We Shall Study War: Wars Are Not About Victory

Victory in war may be a way to achieve a more favorable peace, but it’s not the end in itself.

In hockey, the team with the most goals wins. In football, it’s all about touchdowns and field goals. In boxing, fighters seek a knockout punch. Whatever the sport, coaches and managers have just one goal: Winning.

Since the Napoleonic conflicts, many strategists have viewed war the same way. Once the decision has been made to go to war, these strategists argue, all of a nation’s resources should be focused on the singular goal of victory—a victory in which one’s country “imposes its will” on the enemy state.

“Victory,” though, is not the point of war. Any conflict—even total war—is nested within a larger strategic framework. Victory may be a way to bring about more favorable conditions, but it is not the end in itself.

“You go to war to win the peace, not just for the sake of fighting,” British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart wrote in 1950.

There is a point in any conflict at which victory would no longer be worth pursuing. This may, in fact, be because one military imposed its will on another—although the civil war and insurgency that arose after American forces toppled Saddam Hussein suggests just how ephemeral such victories can be.

But it’s just as likely to be for nonmilitary reasons. Political will evaporates with mounting costs, both human and financial. Troop commitments in one place may leave a country vulnerable elsewhere. Domestic needs may demand a greater share of resources. 

It’s easy to sneer at this as politics. Yet war serves political aims, not the other way around.

These aims may also change with a shifting strategic situation. While the United States launched the Iraq War to overthrow the country’s Ba’ath Party, it actually spent most of its time there waging a counterinsurgency campaign.

Most importantly, countries don’t always know whether they’ve achieved victory until years or decades after a conflict ends. The Peloponnesian War that tore the Greek world apart between 431 and 404 BC saw Sparta triumph over Athens in the classical world’s archetypal example of total war. Yet Persia was also able to regain steam after the war left its longtime Mediterranean rivals exhausted.

The Iraq war may end up leaving Persia once again ascendant—at least its modern counterpart Iran. Eliminating Hussein’s Sunni regime disrupted the regional balance of power, and Iraq’s Shiite government is reaching out to Iran in ways the former regime never did.

In sports, it’s never so hard to pick out the winners. There are scoreboards, cheering fans and a trophy to be handed out at the end of the season.

But war is not so clear. Body counts make poor scoreboards. The fans cheer on their own destruction. And there is no Stanley Cup, Vince Lombardi Trophy or heavyweight belt to let everyone know who won.

Sometimes there’s not even a winner.


Be sure to check out the entire series:

  • May 22:
  • May 23:
  • May 24:
  • May 25:
  • May 26:
  • May 27:
  • May 28: Wars are not about victory.


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