Sound trumpets! Let our bloody colours wave.
And either victory, or else a grave.
William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 3, Act 2, Scene 2
Recently, the pending Ukrainian offensives have received a lot of attention. This is appropriate given their military, strategic and political importance. However, we should also understand how these offensives, and those likely to follow in the future, comprise one part of a larger view of victory for Ukraine.
Victory is a central concept in our understanding of war. Sun Tzu, writing in On War, described victory as the main object in war, writing that “a skilled commander seeks victory from the situation, and does not demand it from his subordinates”. Baron Antoine Jomini writes in his book The Art of War that “victory may with much certainty be expected by the party taking the offensive when the general in command possesses the talent of taking his troops into action in good order and boldly attacking the enemy.”
It is a term that has also been used in modern conflicts.
In a May 1940 speech, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked “What is our aim? Victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” General Dwight Eisenhower, writing in his post war book Crusade in Europe, noted that “a normal part of every battle is maximum exploitation of victory.”
Victory can be difficult to define. Cian O’Driscoll writes in his book Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War, “it can be hard to pin down exactly what victory means in practical terms. Although we know it stands for winning, what this means in practice is anyone’s guess.” In the Cambridge Dictionary, victory is defined as “an occasion when you win a game, competition, election, war, etc. or the fact that you have won.” But the meaning of victory depends on the objectives that underpin that success. As Clausewitz notes, “in war many roads lead to success, and ... they do not all involve the opponent’s outright defeat.” Therefore, successful military operations may only be but one part of overall victory.
Basil Liddell Hart, writing in US Naval War College Review in 1952, described how “the object in war is a better state of peace - even if only from your own point of view. Hence, it is essential to conduct war with constant regard to the peace you desire.” Not only does this reflect a cynicism about major wars, but it also reflects a world where connectivity between battle, populations, politics, and economics is growing more complex.
Beatrice Heuser, in The Evolution of Strategy, describes how military victory does not bring lasting achievement of one’s war aims. And writing in a 2013 article, Heuser described how “we are struggling with the concept of what victory in general means, as the new status quo or state of affairs (or the restored pre-war state) has so often proved short lived: when is victory a meaningful concept?” Her conclusion: the most important objective of war is “to make a just and durable peace.” Therefore, victory is nothing if it does not lead to such a peace, and such justice must be seen as reasonable by both sides to ensure it is durable.
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