The Futile Goal of “Winning” Wars

Wars and the technology for fighting them have evolved rapidly in recent decades. “We never win, and we don’t fight to win,” lamented US president Donald Trump shortly before announcing plans to increase US military spending. “We’ve either got to win, or don’t fight it at all.” However, Louis René Beres, author and professor emeritus of international law, describes that assessment as “dangerously simplistic” and suggests that “traditional criteria of winning and losing in war have generally become outdated and counterproductive.” Societies have much to lose with any attack, regardless of whether they win or lose, and “the overriding point of US military involvements must be to blunt or prevent infliction of substantial military harms upon the population, not to flaunt any viscerally satisfying exclamations of machismo.” The United States already spends more on defense than any other nation, almost three times as much as China, the next biggest spender, and strategic calculations are complex and endless. “Going alone is no longer an option,” and “nothing is more practical than a coherent strategic doctrine, nuanced and well thought out.” Beres concludes, “Winning modern wars is an illusory goal.” – YaleGlobal

The Futile Goal of “Winning” Wars

Developed nations have specific operational vulnerabilities and much to lose – the US president needs to understand the meaning of victory and defeat
Louis René Beres
Thursday, March 2, 2017

Chimera of victory: President Donald Trump, seen here with Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, wants the United States to win a war; in the battle of Thermopylae, the Ancient Greeks learned the cost of war

LAYFAYETTE, INDIANA: President Donald Trump, who during the US presidential campaign accused previous administrations of grievous error,  and claimed to have a far better personal understanding of how to defeat the Islamic State than the nation’s generals, has just pronounced the core mission for America's  military: to "win" in war, any war.  Such dangerously simplistic pronouncements need not come from a US president, who, after all, would normally have unhindered access to astute counsel from senior military professionals and national security experts.

By now, it should be readily apparent that the traditional criteria of winning and losing in war have generally become outdated and counterproductive. More precisely, whether the United States might “win” or “lose” in most ongoing or still-expected theaters of military operation, the basic vulnerability of American cities to mass-destruction terrorism or ballistic missile attack could remain largely unaffected. In other words, seeking "victory" per se would make no operational sense.

Looking ahead, the overriding point of military involvements must be to blunt or prevent infliction of substantial military harms upon the population, not to flaunt any viscerally satisfying exclamations of machismo.

Trump has proposed bumping up the military budget by $54 billion. To begin, however, he should promptly recognize that any increase in military spending oriented primarily toward "winning" would be sorely misguided.  Such recognition is especially urgent in any expressly planned expenditures for nuclear weapons, as the sole legitimate purpose of any such WMD ordnance must be deterrence, not actual war-fighting. He should understand that nuclear weapons must be reserved for deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.


There are relevant particulars. To meet the specific requirements of adequate deterrence, nuclear weapons need to be conspicuously secure from first-strike attacks and also "penetration-capable" with regard to enemy missile defenses. Today, the capacity to deter need not necessarily display a capacity to win. Indeed, contrary to Trump's assessment, nuclear weapons need not be numerically or destructively "superior." In fact, any deliberate US search for superiority as an objective would be fiscally excessive and also plausibly self-destructive.

Without doubt, times have changed with regard to the core security implications of any still-conceivable military victory. Here, we can learn from historian Herodotus, who describes the Greeks’ stunning defeat at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.

Then, the Persian King Xerxes could not contemplate the conquest of Athens until first securing a decisive victory. The Athenians could be forced to abandon Attica only after the defeat of Spartan King Leonidas. The Greeks chose Thermopylae for their final defense because of a narrow pass between cliffs and the sea, a geographically reassuring place where relatively small numbers of resolute troops could presumably hold back a larger army. Leonidas defended the pass for a time with about 7000 men, but finally the Persians emerged as victors and the Greeks could only passively witness the burning of their houses and temples.

While there is presently no real need to worry about suffering a contemporary Thermopylae, this ancient Greek tragedy remains meaningful for the United States and other countries in the crosshairs of a determined jihad. Modern targets do not enjoy absolute freedom from worry. After all, preventing any form of classical military defeat no longer assures safety from mega-aggression or terrorism.

Significantly, until the onset of the nuclear era, states and empires were essentially safe from homeland destruction unless their armies had first been defeated.

Before 1945, the capacity to destroy had required an antecedent capacity to win. But by August of that year, the United States could inflict nuclear destruction upon civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki without first having to defeat Japanese armed forces. Producing a final defeat was the actual rationale of the two atomic strikes. Then, in a notably stark inversion of what had been sought much earlier at Thermopylae, the principal American goal had been to kill large numbers of enemy noncombatants in order to prod Japan’s surrender.

Understandably, from the standpoint of ensuring any one state’s national survival, the "classical" objective of defeating an enemy army and preventing military defeat is now a distinctly secondary goal. There is no cumulative benefit to waging a "winning" war if a determined enemy still maintains an undiminished capacity to bring massive civilian harm. A daunting enemy today can be another state, a sub-state terror group, or even myriad forms of a "hybrid" coalition.

The strategic implications here are exceedingly complex and far-reaching; the analytic task for the US national security team is to consider and answer key questions, continuously, unhesitatingly, through orchestrated oppositions of thesis and antithesis, aiming for indispensable goals – thus calling to mind the prophetic counsel of Carl von Clausewitz in On War: "The subordination of the political point of view to the military must always be unreasonable, for politics had created the war. Policy is the intelligent faculty, war is only the instrument."

For Trump, no particular military wisdom could be so plainly vital.

Today, many disparate enemies could inflict severe harm without first weakening armies and navies, and so for the most focused enemies, US generals have little reason to work out extensive calculations on force correlations or "order of battle."


This is not due to error on the part of the United States and other major powers, and the new vulnerabilities generally represent a byproduct of evolving technologies. The defense community must pursue all available technological breakthroughs – including attack drones and enhanced surveillance capabilities – to best ensure protection from both irregular army attacks "in theater" and plausible terrorist proxy aggressions at home. Above all, this means staying focused on specific operational threats and opportunities, and not on any abstract notions of "winning."

Nonetheless, such recommended efforts carry no ironclad guarantees of success, and rapid technological evolution in warfare cannot be reversed. On the contrary, all current vulnerabilities must be acknowledged and then suitably countered.

To counter these vulnerabilities, the United States must soon refine combat orthodoxies involving an advanced integration of deterrence, preemption and war-fighting options and also strive for more productive international alignments. This includes examining arrangements for both active and passive defenses as well as cyber-defense. During his speech to the Congress on February 28th, Trump made a special point of praising NATO capabilities and preparations.

Going alone is no longer an option and, further, nothing is more practical than a coherent strategic doctrine, nuanced and well thought out.

Americans must quickly understand that even the most advanced civilization can be made to suffer without enduring national defeat. This counterintuitive conclusion is a difficult lesson to accept, but the alternative could cause the United States to misallocate limited military resources toward sorely misconceived objectives.

The pertinent threats to the United States are shared by others including the nation’s major enemies. In essence, all states must prepare to confront consequential vulnerabilities in the absence of suffering any prior military defeats.

 In the final analysis, the United States should prepare to exploit these common vulnerabilities systematically, not by seeking to "win" – an illusory goal – but rather by shaping realistic, precise, and operationally specific strategies for both offense and defense. Nowadays, when formal peace treaties and war-terminating agreements are the exception, and not the rule, neither the United States nor its enemies can ever know for certain whether a particular conflict has actually been won or lost. To be sure, Trump cannot hope to authenticate any presumed "win," especially over terrorism, with the formality of signed agreements or publically reassuring parades along Fifth Avenue and Main Street. It follows that US military and defense planning should increasingly be based upon specifically identifiable national security hazards, including terrorist surrogates, and not upon outdated and abstract notions of victory and defeat.

Louis René Beres (PhD, Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he lectures and publishes widely on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. In Israel, Dr. Beres was Chair of Project Daniel  (2003). He is the author of many major books and articles on both strategic and jurisprudential matters, most recently a monograph at Tel Aviv University, titled Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security and published with a special postscript by US General (USA/ret) Barry R. McCaffrey. Professor Beres’ 12th book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.

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