Victory and Vacuums

Pardon the kitsch title. It sounds like a 1950’s Cold War advertisement.

Its a pretty valid generalisation across strategic history that absolute brute force victory, that is, the annihilation of an enemy, is an ambivalent gain. It might eliminate a problem, but it leaves a vacuum in its wake. Morever, the pursuit of outright ‘total’ victory raises the costs dramatically for the victor.

Amongst others, we were battling the Sunni insurgency between 2003-2005. But we needed many of the same players when they realigned themselves with the US-led coalition, helped along by a little bribery and bargaining. The fact that they were still in the field was ultimately a benefit during the surge.

Even in an extreme case of ‘total war’, World War Two, the Allies were forward-looking. True, we flattened Axis cities, pitilessly destroyed their armed forces, took very few prisoners in the Pacific War, and went to impressive lengths to dismantle fascism as an organised political force.

At the same time, in victory we kept critical elite figures in power (Hirohito, Nazi officials who could administer Germany), compromised punishment and recrimination with reconstruction, and invested heavily in rebuilding the defeated countries in our self-interest. They became anti-Soviet bulwarks, not to mention economic miracles. And we bought into convenient myths of the ‘innocent’ symbol Emperor, or the ‘good Wehrmacht versus the evil SS’, to support the post-war order. We attempted to exterminate an ideology, but not Italy, Germany or Japan.

Despite a strain of thinking in American military-strategic traditions, a desire to fix and annihilate an enemy documented by Russell Weigley, during the Cold War both sides had to fashion doctrines of limited war so they could compete in the long-run without mutual destruction.

As Benjamin Borgeson observes over at Visions of Empire:

If America should learn one thing from Byzantium, it is that war is eternal; to exert strenuously against a particular enemy is only to hasten decline, for a new enemy is always on the horizon.

Thus true strategy is the limitation of war, and the limitation of victory, not its endless enlargement. A similar point is made by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman in their diagnosis of US foreign policy:

Terrorism, like nuclear weapons, makes nonsense of General Douglas A. MacArthur’s dictum that ‘in war there can be no substitute for victory.’ The substitute is holding the line and preventing the enemy from winning – which is what civilized states have been doing vis-a-vis barbarian enemies since the beginning of recorded time. The Byzantines never did ‘win’ conclusively against their enemies, any more than successive Chinese dynasties against their own barbarian menace. But they held them off for centuries, during which time great civilizations flourished and eventually produced the societies and technologies by which the barbarian threat could be extinguished.

In geopolitical terms, this was aided in the Byzantine’s case by the fact that they were partly shielded by water and maritime power; in China’s case, by the ability to fortify frontiers and hold predators at bay with a mix of coercion, bargaining, and integration.

Holding the line and denying the enemy triumphs: not a bad guide for a beleagured power trying to counter terrorism without exhausting itself. America’s semi-insular position is an advantage here, but instead of rejecting terms like ‘victory’ as outmoded, a subtle rethink of the idea would help.

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