We lost the Vietnam War. There is little reasonable ambiguity about this judgment, nor can there be any apparent consolation. Losing, after all, is assuredly worse than winning. And victory is always better than defeat.
But what if there is no longer a meaningfully determinable way to calculate victory and defeat? What if it should turn out that the Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syrian wars will have been fought without ever being able to ascertain the victory versus defeat outcomes? With such a future, we would have to abide, inter alia, a pattern of endlessly confused war terminations, a pattern potentially more destabilizing than one that would exhibit endlessly conspicuous failures.
Whatever our current views on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, one analytic judgment is certain. Going forward, traditional notions of victory and defeat will have diminishing or little relevance in measuring our military operations. This instructive indictment also holds true (but even more so) for the ongoing and increasingly inchoate American “war on terror.” To be sure, this Bush-era term is no longer in fashion, but the underlying concept remains very much the same.
In the past, whenever our country’s wars had more-or-less readily identifiable beginnings and endings, declarations of victory and defeat could still make military and political sense – at least in principle. Today, however, when we are engaged in simultaneous interstate and counterterrorism conflicts that will never close with any ordinary war-terminating (treaty or armistice) agreements, and that are animated by compelling promises of power over death (“martyrdom”), such declarations are bound to be hollow or premature. Now, it will be difficult to challenge, the core lines of demarcation between conflict and peace have become blurred, merely distracting, meaningless, and very, very gray.
For the future, there will likely be no recognizable enemy surrenders. Instead of parades and flowers, there will only be interconnected plateaus of exhaustion, suffering, and – of course – an exasperatingly empty rhetoric. Always – and this never really changes – we can expect the utterly humiliating and debilitating rhetoric.
What does this all really mean for America? At a minimum, it suggests that we should no longer cling desperately to manifestly outdated and futile strategic expectations. No, at some point, at least, truth will have to have its correct place, and truth, as we must already know, is always exculpatory.
The ritualistic pleas of both politicians and generals that we should always plod on till some glorious “victory” can no longer be grounded in any serious thought. Accepted too uncritically, these grotesquely vain exhortations would only lead the United States to further insolvency, and to a state of more-or-less absolute vulnerability. It’s very nice, of course, to plan to “make America great again,” but any such plan represents little more than a tactical obfuscation. It is always just an unspeakably shallow witticism.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there is also a significant upside to these changing meanings of victory and defeat. Here, what is true for America, is also true for its principal enemies. Like us, these assorted foes must now also confront potentially huge homeland vulnerabilities in the absence of any prior military defeat.
Properly understood by our leaders, this largely unforeseen mutuality of weakness could soon be turned to our own critical advantage. Once we can acknowledge that our strategic goals may now have to be far more modest than traditional ideas of “victory,” our indispensable exercise of world power could begin to become much less visceral, and thus far more thoughtful.
In the final analysis, as the ancient Greeks and Macedonians had already recorded in their principal historical texts, war – though a “violent preceptor” – is ultimately an intellectual affair, a calculating contest of “mind over mind,” not one of mind over “matter.” Even if this country is not yet prepared for a more generally reinvigorating blast of Emersonian “high thinking,” our military plans will still need a far more explicit grounding in “mind.”
Image credit: “Iraq Tour 814” Elliott Plack, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr