Victory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

ANDREW J. BACEVICH is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

IN THE WAKE of the war in southern Lebanon, claims of victory are legion. Hardly had the shooting stopped than Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was asserting that Hezbollah had triumphed. Others see Syria or Iran or even Shiite Islam as the big winner. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seconded by President Bush, doggedly insists that Israel came out on top.

What are we to make of these competing claims? What is victory anyway?

Ardently pursued, victory in the modern era has been remarkably elusive. Genuine victory implies something more than military success; it must have a political dimension. Even then, results often prove other than expected. Understanding why requires that we appreciate the intimate relationship between war and politics.

“Victory” that defeats the enemy but leaves intact the issues giving rise to war in the first place is likely to prove hollow. The ensuing “peace” is false; after a brief interval, hostilities are likely to resume. World War I offers a classic illustration: At horrific cost, the Allies broke the German army, but did not break German ambition, which soon revived. Worse, World War I served as a petri dish for political dysfunction in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and, especially, the Middle East. The victory that in November 1918 appeared conclusive instead provided the incubus for future violence.


The 1945 Allied victory finally solved the German problem, crushing the hegemonic ambitions that had roiled European politics since the middle of the 19th century. In this sense, victory produced something tangible. Henceforth, Germany would be of Europe but would not rule Europe.

Americans like to think that victory in 1945 also solved the problem posed by Japan. Did it? Even today, as the controversial Yasukuni Shrine reminds us, many Japanese cling to a different understanding of the Pacific war’s origins and justification. As far as China and South Korea are concerned, victory in 1945 did not solve their Japan problem; that problem persists and is growing. If East Asia becomes the locus of renewed great power competition between China and Japan, V-J Day will no longer look quite so decisive.

Military victory in 1945 -- as clear-cut as any in history -- emphatically did not produce peace. Instead, it created the conditions for a new conflict, the Cold War, which began almost immediately. Ambiguous shooting wars in places such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan ensued, as did a succession of conflicts in the Middle East.

In 1967, conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors yielded what appeared to be a decidedly unambiguous outcome. With the United States mired embarrassingly in Vietnam, here was plucky little Israel rolling up its enemies on three fronts. But what did this exemplary battlefield success produce? Apart from preserving the Jewish state from destruction -- a considerable achievement -- the fruits of victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War proved disappointing. Beaten in battle, the Arabs were far from defeated politically. A more dangerous conflict with Egypt ensued just six years later. More tragically, victory-induced dreams of a Greater Israel served only to enlarge and aggravate Israel’s Palestinian problem. Out of the ugly, debilitating conflict that ensued came Hamas and Hezbollah.


Since 1967, Israel has won a thousand little fights, but victory that actually settles something remains a chimera. The truth is that absent an Israeli willingness to engage in total war, as the Allies did against the Axis, the Palestinians will never submit -- and even then the Arabs would be unlikely to make peace.

When the Cold War finally ended in 1989, many in the West proclaimed it the greatest victory since 1945. But it was a paradoxical victory: We did not defeat the enemy militarily, and yet the political issues underlying the Cold War had quietly vanished. The Soviets gave up their empire and gave up promoting revolution. We “won” without firing a shot.

Before Americans could contemplate the significance of this paradox, yet another shooting war intruded: Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The Persian Gulf War produced a seemingly stupendous military victory for the U.S.-led coalition. But events soon showed this to be an illusion. Hussein survived, so the underlying political problem remained. Americans celebrated their glitzy “Hundred-Hour War,” but then somehow lost sight of the jousting that continued throughout the next decade as U.S. forces conducted hundreds of air strikes against Iraq.

The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 intent on correcting the “mistake” of 1991 by getting rid of Hussein.


Operation Iraqi Freedom also produced a slam-dunk victory. This time we had finished the job. Yet to our dismay, once again a military victory produced not peace but something akin to chaos, which continues to the present day.

How could this be? It turns out that the Bush administration, seeing war as a strictly military enterprise, had misread Iraqi politics. Instead of paving the way for democracy, using a U.S. army to remove the hated Iraqi dictator (and then keeping that army on hand to supervise the aftermath) merely released pent-up forces bent on using violence to achieve their ambitions. In Iraq, as elsewhere in the Middle East, they do politics with guns.

Frustrated American hawks and some anxious Israelis now want to up the ante. Believing that big victories require big wars, some advocate attacking Iran. The appeal is clear: At least in its initial stages, a war with Iran would play to the U.S. or Israeli strong suit. It would be a war of “shock and awe” rather than of ambushes and roadside bombs. But even if a war against Iran were winnable militarily -- a large assumption indeed -- would victory solve our political problems? History says don’t count on it.