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Summer Essay Campaign #6: “Defining Victory in Modern War”

To Answer Question #10: “What does ‘victory’ look like in modern war?”

By Christopher Davis

The recent American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as on-going changes in the conduct of warfare, raises questions about how to define victory in the modern context. The fluidity between politics and conflict and between peace and war suggest difficulty in identifying a clear demarcation between victory and defeat. Nevertheless, disciplined and rigorous study of the aims of policy and the purposes of war exposes a fundamental truth: victory comes with the cessation of hostilities and the achievement of the political objects desired. In this framework, the inability of American policy-makers and military officers to define victory does not represent increasing complexity about warfare but instead exposes the lack of institutional discipline to develop and implement sound and achievable policy.

            Through a process of intergovernmental politics, states deliberately decide to pursue war against other states within the framework of an international security system. On all three levels (internal, state, and international), the importance of any given norm ebbs and flows based on power relationships and state capabilities. Whether a state pursues war to advance the domestic position of a political faction or in response to structural insecurity in the international system, it embarks upon the campaign for the purpose of a political objective. This object may be implicitly or explicitly stated; made known or kept secret, or misunderstood through the ranks from the executive office to the lowly private. Whatever the conditions of the object’s formulation, the state as an organization pursues it. As the culmination of many separate decisions, the state acts as a collective-rational actor. When the actors within a state fail to understand the political object or the narrative of its importance, disillusionment persists in questioning the significance, reasonableness, or achievability of the perceived goals. Without a cohesive understanding of the goals, the actors within a state cannot possibly define ‘victory’ in any meaningful sense. Victory may be defined parochially but at the cost of the state; and policy-makers rarely define victory with effects on the international system in mind.    

            Having briefly surveyed the problem of translating policy into action, the definitions of war as a collective-rational decision and warfare as a process hint at the fundamental characteristics of ‘victory’. Victory can only be achieved after the contest of arms between belligerents, each with their own understandings of their respective objectives. Cessation of hostilities exists as a necessary but insufficient precursor; the termination of conflict in itself does not fulfill defined political objectives (unless peace itself is the desired end). Here emerges the problem in defining victory: if the political class failed to identify and communicate the desired objectives (or failed to form consensus within the state), the internal actors of the state will have differing opinions on whether the campaign fulfilled them. The process of intergovernmental politics further complicates this problem when goals change mid-campaign or when the rationale for the conflict proves to be false in hindsight. This battle at home proves as important to the outcome of conflict as much as fighting the war itself.

            In the United States, intergovernmental politics has become undisciplined and careless, giving little regard to the collective condition of the state. The process led to inaccurate (arguably fallacious) assessments about the justifications of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and changes in presidential administrations redefined the objectives in Afghanistan. The battle within the military ranks about strategy also had significant impact in defining the objectives of the War on Terrorism. This lack of institutional discipline arises from the increasing partisanship of the political class, the originators of the defined political objectives given to the military leadership to fulfill through war. When political factions regard differences in opinion as differences in principle, building consensus on national policy becomes increasingly difficult. Incoherent policy produces inconsistent short-term strategy; ultimately, this results in policy failure. Since 2001, the use or threat of the use of force by the United States has produced policy failure on no less than four occasions: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. In each instance, the political leadership failed to define an achievable end-state. While the military more or less terminated hostilities favorably, no advantageous political conditions materialized. The expenditure in lives, treasury, and credibility represent a net loss. In contrast, the two times that Russia exercised military force (in Georgia and Ukraine) it achieved its political objectives without significant cost or further entanglement. Where the United States has a divided government and stove-piped policy apparatus, Russia exercises more disciplined unity of effort.

            Senior military leadership in the United States compounds this problem by hiding behind the mantra of obedience to civil authority. This has the practical effect of protecting the military’s parochial interests (as defined by the general officers corps) while severely damaging the democratic process of the state. Instead of insisting upon the development of realistic and defined objectives, the military accepts its mission without question and total obedience, incentivizing careless policy making and the abuse of its capabilities. Democratic traditions obligate the leadership to justify itself to the public. The military does not advance the democratic process by failing to hold public officials accountable for their policies involving the use of military force. In the process of intergovernmental politics, an acquiescent military becomes facilitators of the status quo rather than defenders of the democratic process. It is therefore incumbent upon the military leadership, with firm intellectual discipline, to actively understand the policies of the state and their relationship to it.

            The experiences of the last 13 years of conflict should provide sufficient impetus for military leaders to assess their role in the meta-process of how the country operates its democratic mechanisms, employs the security apparatus, and defines desirable political ends to be fulfilled through military operations. Defining victory is fluid and military leaders must understand how it that is done and be an active part in that process. No less than 238 years of democratic practice demands it.


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