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It’s a truism as old as warfare itself—spectacular victories often at a terrible cost. 

Once upon a time there was a weekly network television program called grew up in the 1960s or ’70s, you’ll remember the Wide World of Sports. If you opening sequence: dramatic video clips of various athletes winning or losing. The voice-over was equally unforgettable, heralding “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” the latter underscored by a horrific ski-jump crash involving Yugoslavia’s Vinko Bogataj. Indeed, in sports it is usually easy to determine who won and lost. The signifiers are there for all to see: the scoreboard, the trophies, the crumpled bodies of failed competitors like Bogataj. That clear-cut sense of victory and defeat is one of the very things we love about sports.

On the surface, judging a war’s outcome should be just as easy. One side succeeds, the other fails. The signifiers are equally clear: Victorious armies parade through the loser’s capital, enemy prisoners march through the winner’s; a peace treaty, usually drawn up by the winner, punishes the loser. The Romans put it best: Vae victis (“Woe to the vanquished”). You know you’ve lost because you’re suffering, and you know you’ve won because you’re flush with territory, reparations and newly acquired prestige.

If only it were that simple. Even a cursory reading of military history tells us war is a messy and uncertain business. War is the realm of violence; it is unrestrained, indiscriminate and ugly, and analyzing it is like trying to analyze a tornado. An expert can make certain general comments, but predicting when, where and how it will end is near impossible.

Things can start so well —witness the German army’s campaigns from 1939 to 1941 or the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor. But initial superiority has a way of wearing down. Things equal out. Both sides make mistakes, and both tire. A few years in, those early wins can seem like ancient history. Just ask the Germans or the Japanese.

But even at the very end, the question, Who won? can be hard to answer. The victor may have crushed his adversary only to find that new dangers lurk in the postwar era. The winner may have exhausted himself in the course of the war, suffering such heavy losses that victory seems more bitter than sweet. Above all, the inexorable unfolding of future events may lead to a reassessment of the past, and wars that seemed obvious wins can easily slip into the loss column. If history teaches us anything, it is this: Anyone analyzing the outcome of a current war should probably be patient, wait a while and see how things play out in a decade or so.

The factor that most commonly blurs military victory and defeat is the cost paid by the victors. The concept is as old as warfare itself: Sometimes victory is too expensive. We usually credit a Greek king and general named Pyrrhus of Epirus with the original insight. Making war on the young Roman Republic, he won a smashing victory at the 279 BC Battle of Asculum, personally leading the cavalry charge that broke the Roman center and drove the enemy from the field with heavy losses. In breaking the Romans at Asculum, however, Pyrrhus nearly broke his own army. The Romans were tenacious even in defeat, and Pyrrhus’ losses were grievous. Surveying the carnage after the fight, he muttered, “One more such victory, and we are lost.” Ever since, a win so costly that one wishes it hadn’t happened has been known as a “Pyrrhic victory.”

History is replete with examples. Historians still debate who “won” the Thirty Years’ War, the great European religious conflict from 1618–48, but they agree the war devastated Central Europe, and the destruction lingers in the region’s historical memory. Likewise, the British won the French and Indian War (1756–63), smashing French power in North America. Victory was so costly, however, that London had to raise taxes on its American colonists—and we all know how that turned out. Closer to our own day, Iraq spent eight years winning a war with Iran (1980–88) and emerged so hard-pressed for cash and resources that Saddam Hussein came up with the bright idea of invading Kuwait in 1990. That, too, ended badly. Indeed, since all wars are expensive, no victory is bloodless, and losses are almost always higher than anticipated, it is tempting to label them all Pyrrhic.

In seeking a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory, however, we need look no further than the outcome of World War I. Most of the conflict featured trench warfare, with barbed wire and rapid-fire artillery, machine guns, poison gas and flamethrowers. The last year of the war saw tanks and aircraft come into their own. Wielding these industrial weapons were the tens of millions of soldiers conscripted by centralized bureaucracies, mobilizing more manpower than ever before. The war, conceived as a quick conflict of maneuver, turned instead into a grinding war of attrition with millions of casualties—the bloodiest war the world had yet seen. Even today it is difficult to visit a battlefield like Verdun, the Somme or Passchendaele and relate it to some airy political objective, almost impossible to get beyond the enormity of the slaughter that took place there.

No less an authority than Winston Churchill wrote the most telling verdict on World War I. In his history of the war, The World Crisis, he summarized the feeling of many of his compatriots. “Victory,” he wrote, “was to be bought so dear as to be almost indistinguishable from defeat.” Yes, the Allies won World War I, but it wasn’t easy to say precisely what that meant, and indeed they had suffered a kind of defeat themselves.

Churchill’s next line in Crisis “[Victory] was not to give even is also worth pondering: The World security to the victors.” Here he raises an intriguing possibility. Perhaps judging a war’s outcome is the task not only of those who fought it, but also of future generations. Perhaps separating victory from defeat is as much a job for posterity as it is for the present.

We see this dynamic at work in our memories of World War I. The notion it had been an utterly futile and meaningless contest developed slowly over time. Certainly, there had been war weariness in all the combatant countries during the fighting, and morale was especially low in the countries being starved by the Allied blockade. By and large, however, civilian morale in Great Britain and France remained strong throughout. In other words, most folks at the time felt the war had been worth fighting and winning.

Not until a decade or so had passed did a belief the war had been senseless seem to take hold among broad segments of the European and American public, policy-makers and ordinary folk. Think of the great German wartime novel All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, a book that more than any other summarizes the view of World War I as four long years of suffering. Then take note of its publication date: 1929. Compare it to Robert Graves’ English-language masterpiece, Good-bye to All That, dealing with the same themes of wartime disillusionment and senseless killing. Its publication date? 1929. The next year, 1930, saw All Quiet turned into a popular movie that won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production (Best Picture).

The point is it often takes time to judge whether a war was worth fighting, whether it was worth the cost and thus whether it was a victory. By 1929 it had become clear to a generation of Europeans (and not a few Americans) that, despite how important it had seemed at the time, World War I was an experience best not repeated. Disillusion had set in. The peace established by the Treaty of Versailles wasn’t much of a peace at all, and even the victorious powers had hit a rough patch. Economic troubles, hyperinflation and unemployment plagued societies seeking to demobilize from total war. Political extremists of every stripe, communists and fascists, anarchists and racists, dominated the discourse. It was an age of loudmouths, bad men with bad ideas, but with enough “passionate intensity” to recruit millions of followers. Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy were the best known, but every country in Europe had a local version. Instability, political violence and assassination were the order of the day on the home front.

For all these reasons, it was understandable for a thinking person in 1929 to look back at the recent war and ask, “Was it worth it?” For most the answer was, “No.” The question seemed more pressing to the nations that had won the war. The losers, especially in Germany, had a different motivation: They were already plotting revenge. Thus the Allied victory parades of 1919 gave way to an era of frantic rearmament in the 1930s as Great Britain and France struggled to catch up to Germany, and then to the outbreak of a new, much bloodier war in 1939. World War I— the greatest conflict in human history, and a signal Allied victory—shrank to the status of a mere curtain-raiser.

Even wars that were quick and decisive wins—and relatively blood- less for the victor—can see their reputations diminish based on new postwar realities. Consider Operation Desert Storm of 1991. No American living at the time will ever forget the drama: the months-long buildup of U.S. and coalition troops in the theater, the public’s dread of huge casualties, the network anchors openly discussing missiles and poison gas and body bags and warning gravely the Iraqi army was “the fourth largest in the world.”

Then came the war itself. A month of aerial bombing opened the campaign, inflicting punishing casualties on frontline Iraqi forces and vaporizing Saddam’s lines of supply and communication. Lasers guided smart bombs to their targets, while dumb ones rained down like hail. Iraqi units in Kuwait took a pounding. The land campaign was more of the same, combining the brute force of armored and mechanized divisions with a great deal of operational finesse. Coalition forces bypassed the toughest of the Iraqi fortifications on the Saddam Line and blasted forward in style. The coalition’s most serious operational problem was how to process the thousands of Iraqi soldiers wanting nothing more than to surrender as rapidly as possible.

It was all over in 100 hours—the combination of M1 Abrams tanks, highly trained crews and laser rangefinders proved impossible for the Iraqis to stop. Not even nightfall, usually a time when an army at a disadvantage can breathe and recover, made much difference. Virtually every U.S. tank, fighting vehicle and Apache helicopter possessed a thermal weapon sight that picked up heat differentials, letting U.S. crews see as clearly at night as in daylight and allowing the destruction to continue. The numbers still boggle the mind. In four days coalition forces destroyed no fewer than 3,847 Iraqi tanks out of 4,280 deployed in the theater during combat.

This was victory as cheap and as decisive as it comes. The coalition threw the Iraqis out of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush called a quick cease-fire, and most Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Then they began to cheer, long and loudly. A victory parade in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 1991, saw 200,000 people turning out to see their heroes march, while fighter planes thundered overhead and M1 tanks and Patriot missile batteries rolled by. It was “a great day,” Bush exulted. For a country whose last two big wars had ended in a less than satisfying stalemate (in Korea) and an outright defeat (in Vietnam), the taste of victory was sweet indeed, and Americans seemed determined to savor it. There was even a bit of lighthearted grumbling, with some wags suggesting the Desert Storm parades were lasting longer than the war itself.

Every party has a morning after, and perhaps a hangover was inevitable. Saddam remained in power, boasting he had defied the will of the United States. Military operations shifted into minor key mode but never really ended. No-fly zones remained in effect, protecting the Shiites in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north, and a shifting set of economic sanctions sought to limit the rebirth of Iraqi military power.

After the trauma of 9/11, a new U.S. administration under President George W. Bush launched yet another war with Iraq in 2003, not a defense of friendly states in the region as in 1991, but an invasion of Iraq proper. The celebrated victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991, therefore, had apparently led to little more than another war with the same opponent in 2003. Once again a rapid victory ensued—a few weeks of tough fighting on the road to Baghdad, the famous “thunder runs” into the city and a made-for-TV moment of joyous Iraqi crowds toppling a statue of Saddam. And again Americans got victory fever, a mood punctuated by a May 1, 2003, ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, featuring Bush speaking in front of a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner. By the summer, however, this second victory had also proved illusory. Occupied Iraq erupted into an insurgency that seemed impervious to American attempts to crush it, inflicting heavy casualties on the occupying troops and wounding U.S. prestige abroad.

The point is not simply to rehash an unpleasant slice of recent history. Rather, it is to show how difficult it can be to assess victory, and how the idea of victory can change over time. Desert Storm, far from an end in itself, was only the beginning of a very troubled sequence of events. Back in 1991 many thought a new era in warfare had dawned, one of “full-spectrum dominance” and unassailable American power. Traditional U.S. assets like massive firepower and deep logistics now linked with some new ones: digital readouts, smart bombs and satellite intelligence. The new U.S. military could do it all. In World War II terms, it could maneuver like the Germans and pound you like the Soviets, mixing brain and brawn in equal measure. And it played well on television, from its shiny new equipment to its commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, an aggressively Pattonesque figure straight from central casting.

Twenty years on those days seem an exercise in nostalgia. America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have been more different, less satisfying or less telegenic. Charging tank battalions gave way to small-arms skirmishes; wide-ranging desert maneuvers to the drudgery of street corner patrols. High technology seemed stymied. The breakout star in both conflicts was the low-tech and decidedly unglamorous IED (improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb). In U.S. military circles, discussion of high-tempo mechanized operations gave way to counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. COIN advocates are not very interested in traditional combat, which they mock as simplistic “kinetic” operations. Rather, they emphasize techniques to win the support of local populations in order to sap the strength of insurgents operating among them. COIN worked in Iraq—apparently. It hasn’t worked all that well in Afghanistan, and with the wind-down of both wars (or at least U.S. participation in them), the future is more uncertain now than at any time in recent memory. As a result, many historians today are likely to place a metaphorical asterisk next to the victory in Desert Storm, calling into question its operational or strategic significance. As for the public, they barely seem to remember it at all.

In the end, perhaps the essential attribute of a victory is that it must endure. Let us recall the United States fought another war in the 20th century. It was long and bloody. Only after serious early defeats did American forces right themselves, push back and finally roll on to victory in 1945. It required the concerted strength of the entire nation, however, as well as more than 400,000 American dead, and no one should ever minimize its cost. The aftermath, too, was troubled, with the rise of a new adversary more powerful than the old one had ever been.

Still, World War II has produced none of the anguish or existential hand-wringing that World War I did. Virtually all Americans still brag about defeating Hitler’s Germany and paying back Japan for Pearl Harbor. The men and women who fought the war still routinely receive praise as America’s “greatest generation,” perhaps a bit unfairly to all the other great generations this country has produced. The rise of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the threat of thermonuclear annihilation—none of these things changed anyone’s mind.

Americans still obsess over World War II, with reams of new books and related university courses filled to overflowing. Nearly 70 years after it ended, the war remains a victory to Americans.

“The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” Let us return to our ski (mis)jumper Vinko Bogataj. He suffered a mild concussion during his infamous run, but he survived and in fact became something of a minor celebrity in the West as a result of his five seconds of fame on television. Today, he is married, has two daughters and is living an apparently happy life with his family in Slovenia. Winner or loser? It seems as if time has told the tale.


Robert M. Citino writes a regular column (“Fire for Effect”) for World War II magazine and is a visiting faculty member at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. He is the author of nine books, including Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (2004) and The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943 (2012). For further reading Citino recommends Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (2011), by Michael S. Neiberg; All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), by Erich Maria Remarque; and The Generals’ War (1995), by General Bernard E. Trainor.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.