Forcing Ourselves to Define & Declare Victory

With all the discussion of the official end to US combat operations in Iraq, a key point for critics and proponents of the war and the current President is whether we have really won. Indeed, approximately 50,000 American troops remain and Iraqi on Iraqi violence still occurs all too frequently. However, as the previous seven years of debate on this war has shown us, victory will not be absolute nor obvious, disappointing many Americans still conditioned to expect WWII or Cold War style total victory. Reading the news the last few days, it occured to me, the 21st century will be a century of us deciding what and when victory is.

This may seem like an obvious, if not trivial point, however in some ways it was a moment where one’s expectations are completely redefined. Clear cut victory in the future will be a rare exception regardless of what combination of state and non-state actors are involved. Above all, Americans have a long seated cultural preference for absolute victory. We have difficulty seeing the world in shades of gray and our history and values preclude us from generally accepting small wars with expressly limited goals. And yet, that’s exactly what we’ll now be faced with.

We’ve already won in Afghanistan as far as this author is concerned, the question is when a generally accepted definition of victory will be found and we can leave.

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
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16 Responses to Forcing Ourselves to Define & Declare Victory

  1. s says:

    for example.
    in terms of vietnam…….you have won by retreating in 1973.
    compare the situation had you stayed versus what really happened.

    so, yes, you have won in iraq in the similar context. but you would have won a much pretty war had you retreated 3 years ago, and much much prettier if retrreated 6 years ago.

  2. Alistair Leadbetter says:

    It’s true that, because military action tends to no longer involve in state v state conflict, victory is no longer as clear cut. There is no official surrender and no symbolic swords are being handed over. These interventions involve a greater integration between the military and NGOs and businesses.

    But winning has to have some measurement and it appears that these measures will be different for every intervention although the measures will, in the case of Western (perhaps read: US and / or UK) intervention be categorised around things as regime change, introductions of functioning state apparatus, market economies etc.

    The setting of these goals and objectives should be done at the outset though so that home populations can see what is intended and can clearly see to what extent they have been achieved. Unfortunately what I can see happening is that the goalposts are moved in order to allow victory to be declared.

  3. chirol says:

    To clarify, I’m discussing state vs state, state vs non-state and eveyr other possible combination of conflict.

  4. Ed says:

    Jesus Christ, if you go into a war either with goals and objectives that are based on false (or falsified) information, or go into a war without clear goals and objectives at all, then I guess you do have to “define” victory when you want to start withdrawing troops from the conflict. Or maybe not.

    Maybe the US, as the hyperpower, can now fight poststructuralist wars where it attacks or interves in countries without any clear reason, then brings everyone home at some point without any clear reason either. Actually, that sounds kind of cool.

    Or what Alistair Ledbetter said.

  5. Ralph Hitchens says:

    If we accept that war has fundamentally changed, why stick to the same tired old terms, victory and defeat? What the heck….. if Iraq stays messy with a certain level of sectarian violence BUT doesn’t fall completely into Iranian hands, we’d have to say that’s not an unacceptable outcome for the US — given that we had no rationale for starting that war. If Afghanistan staggers along with Karzai and mostly non-Taliban warlords running things here & there, that’s probably as good as we can do. Face it — these days our most important military operations are humanitarian.

  6. Redefining the ideas of winning and losing in the context of our military adventurism is a very important discussion primarily because the terms ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ or ‘failure’ or ‘lose’ when it comes to war are so loaded politically. Politicians are constantly attacking one another with ‘going to let them win’ and ‘victory at any cost’ type rhetoric. This is most notable with the now punchlined: ‘If we do —– the terrorists win.’ And the MSM only exacerbates the problem by forgoing nuanced definitions, oversimplifying for sound bites and asking questions such as, “Are we winning?” instead of something like “What goals that we set out to accomplish might need to be reconsidered? Where are we going to have to compromise?” It pains me to hear these almost unfathomably complex engagements referred to as winning and losing. But the problem starts with the administration’s unrealistic goals. We toppled Saddam, a categorical win you could say. We stuck around and tried to insert a democracy where one had never existed. In this, we set ourselves up for disappointment and we didn’t learn any lessons for Afghanistan at the same time (light footprint, half-assed COIN). But I could go on.

  7. One of the real issues I’ve had with our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is that I’ve never heard any clear-cut definition of what would constitute victory. There’s some vague hand-waving about restoring democracy and stopping terrorism, but never any real explanation of what those terms actually mean in terms of success.

    On a very real level we “won” both these wars very early on and our continued involvement since hasn’t made a huge amount of sense. I’d like to see us totally out of both countries, but wouldn’t mind us staying if there’s some clear-cut explanation for why and what conditions would have to exist for us to be able to leave. Absent those, we should probably just get out.

  8. s says:

    well, clear cut victory is always well defined. for example, clear cut military victory was achieved by the US either when all cities fell or in the summer of 2003, or when Saddam was captured later.

    it was not well defined just because your ex-president refused to define what it was before and during the war.
    it could be toppling Saddam, which it achieved, or it could be the first election, which it also achieved later.

    without even trying to define your own objective at all, throughout the process, how can you ever imagine achieving it?

    so the lesson is not regarding what the so called clear cut victory is, it is instead that one NEED to CLEARLY DEFINE what it is (the objective) and HOW TO ACHIEVE IT — before launching any action.

  9. phil says:

    Why is this so difficult? We defeated Saddam’s military, deposed his regime, and he was hung by the neck until dead. That is about as clear a victory as you can get. No grey areas there.

    In the next phase of the war the Arab Sunnis who had stupidly chosen to align themselves with Al Qaeda flipped sides and the subsequent Arab Sunni-US alliance defeated Al Qaeda. And the Shiite militias decided to stand down, a very wise decision given the changing circumstances. Here there are more grey areas, but it was still a victory. Victory doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be adequate.

    “The setting of these goals and objectives should be done at the outset though so that home populations can see what is intended and can clearly see to what extent they have been achieved. Unfortunately what I can see happening is that the goalposts are moved in order to allow victory to be declared.”

    The first part of this is mostly impossible. This notion that you need to articulate everything from the outset and you can never change your policy is just not possible in a dynamic, ever-changing world. You articulate general goals and then everything changes and you change with it articulating the next set of goals and then things change again and you adapt with new goals and so on until the war is over. The idea that developing goals in response to a dynamic environment is nothing more than moving goalposts in order to allow victory to be declared is ridiculous.

  10. McKellar says:

    Doesn’t this call for some cynical realpolitik? What were the real war aims? Here’s what I can pull out of my rear end:

    1)Keep the Great Patriot War against Al Qaeda going with dramatic, photogenic victories on through the 2004 elections. (Success!)
    2)Prove to N Korea, Iran, Libya and any other petulant 3rd-world regime with nuclear aspirations that we have both the ability and the will to topple their governments. (Mission accomplished!…wait, maybe?)
    3)Resolve tensions in the Middle East by removing one of the last few state regimes willing to pick a fight with Israel. (Success! Now on to Iran!)

    and the big one:

    4)Defeat Islamicist terrorism once and for all by waging a bloody campaign on their own turf. (wait, this makes about as much sense as the War on Drugs…let’s just make up a metric and call it a day)

    Of course, none of this stuff really matters any more. The fact of the matter is, once we’ve sacrificed so much blood and treasure, we have to justify that sacrifice, and indeed even our very existence. Right now, we have to prove to ourselves that America is both competent and benevolent, just like we did when we freed the slaves and liberated Europe. Until we do that, the US simply can’t function as a proper nation-state should, and the whole thing will collapse under the weight of its own ambivalent angst and self-recrimination.

  11. Michel S. says:

    WW2 certainly does not feel like a victory in Central and Eastern Europe, or in North-east Asia.

  12. Mrs. Davis says:

    Clear cut victory occurs infrequently, and even then, it’s not so simple. Let’s review. King Philip’s War? Nothing clear cut there for 300 years. The War of Independence? About as clear cut as you can get. Except for the War of 1812, proof of how well the Democrats start and finish wars. The Mexican War? We got California and a lot of potential slave states, but we’ve still got a feudal proto-state on our southern border 150 years later, still crossing the border with impunity despite Black Jack and Sheriff Joe. The Civil War? Pretty clear cut unless you consider the 90 years of Jim Crow and the continued burden of paying off the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil. The Spanish American War? Clear cut. Ask Roosevelt and Dewey. Ignore Cuba and the Philippines. The First World War? Clear cut preparation for the Second World War; that one clear cut? Well we did defeat most of the totalitarians, except our allies the Soviets. That took another fifty years of pseudo-war and it’s still not clear what’s going on in Russia, though it’s clear they’ve lost. Korea, Vietnam? Clear cut hubristic defeats, at least domestically. And now we have to deal with these proto-nazi Islamists who aren’t aware of how the 20th century dealt with their progenitors. Within 15 years we will have a clear cut victory. Of sorts. Like the others before. But with more dead.

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  14. Oliver says:

    “Why is this so difficult? We defeated Saddam’s military, deposed his regime, and he was hung by the neck until dead. That is about as clear a victory as you can get.”

    And what good does that? Nations have interests. They are either furthered by military actions or not. In addition wars are costly in blood or treasure. Therefore, if they are not obviously won, they are lost. And possibly they were a mistake from the very beginning on.

  15. Bud says:

    The easy part for the US military seems to be the initial death and destruction. Apparently in a matter of days any military opposition can be defeated. I wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to leave after the ‘shock and awe’ and see what comes out of it. If it is just another incarnation of the previous regime go back and level the place again. Then wait and see what happens, repeating as often as necessary.

    I see two possible outcomes; the country will reorganize themselves and behave in a civilized fashion, or they will have a succession of warlord/dictators and spiral back down to a stone age subsistence society. Either way is a ‘victory’ as they will no longer be a problem. Also, it would set a good precedent for any other potential trouble makers.

  16. Eva says:

    Redefining victory – or loss, for that matter – will require redefining the objectives before engagement. Adding shades of gray to our idea of victory necessitates clarifying in stark black and white what our mission is. The roles have been reversed, we can no longer join a conflict with some abstract goal in mind — let’s bring democracy, for instance — and stay there until a replica of Euro-American style government is installed. Grand missionary rhetoric and lofty visions of a league of ‘learned’ nations are as anachronistic as the telegraph and, as the telegraph, have no place in international relations.