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In modern warfare, what does victory mean?

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

A British soldier gestured to children in Basra, Iraq, in April 2003.Mark Richards/Reuters/Corbis/CORBIS

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.

Ten years later, in the second term of a new presidency, we still don’t know. With tens of thousands of American troops deployed overseas, and more certain to be committed in future conflicts, it’s critical for us to understand what we’re aiming for when we speak of victory.


“Having clear language on victory is necessary because it’s the only way we can establish any coherence on what a society—both its policy makers and its public—can expect to achieve when they decide to use military force,” said William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University and author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy.”

Martel is among a handful of scholars and military experts trying to solve one of the most nettlesome problems in modern foreign policy: coming up with a new definition of “victory” that matches the complexity of our conflicts.

When Martel and others look at the American public conversation about going to war, they see expectations still profoundly shaped by World War II, a conflict marked in our memories by the idea of unconditional triumph and a total remaking—as Bush put it in his speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln—of “enemies into allies.” Armies were crushed in that war, but so were ideologies.

It’s commonplace to note how much warfare has changed since then, but what we don’t often think about is how our public conception of victory has failed to change with it. The seemingly interminable military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the fuzziness of our stated objectives, such as defeating terror or spreading democracy. Without a clearer idea of what winning looks like, we risk falling into situations where wars could go on forever or—another possibility—where political leaders will never want to take us to war, because they won’t be able to anticipate an end.


To head off either of these futures, political scientists and military strategists are trying to formulate a new idea of victory, one that fits both the reality of today’s conflicts and our own limited capacity to engage in large, transformational wars. They suggest that it’s time to abandon World War II as a model, and some think that we should reach further into the past for a more realistic view of what we can achieve in war. Others argue we should do away with “victory” as a benchmark altogether. At least, they say, we need to come up with a model that is less ambitious about what we think we can win, and more clear-eyed about why we fight at all.

A crowd in Manhattan celebrated Victory Europe Day in 1945. EMIL HERMAN/BETTMANN/CORBIS


Part of the confusion that day aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was that instead of just touting the tanks rolling into Baghdad, Bush aimed rhetorically at a much broader and deeper idea: a sweeping victory in the “war on terror” that his administration had declared worldwide. “The war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless,” Bush said. “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.”


The breadth of his language was no accident. After 9/11, political leaders consciously defrosted an idea of victory that had served FDR and Churchill so well in World War II and positioned winning in the “war on terror” in terms that echoed our fight against Nazism—a total and utter annihilation of forces and ideas that threatened the “free world.”

But the rhetoric didn’t match the enemy America and its allies were fighting. In World War II, the ideological threat was attached to a state with an army. This time, the enemy consisted of small groups without any central assets or infrastructure we could destroy; its ideology, jihadist Islam, was deeply embedded across a whole region of the world. No matter how successful our soldiers, there was no way that a series of battles against insurgents in Afghanistan—and, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Iraq—could bring the kind of victory we were aiming for.

For many thinkers confronting this mismatch, the first step in the solution seems to be cutting through the fog of 20th-century history to return to a less idealistic notion of victory from an earlier time.

Our modern sensibilities tend to recoil at the notion of leaders sacrificing the lives of young people so that their country can claim a few more square miles or clear up its borders. We look for war to have world-historical implications. But just a couple centuries ago, war was more often fought over these small-bore issues. James Whitman, a professor at Yale Law School and author of “The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War,” has written about the wars of the 18th century and argues that because victory was narrowly—if less high-mindedly—defined, earlier wars, though still brutal, stayed contained.

“In the 18th century, nobody would have been embarrassed to say that they were fighting a war for material gain, for territory, or—if we take a modern day example—for oil rights,” Whitman said. “It’s not until Karl Marx that anyone thought those were bad reasons to go to war....As paradoxical and awful as it sounds, the advantage of going to war for material gain is that it makes it possible to cut deals and declare an end to the war.”


No one believes that the reasons for war can be formulated in this way anymore. Even realists who think that we need to focus on American interests before American ideals would be reluctant to declare war in the Middle East, for example, on the basis of securing oil rights. The war in Iraq may have been in part a bid for oil security, but Congress, and the American populace, needed to hear that its dictator was a potential global threat before committing troops. Certain military strategists would like to see Americans take a more realistic view of what war is for, paring back our goals, and our rhetoric, if not to the cold materialism of the 18th century, then at least to something not complicated by too many unrealistic ideals.

Edward Luttwak, a military strategist who has served as a consultant to the Pentagon and the State Department, believes the United States is uncomfortable acknowledging the realities of war as a straightforward clash of will and force, and therefore has trouble setting narrow, concrete goals. On Iraq, for example, he thought the United States should have ended the war as soon as it removed Saddam. It was our need to fight for a loftier ideal of remaking the Arab world that got us in trouble. “That’s when the delusional memory of the Second World War intervenes,” said Luttwak, author of “On the Meaning of Victory: Essays on Strategy.” “We can’t just leave. We have to stay there and turn Iraqis into Swedes. And that’s when victory becomes meaningless.”


Others argue that the problem runs even deeper: In the wars we fight today, there may be no stable end state at all. Colonel Thomas Hammes, a retired Marine Corps officer, was one of the first Marine officers to become a specialist in counter-insurgency, now a dominant paradigm for how we fight wars. He has come to see the conflicts of today as “wicked problems,” a term borrowed by the military from 1960s social planning to characterize complex predicaments where any solution may have unintended worse consequences. What we should be looking for instead, says Hammes, author of “The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century,” is simply “a way to manage the problem.”

As an example, Hammes points to Israel’s bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Israel calls these operations “mowing the grass,” which Hammes defines as a classic way to deal with a “wicked problem.” Operation Cast Lead in 2005 was waged in order to stop rocket attacks by Hamas against Israel’s southern population centers, and for a few years after the operation the rockets stopped. The situation was managed. But just last year, the Israelis once more went in and bombed Gaza, attempting again to kill militants and destroy rocket launching sites, which had started to become active again. One can easily imagine that this process will repeat itself again and again.

“There’s no long-term solution or peace out of this mowing the grass,” Hammes said. “You’re just mowing the grass until the politicians figure something out. That’s also essentially what we’re doing with our drone strikes in Pakistan. We can’t go in and change these societies, we can’t go in and take over the country—we figured that out the hard way—so maybe we’ll just mow the grass.”


It’s difficult to imagine an American politician openly talking about “mowing the grass” as an objective in a military conflict—simply providing a temporary solution to a problem that will be with us forever. Even if it’s hard to envision a leader again declaring victory, as Bush did in 2003, without qualifying it in many different ways, the language of winning seems to be a human necessity.

If there is any solution then that emerges from the work of those interested in this problem, it is the sense that what is needed are, as Martel at Tufts University called it, “levels of victory.” Martel has distinguished three different categories: a tactical victory, which involves a narrow, quantifiable win, such as an opposing air force destroyed or territory gained; strategic victory, which is the accumulation of these tactical victories adding up to a state defeating another state and being able to impose its will on the conquered; and the rare case of a grand strategic victory, along the lines of World War II, in which a strategic victory transforms the world by destroying prevailing ideologies and redefining global politics.

Eric Patterson, the associate director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “Ending Wars Well: Order, Justice, and Conciliation in Contemporary Post-Conflict,” offers a different set of metrics for measuring victory. His focus is on the post-conflict environment. At the most basic level, if some rudimentary order is restored, victory could be declared, he says.

“By order I mean a baseline of security and the very first fruits of some political order and institutions,” Patterson said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean democracy or elections. It means stopping the bullets enough so the political process can have a breather, and so you can control your borders. And we haven’t spent enough time thinking about that.”

Instead, Patterson says, we have been looking for what he calls the next two levels of victory, which he categorizes as justice and then conciliation between warring parties. These can be much more elusive.

For the United States, these degrees of victory could offer guideposts: Rather than describing one end state, they offer a series of them, potentially giving politicians and citizens the opportunity to say that some goal was achieved, some victory won.

“It would be immensely advantageous to have a more dynamic sense of victory that doesn’t just point to recreating the unachievable victory of World War II,” Martel said. “It would tell us what we have to do to get there, when we’ve gotten there, and when we can walk away. And in the absence of that, we are where we are now. We don’t know when it’s over.”

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post in 2010, and has been released in paperback.