January 6th, 2012

There Is No Substitute For Victory

Why you would you fight a war if you didn’t want to win? While this seems may seem to be a silly question, we must delve deep into this issue as the tangled debate on American strategy grows even more confusing.

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in September that has since begun to get some attention in the blogosphere that argues, in essence, that victory is outdated:

No country, however mighty, can direct or determine global outcomes (it never could, but the illusion was good enough for government work). The best it can hope reflections on the 9/11 decade for is to influence others - governments and societies alike - in shaping events and adapting to a continuous stream of changing challenges. In this world we will not ‘win wars’ [my emphasis]. We will have an assortment of civilian and military tools to increase our chances of turning looming bad outcomes into good - or at least better - outcomes.

This is actually a somewhat old theme in strategic debate. As Dan Trombly notes, Andrew Bacevich sounded a similar tune in announcing the “death of military history” in modern international politics. Bacevich argues that World War I had created a fracture in the defining Western way of war—the use of force in an instrumental fashion to achieve military objectives. Iraq and Afghanistan, he argued, has killed it:

If any overarching conclusion emerges from the Afghan and Iraq Wars (and from their Israeli equivalents), it’s this: victory is a chimera.  Counting on today’s enemy to yield in the face of superior force makes about as much sense as buying lottery tickets to pay the mortgage: you better be really lucky. …Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

The fundamental problem with the “end of victory” meme is that it mistakes the relationship between policy, strategy, and tactics. Policy is a condition or behavior (for example, Adam Elkus has a policy of eating Chinese food). Strategy is a purpose-built bridge between policy and tactics (Adam Elkus has a strategy of going to the Fairfax, VA PF Changs to acquire said Chinese food), and tactics are the execution of the strategy (once at PF Changs, I order and promptly consume chicken lettuce wraps and Philip’s Better Lemon Chicken—nom nom nom). For a less colloquial exposition, see my response to Robert Jones.

Mixed results in Iraq and Afghanistan are not proof that victory itself should not be a goal of American military efforts. They are only proof that the policies and strategies that animated American forces were faulty. If Slaughter and Bacevich are arguing that we should adopt more realistic and limited policies and strategies in war, I wholeheartedly agree. Nearly a decade of state-building later, we have ultimately little to show for our efforts. But that is not what is what is being said. Rather, there is a straightforward argument that we cannot “win” wars anymore.

Perhaps the problem is that “winning” here is being implicitly identified with total war. Many Americans identify World War I and II as the essence of American military professionalism: we could be sure that we “won” because Red Army tanks were parked in front of Hitler’s bunker, Japan is a pacifist nation, and Germany has a distinct allergy to out-of-area operations. But this is the exception to the rule in military history. Combatants have often fought—and achieved favorable political results-with more limited political aims and strategic means.

It is true that we live in an era in which total victory is arguably out of reach in all but the most extreme circumstances. And it is a good thing that Paul Ludendorff, Alexander Svechin, and Mao Zedong—the creators of total war theory—no longer hold sway over many of the world’s political-military analysts.

But as Colin S. Gray noted in his work on decisive victory, it is still possible to achieve a political-military decision. It just requires more care and work than leveling Berlin. But arguably that was the case in the 18th century as well—and Frederick the Great did not go around believing that war itself could no longer serve political ends. And of course achieving victory is no good if the policy that the military victory achieved was wrongheaded to begin with. Even with the right policy, the strategy and tactics could lead to adverse consequence regardless.

The danger in believing that victory is passe is that we might use force without the intent of winning. Once we have decided on a policy goal and have formulated a strategy to achieve it, we should intend to win. Otherwise, what was the point of deciding to use force to begin with? The idea of using force without attaining victory is as transparently ridiculous as firing a gun with the intention of shooting the pistol out of the villain’s hand—as a Saturday morning cartoon character might.

Not only will fighting without the intention to achieve political goals be immensely detrimental to American interests, it also arguably breaks the bond of trust that maintains healthy American civil-military relations.. I will bold this for emphasis: It is fundamentally immoral to risk the lives of soldiers, diplomats, spies, and foreign civilians if you are not using force instrumentally to achieve a political result. This does not mean that I am advocating a return to the flawed Powell Doctrine, but saying that any American use of force must be purposeful.

As Jason Fritz argued, irregular warfare does not negate the purpose of the principles of war. It does not matter if we are using hackers, drones, spec ops commandos, or a carrier battle group, in public or covertly. If we are using force to gain some measure of control over our opponents we must have a theory of victory. If we cannot use force to win, we then revise our policy and either abandon our efforts or adopt a more limited goal. If you are looking for an easy “lessons learned” from the post-9/11 era, you cannot get more basic than this.

  1. wingsoveriraq reblogged this from rethinkingsecurity
  2. rethinkingsecurity posted this
Loading tweets...


A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng