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Letter From Military History - January 2014

By Stephen Harding 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: October 30, 2013 
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Victory's Vagaries

Some successes in battle are clear-cut, unambiguous and easily won—a bold cavalry charge that swiftly overwhelms an apparently impregnable enemy position, for example, or a relentless aerial assault that leaves a desert highway littered with the burned-out vehicles of a retreating invader.

Yet history shows it is vastly more difficult to determine what constitutes ultimate, final "victory" in war.

There have always been ways to mark an adversary's military capitulation, of course. In earlier times it was often the public removal of a defeated sovereign's head, the pillaging of his capital city and the enslavement of his people. Over the centuries such barbarous conduct generally gave way to tamer but more elaborate ceremonies in grand halls or on the decks of mighty warships. And, of course, there have always been the parades: phalanxes of flag-bearing troops striding down wide boulevards to the cheers—and sometimes tears—of massed onlookers.

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But victory is often as hard on the winner as it is the loser, and it is frequently not as final as either the victor or the vanquished might first assume.

Consider World War I. History's first global mechanized conflict killed millions, laid waste to wide swaths of Europe, fueled revolution in Russia and helped spawn a worldwide economic crash. Gathered at Versailles, the victors demanded reparations that guaranteed the resurgence of German militarism. Moreover, their arbitrary division of the former Ottoman empire—based largely on lines of latitude and longitude on maps rather than on ethnic, religious or political realities on the ground—helped create many of the seemingly intractable regional conflicts with which the world continues to deal.

In World War II the Allies fought to defeat European fascism and Japanese imperialism. Attaining that goal cost dearly in blood, treasure and, in the cases of France and Britain, the loss of colonial empires. Victory had hardly been achieved, moreover, when a new war began—a cold one, perhaps, but one that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon more than once.

While that threat has apparently eased, the proliferation of well-armed, well-funded and zealously fundamentalist transnational terrorist groups has added a new dimension to any discussion of the meaning of victory. Avoiding even the minimalist conventional warfare tactics of traditional guerrillas, today's terrorists studiously avoid direct combat and rely instead on teenage suicide bombers and brutal attacks on soft civilian targets. In this new war against shadowy, amorphous and hydra-headed groups the real question may be, Is victory even possible?

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