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Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy

William C. Martel, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 447 pages, $35.

With our military forces fighting in a war that has stretched over six years in Afghanistan and already passed the fifth anniversary in Iraq, Americans at home might well wonder what is the meaning of victory and whether it is worth the cost in blood and wealth. This title, Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy, is timely, as it seems to promise answers to these questions.

Certainly William Martel has impressive credentials as a defense intellectual currently on the International Security Studies faculty at Tufts University, with experience teaching at both the Air and Naval War Colleges and as a member of the Rand Corporation. He does provide answers, but they may not be what many expect.

Although he devotes a chapter each to Afghanistan and Iraq, his focus is not on the current wars but is rather an ambitious attempt to develop precise language and definitions for various kinds of victories. This effort he hopes “should provide the basis on which scholars (and/or policy – makers) carefully identify and observe relationships in a field of inquiry and subsequently formulate organizing principles and testable theories.” He believes that those considering going to war would thus have a clearer idea as to what interests are at stake, whether or not it is wise to go to war, and what resources would be needed to attain the kind of victory they desire. Obviously, Martel does not believe that a general definition of victory such as Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s “The object of war is to attain a better peace—even if only from your own point of view” would be of much help to those who study or plan for future conflicts.

Martel thinks that there are three kinds of victory. The most commonly known throughout history he calls tactical victory—a major victory in battle; however, he concentrates on two broader kinds of success in war: political-military victory and grand strategic victory. The former results in the victor using military force to achieve political ends without a complete military defeat and conquest of the enemy. In other words, victory results from a limited war. The latter is the highest level of victory, hence a total war in which military forces soundly defeat the enemy’s forces and depose its government. The conqueror then proceeds to occupy and restore that nation’s economy, government, and even military forces in a form more agreeable to the victor.

Readers of military history who might not be interested in methodology will probably find more interesting the author’s brief discussions of the concepts of victory that military leaders and thinkers have held, from Sun Tzu in the third or fourth century B.C. to Henry Kissinger, and Martel’s placement of American wars into his major categories of victory. Some might argue, however, that the Civil War was a grand strategic victory rather than a political-military victory for the Union, and others might wonder why he did not include the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and the postwar fighting that continued in the Philippines until 1913. Indeed, more knowledge of the latter would have likely helped policymakers understand better what they might face when they considered going into Afghanistan and Iraq.

The last half of the book includes longer discussions about the background and operations in American military actions and why they fit into one or the other of his main categories of victory since 1986. Separate chapters are devoted to the interventions in Libya, Panama, Bosnia and Kosovo, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with two final chapters on the evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of ground, maritime, and air power in bringing about victory. His conclusion expands on the points iterated throughout the book.

Martel considers all of those interventions of the eighties and nineties and the Gulf War political-military victories. From the standpoint of 2006, when he wrote this book, he concluded that American policymakers planned to win grand strategic victories in Afghanistan and Iraq and did achieve the standards he set up for such a victory. He qualified his conclusion, however, by recognizing the difference insurgencies made. Since al-Qaida and the Taliban (and presumably Sunni and Shiite insurgents also) are “nonstate actors,” much of his criteria does not apply to them and the situations they have created in the last two wars. Hence, he acknowledges that his definition of grand strategic victory is inadequate in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his memoir A.E.F.: Ten Years Ago in France, Hunter Liggett, one of the outstanding generals of his generation, commented, “War provokes more muddled thinking than any human activity I know of.” William Martel has made a significant effort to eliminate at least some of this muddle in his book. His research is impressive, and the definitions he has created will, it is to be hoped, help policymakers of the future in their planning for the use of military force.


Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here