Victory has usually been defined throughout the ages as forcing the enemy to accept certain political objectives. “Forcing” usually meant killing, capturing, or wounding men at arms. In today’s polite and politically correct society we seem to have forgotten that nasty but eternal truth in the confusing struggle to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.
What stopped the imperial German army from absorbing France in World War I and eventually made the Kaiser abdicate was the destruction of a once magnificent army on the Western front — superb soldiers and expertise that could not easily be replaced. Saddam Hussein left Kuwait in 1991 when he realized that the U.S. military was destroying his very army. Even the North Vietnamese agreed to a peace settlement in 1973, given their past horrific losses on the ground and the promise that American air power could continue indefinitely inflicting its damage on the North.
When an enemy finally gives up, it is for a combination of reasons — material losses, economic hardship, loss of territory, erosion of civilian morale, fright, mental exhaustion, internal strife. But we forget that central to a concession of defeat is often the loss of the nation’s soldiers — or even the threat of such deaths.
A central theme in most of the memoirs of high-ranking officers of the Third Reich is the attrition of their best warriors. In other words, among all the multifarious reasons why Nazi Germany was defeated, perhaps the key was that hundreds of thousands of its best aviators, U-boaters, panzers, infantrymen, and officers, who swept to victory throughout 1939–41, simply perished in the fighting and were no longer around to stop the allies from doing pretty much what they wanted by 1944–45.
After Stalingrad and Kursk, there were not enough good German soldiers to stop the Red Army. Even the introduction of jets could not save Hitler in 1945 — given that British and American airmen had killed thousands of Luftwaffe pilots between 1939 and 1943.
After the near destruction of the Grand Army in Russia in 1812, even Napoleon’s genius could not restore his European empire. Serial and massive Communist offensives between November 1950 and April 1951 in Korea cost Red China hundreds of thousands of its crack infantry — and ensured that, for all its aggressive talk, it would never retake Seoul in 1952–53.
But aren’t these cherry-picked examples from conventional wars of the past that have no relevance to the present age of limited conflict, terrorism, and insurgency where ideology reigns?
Not really. We don’t quite know all the factors that contributed to the amazing success of the American “surge” in Iraq in 2007–08. Surely a number of considerations played a part: Iraqi anger at the brutish nature of al-Qaeda terrorists in their midst; increased oil prices that brought massive new revenues into the country; General Petraeus’s inspired counterinsurgency tactics that helped win over Iraqis to our side by providing them with jobs and security; much-improved American equipment; and the addition of 30,000 more American troops.
But what is unspoken is also the sheer cumulative number of al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists that the U.S. military killed or wounded between 2003 and 2008 in firefights from Fallujah to Basra. There has never been reported an approximate figure of such enemy dead — perhaps wisely, in the post-Vietnam age of repugnance at “body counts” and the need to create a positive media image.