Reviews

Winning Isn’t Everything: Victory in War by William C. Martel

By posted at 3:15 am on August 21, 2007 0

This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.

In September, as many Americans reflect on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four government reports detailing progress in the war in Iraq will be presented to Congress and the American public. The most anticipated of these is expected to document the findings and recommendations of Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. military forces in Iraq.

Recently, the White House acknowledged that instead of limiting authorship of the report to Petraeus, as initially expected, Bush administration officials such as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will add their take on whether military and political benchmarks in Iraq are being met.

While the scope of the report is limited to progress in achieving benchmarks, the underlying question persists: Are the benchmarks and troop surge moving the United States towards victory in Iraq? Similarly, what constitutes victory in modern warfare, particularly in a conflict such as the war on terror?

coverAuthor William C. Martel tackles those questions, from a predominantly historical perspective, in his new book, Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Martel, a professor of international security studies at Tufts University who has also taught at the Naval War College, argues that since victory in war means different things to different people there is no coherent definition, making it difficult to craft effective wartime strategies.

It’s not a new argument, but certainly a timely one, especially since military leaders, policymakers and politicians, all with their own understanding of victory, will contribute to the Petraeus report.

The book begins with brief descriptions (a few paragraphs each) of how military leaders, theorists and state leaders over the centuries have defined victory. Of the 59 thinkers summarized, some are familiar – Mao Zedong and Napoleon Bonaparte – while others, like John I. Alger and Azar Gat, are less so. Still, the format proves a useful tool for comparison, in case you’ve ever wanted to see how Machiavelli’s impression of victory (dominate the enemy completely) stacks up against that of Sun Tzu (avoid any war if at all possible).

Different types of victory – tactical, political-military and grand strategic – are ascribed to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Vietnam War and others, followed by more detailed cases studies of six recent U.S. military conflicts, starting with the 1986 bombing raid on Libya, a country now in the process of normalizing relations with the United States, and ending with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Overall, Martel, a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of the Providence Journal, lays out his well-sourced argument in a fairly readable fashion. But in the book’s 309 pages of text, there certainly are moments when he lapses into the lexicon of academia. Early on, Martel qualifies the aim of the book, writing, “The intent is to build the foundations of a pretheory of victory, on the premise that such pretheoretical concepts will be useful for scholars who are interested in comprehending, in formal and systematic terms, the relationship between war and victory.”

For those not familiar with what pretheory is (i.e. pretty much anyone who isn’t a social scientist), Martel offers this explanation: “A pretheory describes the process of conceptual exploration that is designed to identify carefully and observe relationships in a field of inquiry, and subsequently to formulate organizing principles and testable theories.”

Martel is more direct when discussing two events that will likely be of high interest to most readers – the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – while acknowledging their limited achievements.

In Afghanistan: “The outcome of the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom seems consistent with the grand strategic victory intended (although U.S. policymakers did not use that phrase directly) in that the United States has achieved its objectives – with the exception of capturing (or killing) the top leadership of al-Qaeda and Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.”

In Iraq, where the outcome is still murky, Martel writes: “Whether the forces of democratization take hold in Iraq will influence judgments about a U.S. victory, as will the length and violence of the postinvasion occupation and the timing and conditions of the U.S. withdrawal.”

While some may want to frame victory against the Iraqi insurgency as a moving target, Martel essentially argues that such an approach misrepresents the appropriate definition of victory for this conflict.

He writes: “While we could describe victory in Iraq on the basis of classic measures of defeat, such as territory lost or gained, defeating the opponent’s military forces, or destroying its economy and infrastructure, these measures would be inadequate here because this war is being waged on ideological grounds.”

That’s something to keep in mind when reading the achievements highlighted in the Petraeus report.

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