNamara 'truly believed' the war was a mistake early on in his career as Defense Secretary - so according tobyour answer, he should have admitted so in Congress. That would be accountability in action. The interesting question here, then, is why did he not admit this in public, that is Congress, and what pressures were put on him. Sep 30 at 9:00
  • 3
    @Mozibur - The answer is likely "no, but these two people probably came closest," which is what I wrote above. Sorry if that does not satisfy you? As for McNamara, he is the closest to what you were asking, so it is relevant to mention him, and I was not reading your comments while writing the answer.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 30 at 9:01
  • Seeing the reluctance of people to admit their own (or other people's) military mistakes after the fact, as evidenced in these two quotes, one might easily see how unlikely it is that the architects of a war (the Secretaries of Defense) would admit them publicly, while in office, and probably while the war was ongoing. Not to mention that a fair amount of searching did not turn up any such statements.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 30 at 9:05
  • Not at all. I'm simply pointing out that you appear to be riffing off my comment above. I don't consider that good ethics. Do you, or no? Sep 30 at 9:15
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    (+1) All this is interesting and relevant in any case.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 10:05
4

Strategic decisions of that importance are inherently political and, in the US, the president's responsibility. The military's job is to offer several solutions to reach the goals it is given and assess the risks and costs (human and material) of the various options. Military leaders (especially retired staff-level experts, rarely active-duty top-level commanders themselves) often complain of changing or imprecise goals, which can also be a way to blame civilians for things that go wrong, but have to tread carefully when questioning a president's decision to start or end a war.

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  • -1: The Secretary of Defensecis a political position. It's not only the President's position that is political. Sep 30 at 9:57
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    @MoziburUllah Indeed but he or she is still in a subordinate position. But, as I commented, you asked about the military. You created that confusion. Not that this detracts or contradicts my answer, hard to see how this justifies a downvote either way.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 9:58
  • The term is first amongst equals. The relations of power amongst the elite is not a simple hierarchy. I asked about the military in the headline question and the Secretary of Defense represents the military. There is no confusion here. Sep 30 at 10:52
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    @MoziburUllah You should try to understand what I wrote instead of trying to score points, you might learn a thing or two. The US miliary has spokespeople and does communicate as an institution. Otherwise you might be interested in the joint chiefs of staff or their chairman. That's who represents the military, not the secretary of defense.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 11:20
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    You seem to be painting yourself into a corner here: Does the secretary of defense “represent” the military or is it a political position? You draw the line where you want but my point regarding the distinction holds in any case. The military doesn't decide to go to war on its own and is not supposed to openly question that decision. I didn't suppose you cared about the opinion of the rank and file but I did expect you to be able to understand this pretty basic notion and thought it would be a useful answer if you are genuinely interested in the question, not a reason to argue endlessly.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 11:30

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