By Jennie Carignan for Canadian Military Journal (CMJ)
What exactly constitutes victory in war? Is such an end state possible, or was Kenneth Waltz right to once opine that “[I]n war, there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat.” In this article, Jennie Carignan wrestles with these questions by 1) reviewing the contributions of various theorists to the cult of victory in military thinking; 2) explaining how the concept dominates the day-to-day narratives of political decision makers; and 3) speculating on how current notions of victory might be redefined.
Inspiration often arrives unexpectedly. The idea for this article was sparked by a discussion I had with one of my demining specialists at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar, in 2009. He described the tactical situation he faced daily in the Kandahar City area, where he was required to neutralize up to nine or ten explosive devices in a single day. The devices were often found in the same places he had cleared a few days earlier. He summed up our discussion by telling me, “Look, Madame, we’re not winning this war.” Clearly, this is alarming and disappointing considering the effort expended, the lives lost, and the Canadian Armed Forces’ intent to fight that battle until victory was achieved. This raises a question: What, exactly, is victory? What does it mean to “win a war”? Why did my demining specialist – despite his total commitment, the many sacrifices he had made for his country and the risks to his life – have the perception that his actions would not lead to victory?
The Return to Mons, by Inglis Sheldon-Williams. Mons was the site of the first major battle fought by the British Army in 1914. Millions of lives later, the Canadian Corps liberated the city during the final days of the war.
A number of eminent military experts have stated that the primary objective in war is to win,2 or that, “In war there is no substitute for victory.”3 The concept of victory plagues the military. Because an armed force is employed as a last resort, it must win its battles to ensure the survival of its country. The perception of victory as an end in itself – and as synonymous with strategic success – is therefore ever present in the minds of senior military commanders. But what are the implications of victory as a strategic objective for the high command and for military personnel deployed on the ground?