The idea of decisive victory predicated on success in battle is simply a historical curio that, one interlude aside, has seldom had much relevance to the material realities of war.
Long live victory!
So should this be the end of the matter? Obama and all the other critics of victory have, it seems, been vindicated. It is not merely that victory, couched in terms of decisiveness and indexed to success in pitched battle, has little relevance to the vagaries of contemporary warfare, it is that (one period around the 17th century aside) it has never had any salience.
This brings us to the third and final twist in our tale. While it is true that the idea of decisive victories achieved through pitched battle may be regarded as a product of lazy history writing, this should not be taken to mean that it is of no importance to how warfare is understood and practised. Even if it is just a myth, the idea of victory through decisive battle still bears significant clout. Chimerical though it may be, it still functions as a kind of regulative ideal, guiding people’s understanding, not so much of how wars actually end, but of how they ought to end.
Decisive victories may well be a rare beast, historically speaking, but they are also widely posited as the goal toward which all militaries should strive. This argument can be derived from the writings of, among others, the controversial historian Victor Davis Hanson.
Hanson, whose most recent book is a letter of support for the Trump presidency, is better known for writing several works dedicated to making the case that the idea of decisive victory through battle continues to carry moral weight in Western political culture, even though a long time has passed since it was germane in a military sense.
Hanson traces the idea of decisive victory through battle to classical Greek civilisation and argues that it reflects the longstanding belief that the best way for communities to settle intractable disputes is to send citizen armies to face one another across an open battlefield and there fight it out. By confronting one another in a kill-or-be-killed scenario, societies commit to testing, not only their valour and military prowess, but also the values they fight for in the crucible of combat. Any outcomes that arise from such contests, must, it follows, be respected as the verdict of battle.
There is plenty of evidence to support this view. The history of Western thinking about war from the classical world to the present day is marked by both a repugnance for the adoption of tactics that circumvent the opportunity for pitched battle, and a readiness to sneer at any victories won by those means as somehow less worthy.
In ancient Greece, Odysseus was scorned for his predilection for overcoming his enemies by guile rather than by hand-to-hand combat. In Persia, King Cyrus was similarly lambasted for relying on trickery to overcome his foes “rather than conquering [them] by force in battle”. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great valorised victories won by direct confrontation in pitched battles. He responded with contempt when his adviser, Parmenio, proposed launching a night-time ambush on their foes: “The policy you are suggesting is one of bandits and thieves … I am resolved to attack openly and by daylight. I choose to regret my good fortune rather than be ashamed of my victory.”
Beyond the classical world, knights in the middle ages were wont to burnish their victories by exaggerating the importance of battles and downplaying the part played by more humdrum modes of warring (such as raiding) in delivering them. These views also carried over into the canon of modern strategic thought.
The survival of this way of thinking into the present era is evident in the approbation that greets the use of those modes of fighting (such as the use of guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and drones) that preclude the finality of a decisive victory on the battlefield being achieved by either side. This reflects, I think, a lingering sense that any mode of belligerency that is not geared toward producing victory through the kind of fair fight that a battlefield contest is believed to represent must, in some sense, be morally problematic.
And so even though the ideal of decisive victory is best understood as nothing more than a myth, it still matters. It still shapes how we understand, think about and indeed approach war. As such, it continues to guide our thinking about what war can achieve, when it should be employed, by what means it should be conducted and how and when it should be concluded. To imagine that it can simply be struck from our vocabulary, as Obama apparently assumed, is as naive as it is foolish. But recognising this also reveals some unsettling realities.
‘Mowing the lawn’
The ideal of decisive victory, then, is a myth, albeit an enduringly powerful one that continues to shape how we think about war. And this myth poses some dangers.
It’s a myth that tempts us to think that war can still be a conclusive way of settling disputes between societies. It invites us to believe that societies can resolve their conflicts by simply fighting them out, with the winner taking all and loser honourably accepting its defeat as the verdict of battle. The problem with this vision is, of course, that it promises too much. War is too blunt an instrument to deliver such a clean ending. In a way, then, this belief sells us a false bill of goods – one that comes at a terrible cost in blood and treasure. One need only look to the plight of the Kurds in Kobani for proof of this.
To our detriment, we appear to be both stuck with and trapped by the language of victory.
The Israeli strategic doctrine known as “mowing the lawn” provides an intriguing counterpoint to this. Whereas Israeli strategists traditionally focused on procuring decisive battlefield victories against rival state armies, recent experiences in Gaza have led them to adopt a different approach.
Instead of supposing that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) should aim to vanquish its enemies once and for all in direct combat, it is directed toward the pursuit of more modest, contingent objectives. The doctrine counsels that the IDF must treat the threat from Israel’s enemies in the same way that a gardener approaches the mowing of their lawn: that is, as a recurrent task that can never be fully completed but must instead be returned to at regular intervals.
As such, it reflects a hard-won acceptance of the fact that Israel will not achieve a final victory over its foes any time soon. In its place, it proposes that the best Israel can hope for is provisional gains – namely, the degradation and short-term containment of its enemies – that require constant and recurrent consolidation.
There are clearly very serious problems with this position — problems that I do not wish to deflect from or in any way minimise — but it does raise some interesting possibilities for how we think about victory. Specifically, it provokes us to reflect on what victory might look like if we ceased indexing it to notions of decisiveness and conclusiveness.
How might we reconfigure our understanding of victory so that it is coupled to provisional rather than final outcomes? This would presumably involve reframing it in partial and contingent rather than comprehensive terms. There is much to be said for this. But above all else, it would reconnect how we think about victory with the realities of modern warfare and a more sober assessment of the kind of goods it can deliver.
My point is not to persuade states to ape Israel’s strategic posture. It is, rather, to encourage reflection on the conundrum that victory in modern war poses.
What does winning mean today?
Thinking about contemporary armed conflict in terms of victory is problematic because modern warfare is not configured in such a way as to produce what we might regard as a clear-cut victory for one side and an emphatic defeat for the other. Construed this way, victory appears more mythical than real.
But even if it is a myth, it colours how we approach contemporary armed conflict today, tempting us to believe that clean endings are still a possibility – when they are evidently not. Victory is, in this sense, a red herring.
One solution to this conundrum would be to strike victory from our vocabularies. That is, to simply cease talking about it or in its terms. Yet this is easier said than done. As President Obama discovered, the language of victory is very difficult to circumvent or evade. Just when you think it’s dead, it comes back with even greater force behind it.