In public and professional military circles, discussion continues about America “winning” past wars compared to recent failed endeavors. What these discussions lack is a baseline for the definition of winning.
War is complex. Victory is diversely defined, can be influenced by society, and in the end is founded on a common understanding of how a conflict is supposed to end. Is a war won by the armed forces of one side capitulating and laying down their arms? In a traditional sense, a war is won by a signature on a piece of paper. For some wars, victory means deposing the other side’s political system and replacing it with one of the victor’s choosing. The definition of winning may be based on metrics of violence and stability within a country at a given point. To some it may equate to a balance scale of blood and treasure.
To know if one has won, one must know what the goal was. If it’s unknown how a war is supposed to end, then how can it be known if, or when, the endgame has been achieved?
Suffering Is Universal
The only universal thing in war is suffering. Beyond suffering, each war has its own dark uniqueness, and this is exemplified by defining victory. Did the Allies win World War I because the enemy laid down their arms and signed the Treaty of Versailles? Twenty years later, that same enemy re-emerged with similar ambitions, leading the world into a costlier war. In hindsight, it seems such a sure victory was in fact not a victory, but just a temporary break.
Few consider that the U.S. won the Vietnam War because the other side agreed to sign a piece of paper to stop the war in 1973, meeting the goal of keeping South Vietnam free from communism (the Paris Peace Accords, Jan. 27, 1973). This is because North Vietnam shortly broke the treaty (Saigon fell on April 30, 1975). The Vietnam experience shows how simplistic it is to see war as a game with a final score determining who wins and who loses. In Vietnam, the “body count war” indicated a clear U.S. victory. American Military History, Volume II: The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917–2008 states that America and its allies killed over 1 million North Vietnamese compared to roughly 58,000 U.S. and more than 200,000 allied deaths. The U.S. left with a signed paper, “peace with honor,” and a ledger that clearly showed more communists were killed than the allies lost. But a few years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, South Vietnam ceased to exist.
Another Look at Victories
One can even take another look at hallmark victories. Though Iraq was expelled from Kuwait and the Iraqi army surrendered, in large part the Republican Guard escaped destruction. Though Iraqi President Saddam Hussein signed a piece of paper, he immediately went on massacring his citizens, continually defying aspects of the signed cease-fire in the years that followed. As clearly unacceptable as these things were, the U.S. clearly won by the definition of the multinational coalition’s goals as outlined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 678 regarding the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait and the return of Kuwaiti sovereignty. Only hindsight makes some second-guess the definitive victory of Operation Desert Storm.
One of the most hallowed victories can even be questioned in abstract. Did the Western Allies “lose” World War II because most of Eastern Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain and the Cold War began immediately following the Axis capitulation, trading one totalitarian regime for another in Europe? Clearly, this is hindsight applied to a military and political victory, but still an example of what is or isn’t a won or victorious war depending on defining the parameters of the assessment.
This leads to the complicated question of whether U.N. forces won the Korean War. The first hot spot in the Cold War ended with a cease-fire armistice, not a signed peace treaty and North Korea has publicly withdrawn from the Korean Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953, on multiple occasions. The question remains if this war is even over. Meanwhile, as this article was written, South Korea and North Korea continue talks to officially end the conflict.
The concept of victory and winning is no more complicated and mystifying than in counterinsurgency warfare. In large part, this is due to the nonstate composition of the enemy, and counterinsurgency warfare is hardest to define using metrics to indicate progress toward a stated goal. Looking at recent experiences, some argue that the U.S. won the war in Afghanistan at multiple junctions, then continued to stay until Afghanistan fell apart again instead of leaving while the campaign was won, notably in 2004 with the first public elections and violence at an “acceptable” level.
Metrics Hard to Set
A key to determining victory is measuring achievements on a defined metric scale, but even this is difficult due to the question of what happens when a war is started with one stated goal (with associated clear metrics), but during the course of the war there is either a deliberate or subtle shift toward a different goal. This was the case in Afghanistan. A war to destroy al-Qaida there morphed into removing the Taliban and installing a democratic government. A war to install a democratic government turned into a war to preserve a regional (if sometimes temperamental) ally.
In 2011, when American troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of Operation New Dawn and Operation Iraqi Freedom, NPR reported that the U.S.-led coalition had reduced violence to a murder rate on par with Brazil or Mexico, and exponentially less than in Colombia or Venezuela. The coalition also had established and supported a full government of services, regular elections and a ratified constitution. Iraq was another war that at various stages many said was won, then lost with sectarian violence and near-complete civil war, and won again with locals “awakening” against extremists.
However, the coalition remained in Iraq and the nature of an infant nation in an area of instability brought more violence and struggle. Arguably, the continued U.S. military presence was a forcing mechanism keeping a sectarian government in line, but without an unending commitment to remain, at some point, the U.S. has to withdraw and allow responsibility and consequences to fall on the domestic government.
This begs the question, at what point would it be acceptable or victorious to leave a “changed regime” installed by a victor? When does the new regime’s government shoulder its own responsibility? Should an American presence have remained in Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, or should U.S. forces remain indefinitely in Afghanistan or Iraq? It is important to understand that this is precisely what was done in Korea, Germany and Japan. In those countries, the American military retains a significant presence 70 years later at substantial cost.
How Does It End?
In 2003, when he was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus famously said to a reporter, “Tell me how this ends.” This capsulizes how in a free society the goals of winning in war are defined and measured. The people must ask their elected officials “how this ends” to understand why and for what they are providing blood and treasure. Likewise, public officials must determine, through their election by the people, “how this ends.” Finally, the military must ask the president as commander in chief, “Tell me how this ends,” so they know how best to achieve those ends.
A different conclusion can be drawn about every war ever fought, depending on the definition of winning and losing. This establishes why it is so critical to define the end before the war begins, and to clearly follow it. War is a fluid, complicated thing, and it isn’t beyond reason for war aims to morph during a conflict, but at each of those points there must be a clear and understood process for the changed goals to be achieved as there was leading into the war in the first place. A change in war aims can seem like a new war in itself.