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The Boston Globe

Ideas

In modern warfare, what does victory mean?

As conflicts change, our notion of winning is still trapped in the past.

On May 1, 2003, in what would later be seen as one of the great miscalculations of modern political history, George W. Bush stepped up to a podium aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and her allies have prevailed.” The star-spangled banner that hung behind him declared “Mission Accomplished.” Though his administration later claimed the banner was created at the request of the ship’s crew, the speech was undeniably premature. At the moment he declared the war over, 140 United States service members had been killed in that conflict; since that day, 4,347 more soldiers have fallen.

In hindsight, what tripped Bush up was more than just misjudging how long the insurgency would last, or how long US troops and their allies would need to stay. He was there to declare victory—the fall of Baghdad and, memorably, of a statue of Saddam Hussein, one month earlier. But in fact the war had hardly begun. Bush had sent in American troops, and celebrated victory, without fully articulating what “victory” actually meant.

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