Wars Without Victory

The United States must rethink the meaning and role of its military and security.

U.S. Army soldiers attached to the 2nd platoon, C troop, 1st Squadron (Airborne), 91st U.S Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team operating under the International Security Assistance Force walk on the side of a hill during a patrol near Baraki Barak base in Logar Province, on Oct. 10, 2012. (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/GettyImages)
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Louis René Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.

We lost the Vietnam War. There is little ambiguity about this judgment, nor is there any apparent consolation. Losing is assuredly worse than winning. Victory is always better than defeat.

End of story.

But what if there is no longer a determinable way to calculate victory and defeat in our current wars? What if it should turn out that both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will have been fought without ever being able to meaningfully ascertain the tangible outcomes? In such a perplexing but distinctly plausible case, America may have to face a foreseeable future of ambiguous war terminations, outcomes even more destabilizing than those that exhibit plain and obvious failure. In such a scenario, we would seemingly have to confront a dire national future, a condition of genuinely endless uncertainty, and, as an evident corollary, one of utterly protracted insecurity.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

How likely is this unprecedented scenario? Whatever our current views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one judgment is certain. Traditional measures of victory and defeat will have little or no relevance in these theatres. This view also holds true (but even more so) for the ongoing but increasingly inchoate American "war on terror."

In the past, when our country's wars had more-or-less readily identifiable beginnings and endings, declarations of victory and defeat could still make military and political sense. Today, however, when we are engaged in simultaneous interstate and counterterrorism conflicts that will never close with ordinary war-terminating (treaty or armistice) agreements, such declarations are bound to be hollow. Now, the core line of demarcation between conflict and peace has become blurred and gray.

For the future, there will be no clear enemy surrenders. Instead of parades and flowers, there will be only exhaustion, suffering, and exasperatingly empty rhetoric.

What does this really mean for America? At a minimum, it suggests that we should no longer cling to manifestly outdated and futile strategic expectations.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the U.S. Withdraw from Iraq Too Soon?]

The ritualistic pleas of both politicians and generals that we should somehow always plod on till a glorious "victory" are no longer founded in serious military thought. Accepted too uncritically, these vain exhortations could lead the United States to further insolvency, and to more-or-less absolute vulnerability. In case one hasn't been watching the news, national power is always largely contingent upon national wealth and prosperity.

Another serious problem emerges from changing meanings of victory and defeat. Until Hiroshima in August, 1945, states, city-states, and empires all remained essentially secure from homeland destruction unless their armies had first been defeated. For prospective aggressors before 1945, a calculated capacity to destroy had always required a prior calculated capacity to win.

This is no longer the case. From the standpoint of ensuring any one state's survival, not only the United States, the goal of preventing a classical military defeat is now generally misguided or beside the point. From our own specifically American vantage point, preventing defeat will not assure our required safety from aggression or terrorism. Now, we may in fact be capable of warding off any substantial destruction of our military forces, and even of achieving certain piecemeal operational objectives along the way, but we may still have to face extraordinary, or even existential, harms.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan Sooner?]

What does this mean for our many enemies? From their point of view, a perspective that we must finally learn to understand, it is no longer necessary to actually win any war, or even to win any particular military engagement. These adversaries needn't attempt to figure out traditionally complex land or naval warfare strategies. They don't have to triumph at "Thermopylae" (referencing the classic battle of 480 BCE between the Greeks and the Persians) in order to lay waste to "Athens."