There is a common — and understandable — perception in the postmodern age of nuclear proliferation that victory is an obsolete concept.
Is it that too many nuclear players have provided too many eleventh-hour reprieves to the losing sides in conventional wars?
Or is it the non-uniformed status of our increasingly common terrorist enemies?
Or perhaps the “ends” of wars seem inconsequential because of the ubiquity of terrorism and unconventional tactics, the mess of post-battle reconstruction and nation-building, and the power of instant global communications that bring us unedited and unrepresentative soundbites from the front.
In reality, such pessimism discourages Western military action, and cynical postmodern societies seem to be stymied by their zealous premodern opponents.
“I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory,’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.”
So asserted our president in a July 2009 interview with ABC News. Aside from the fact that Emperor Hirohito never himself went “down” anywhere to surrender to General MacArthur, the president reflected the prevailing sense that wars are now amorphous, never-ending, and without clear benchmarks of success or failure.
But is all this quite accurate?
If it is true that human nature is unchanging, then the very human enterprise of war — with understandable allowances for changing technologies and ideologies — should itself, at least in its essence, have remained unchanged since antiquity.
In other words, while particular wars in any age may not end in victory or defeat for either side, the concept of such finality is very much possible for either, given their shared human nature. In short, if a war is stalemated, it is usually because both sides, wisely or stupidly, come to believe victory is not worth the commensurate costs in blood and treasure — not because victory itself is an anachronism.
In fact, for all the laments about American impotence in a nuclear age, we have won most of our wars since World War II. Despite the stalemate at the 38th parallel in Korea, the U.S. military achieved the stated goal of the Truman administration: keeping North Korea from destroying the South, and ensuring a viable autonomous state there. That was victory as defined before the war broke out.
The first Vietnam War ended in an American victory: the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that accepted an independent South — the original reason to intervene. We most certainly lost the second Vietnam War when our congressional leaders deemed that the postbellum vigilance of keeping the North from overwhelming the South was not worth the additional costs. A Watergate-damaged Nixon administration was unable to honor its commitment to use U.S. airpower to stop renewed Communist aggression.