What is Cut and Run?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Sometimes the exact same actions can be spun in two different directions, depending on the intentions of the speaker. Such is the case with the unofficial military term "cut and run." Some would suggest that cut and run denotes a sudden or cowardly retreat in the face of superior enemy forces. Others would say a cut and run tactic is more akin to loss prevention while forces are regrouped. Essentially, "cut and run" is shorthand for "cut (your losses) and run (to safety)", which may prove to be good advice under the right circumstances.

The concept of a strategic removal of forces or organized retreat is not a new one. Military strategists from the time of Alexander the Great have always recognized the value of saving troops and resources by pulling them out of untenable positions. Rather than risk losing experienced or specialized troops in a lopsided combat situation, more than a few military commanders have issued an order for troops to cut and run. Critics of this maneuver routinely use the term "cut and run" in a pejorative sense, often favoring an expensive victory or a stand-off instead of a strategic pull-out.


The idea of cut and run in the negative sense received quite a bit of attention when president George W. Bush declared his administration would not "cut and run" when it came to maintaining forces in Iraq. Opponents of the war had repeatedly suggested a withdrawal of US military personnel, but Bush strongly believed such a sudden drawing down of troops would allow insurgents to overrun remaining Iraqi soldiers and eventually overwhelm the Iraqi government itself.

The War on Terrorism is not the only example in which the term "cut and run" has appeared as a pejorative. When criticism of the Vietnam War reached a fever pitch during the late 1960s, many called for a unilateral withdrawal of US forces from the entire southeast Asian region. In essence, the best military and political strategy would have been to remove American soldiers from direct combat almost immediately and allow the local governments of the region to work out their differences. This suggestion of an organized cut and run solution led then-president Richard Nixon to delineate his "Domino Theory," in which the sudden removal of US military forces from Vietnam would allow Communism to overthrow one government at a time and destabilize the entire region.

Whether a particular military action is consider a strategic retreat, a tactical withdrawal or "cut and run," public and political perception of that action can matter quite a bit to those in charge. If the battlefield conditions warrant a sudden, unplanned retreat in order to prevent additional losses, then field commanders should have the latitude to make those decisions. Oftentimes the term "cut and run,: especially in the pejorative sense, is applied to the large-scale geopolitical aspects of an unpopular war, not the day-to-day military operations actually conducted on the ground.


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