LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - What constitutes a military victory?
In the past, vanquishers might have planted a flag after the capture of a battlefield or capital, and held a victory parade.
But in the era of insurgencies and the “war on terror”, victory is much harder to define, according to academics at the University of Glasgow, who have just begun researching the ethics of victory in war.
A case in point was former U.S. President George W. Bush’s speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May 2003, said senior lecturer in politics at Glasgow, Cian O‘Driscoll.
Aboard USS Abraham Lincoln at the time, Bush said the U.S.-led mission in Iraq continued but his appearance before a banner with “mission accomplished” emblazoned on it caused many to interpret Bush’s remarks as victory cry.
“There is currently a great need to think about the ethics, not only of fighting wars, but of winning them. The urgency of this is signaled by the botched conclusions of recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where we won the war but lost the peace,” said O‘Driscoll, the project’s lead researcher.
“The question becomes really acute when you think about it in terms of the war on terror, and you have somebody like (former U.S. defense secretary) Donald Rumsfeld who said in 2003, ‘We lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror’,” he added.
The aim of the two year research project is to explore whether it is possible to distinguish just from unjust victories and what military victory means at a time when wars are no longer confined to the battlefield.
“We’re interested in ... what is victory? How do you recognize it when you see it? What ethical principles should guide states, political leaders, military leaders as they strive toward victory?” O‘Driscoll said in an interview, referencing campaigns ranging from the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad to the American Civil War, Vietnam and the Gulf War.
Scholars will look at a range of benchmarks to try to quantify victory in modern war from body count to territory taken and data - such as the U.S. index of hamlets that were friendly to Communist forces kept during the Vietnam war - that might indicate success in “hearts and minds” campaigns.
O‘Driscoll added that historically, an incontrovertible defeat has been better for lasting peace than a marginal loss.
“More recently, U.S. military commanders have complained that the problem with victories achieved over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was that they were not emphatic enough, thus encouraging the enemy to resume the fight at a later date,” he said.
“Note as well that victors who have won an emphatic triumph are usually in a better place to be magnanimous to their defeated foes than victors who have only scraped a win.”
How enemies are treated is another key component to building peace, O‘Driscoll said, referring to the Versailles Treaty ending World War One. Often cited as sowing the seeds for later hostilities, it has been cast as “a vindictive peace that ended up being no peace at all”, he said.
Central to the research is the theory of just war which refers to when it is justified to go to war (jus ad bellum), the right conduct in war (jus in bello) and how wars are concluded in a just manner (jus post bellum).
The project, in partnership with the UK Defence Academy and the U.S. Naval War College, will seek the views of lawyers, theologians, political theorists and religious ethicists among other experts.
O‘Driscoll hopes the findings will shape how the ethics of “war termination” is taught at the military academies.
“The notion of victory is integral to how people think about war, how military planners go about their business, and yet people who are interested in the ethics of war have largely surrendered that concept (of just war) to strategists,” he said.
Reporting by Katie Nguyen; Editing by Alex Whiting