A lot of pundits have been saying that Kerry must present a clear plan for how he would “win” in Iraq or at least provide for an “exit” strategy. If he can’t do that then he is through, say the pundits.

Well, Kerry is throughly screwed because he can’t offer a plan to “win” in Iraq.

On the other hand neither can Bush.

Nobody can provide a clear plan for “winning” in Iraq because the conflict in Iraq cannot be “won.”

We are not going to either “win” or “lose” in Iraq because concepts of winning and losing do not apply to this type of conflict.

Culturally the idea of winning and losing implies that a discrete event will occur that one can point to and say whether one has won or lost. We get this idea from ritualized competitions such as sports, trials, elections and some kinds of warfare. In each case, there exists a time or state whereby one competitor can be said to have won or lost. WWII was a ritualized war in many respects in that it was fought between coherent nation-states that shared rituals for ending the conflict. We had a V-E day and a V-J day. The Cold War by contrast did not end so much as just putter out. We can say we won the Cold War but we can’t definitively point to a certain day when that victory occurred. More to the point, at the time the Cold War was winding down nobody could look at any particular day or event and say, “that’s it, we won.”

This isn’t just about semantics, however. The concept of winning and losing has real political effects. In both Korea and Vietnam, politically significant numbers of people asked, “how are we going to win?” and “we’re never going to win.” What they were really saying was that they could not imagine any discrete event that would signal that either conflict had definitively ended. They were correct in thinking so. Both conflicts were mere battles in the greater Cold War. Even if America had never abandoned Indochina it is probable that the fighting there would have gone on at some level at least until the fall of the Soviet Union. The basic conflict in Korea is still ongoing even after the end of communism everywhere else.

We “lost” in Vietnam in part because Americans could not adapt to the concept of a fuzzy war, one that had no clear beginning and no clear criteria for ending. We face the same challenge in Iraq. People ask the seemingly reasonable question, “How and when do we win?” but the question is functionally meaningless.

The Cold War and the War on Terror are more like running a business than playing a game. Businesses, and more accurately business people, don’t win or lose in the final analysis. If Business A has a 60% market share while its competitor, Business B, has a 40% percent share has Business A “won”? Usually, we would say no because there is no discrete end to their competition. Both businesses could be raking in money hand over fist. The people involved could be getting so wealthy that they could not care less what the other guy was doing. Most business competition is like that. A business may have hundreds of competitors in many different areas and seldom does one business gain the type of dominance that would qualify it as winner in the sense of sports or warfare. It’s all open ended. You make money, you lose money but it’s never really over except one day you look back and think, “hey I did a pretty good job.”

Neither Kerry nor Bush will be able to provide a road map to victory because the destination is ambiguous. If we succeed, we will not realize it at the time. It will be as in the Cold War, we will look around one day and suddenly realize that Iraq is largely peaceful and stable. We will realize that our goals were accomplished and everybody except leftist academicians will say, “we won, I don’t know exactly how or exactly when, but we won.”

17 thoughts on “Win/Lose”

  1. I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with Ms. Love. It is true that the usual accepted meanings of “win” and “lose” don’t apply to this kind of conflict. But there are other meanings of those terms which do apply. The problem here is not, as Shannon says, that it isn’t possible to win this kind of war. The problem is that we’re trying to use the wrong meanings for the words.

    The five fundamental elements of war are objectives, strategy, tactics, logistics and morale. It is axiomatic that the forces contending in a war have conflicting objectives, because if their objectives were not in conflict they’d be able to settle their disagreement amicably.

    You are “winning” if you are achieving your objectives and are preventing your enemy from achieving his. You are losing if your enemy is achieving his objectives and you are not achieving yours.

    The Cold war didn’t “peter out”; we won it. It’s true that there was no triumphal march into the enemy’s capital, or formal ceremony where they signed a surrender, but that doesn’t mean that there was neither victory nor loss. We won it; global communism lost it.

    What’s difficult is pointing to some event which indicates that we “won”. Many people point to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that was not really the end. Myself, I generally consider the Cold War to have ended in December of 1991, when the Supreme Soviet of the USSR met one last time and voted itself — and the USSR — out of existence.

    So I must disagree with Shannon when she says the conflict in Iraq cannot be won. I think it can be, because we have objectives we want to accomplish there and I think it’s possible for us to achieve those objectives. Like the Cold War, it’s going to take a long time and there won’t be any well-defined event we can point to that indicates that we just achieved victory, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible for us to win.

    A “plan to win” will be a plan which has a reasonable chance of achieving our objectives in the region. But before we can even consider that, we all have to agree on what the objectives are.

    And THAT is where most of the difficult can be found in the current campaign. Bush has clear objectives, but it isn’t at all clear that Kerry knows — or is willing to admit — his objectives.

    “If we succeed, we will not realize it at the time. It will be as in the Cold War, we will look around one day and suddenly realize that Iraq is largely peaceful and stable.” Yes, but peace and stability in Iraq are parts of our strategy, not parts of our objective. The objective is broad and widespread reform in the entire region. Simply achieving peace and stability in Iraq won’t be enough if Iran and Syria — and Saudi Arabia — continue to fester, and Egypt turns into a hereditary monarchy.

  2. Steven Den Beste,

    My argument is mostly about the how the concept of winning and losing effects public moral within the United States itself. When people think of winning or losing they think of it like a sports contest where there is definite time or state of play where one side wins or loses.

    That kind of thinking is very, very dangerous in the type of open ended conflict we face in Iraq. No political leader can give more than the most vague outlines of what condition will indicate victory. Bush said when the overall military and political judgment is that Iraq is stable and self-governing and self-protecting.

    The political danger is that if enough people expect a discrete event to occur to indicate winning they will be increasingly disillusioned when it does not. People who think win/lose will conclude that since the winning event did not occur we must be losing. Support for the war will fade and we will fail just as we did in Vietnam and to a lesser extent in Korea.

    I think we will win in Iraq eventually if we stick with it but I also think that for most of the conflict it will not look like we will be “winning” just like it didn’t appear that way through most of the Cold War. Winning isn’t something we can see happening in real time. It is only apparent in retrospect.

  3. Okay I lost the better part of paragraph in my last comment for some reason. The second paragraph should have read:

    That kind of thinking is very, very dangerous in the type of open ended conflict we face in Iraq. No political leader can give more than the most vague outlines of what condition will indicate victory. Bush said when the overall military and political judgment is that Iraq is stable and self-governing and self-protecting. That is far to vague for most people to consider a criteria for winning or losing.

  4. I think you’re on the right track when you define the problem: When have we won? Can we win this sort of conflict? And you’re definitely on the mark regarding the fuzziness of the conflict, both in Iraq and in the wider WOT.

    I think you’re missing a fundamental point though. “We” are not ever going to win in Iraq because “We” – meaning the US & UK – can’t. It’s essentially impossible. I don’t believe a foreign power can ever truly win a war against an indigenous insurgency, short of killing everyone, simply because it’s impossible to separate combatants from civilians.

    There’s only one group of people who can truly defeat the insurgents in Iraq. The Iraqis. Our job is not to defeat them. Our job is to enable the Iraqis to defeat them.

    Though the insurgents and terrorists are becoming increasingly violent during this political season (for obvious reasons), I believe they’re creating enemies far more quickly than they’re enticing recruits. That’s the trend that’s going to lead to their eventual defeat at the hand of those same Iraqis. Provided, that is, we don’t abandon them.

  5. – The current Administration started by defining winning as taking Saddam out. In this respect, we certainly got a spectacular victory. But, as Bill Maher cutely put it once on HBO, this wasn’t the war. It was the trailer. This, right now, is the movie and it is true that its conclusion has not been clearly scripted by the producers. But that is also a function of the nature of the fight. In guerilla warfare, every attack, however bungled or ineffective, proves that your opponent has not won. In other words, they only have to show up for work to prove we aren’t done.

    – I disagree that we don’t know what victory is, or can’t articulate it clearly. That’s a convenient cop-out for both sides. It is true that neither candidate will see this conflict to its end anymore than Eisenhower, Kennedy or Nixon or Carter were going to. But when we speak of a free Iraq, I refuse to accept we have no idea what it is we’re talking about. I think of Turkey; a developing democracy, maybe tough and rough around the edges, but with active party politics, strong institutions and a decent market economy integrated with the region and the rest of the world. And Syria, and Iran and the others on their way to the same.

    Of course, it’s not something either candidate will put in such words, if only because it makes it quite obvious how far we are from the goal and the mind-boggling scale of the expense and effort involved to get there, making them both relatively insignificant and powerless by
    comparison. I mean, it’s almost depressing.

    Instead, they are both, in their own ways, telling us they have a plan and that they can get us there a lot quicker than history or common sense indicate. That is the nature of the campaign beast.

    – There definitely was a clear and loud event that concluded the Cold War. I was in Europe at the time, and when the Berlin Wall fell, that was it. It was quite triumphal, it was spectacular and it was electrifying. And it was live. At least half the continent was up all night watching Germans hammer and chip away at the most physical manifestation of the cursed Iron Curtain while news anchors on the verge of tears read those famous lines from Winston Churchill; Reagan’s call to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was, I shit you not, broadcast in original English on French TV at least a hundred times that day. Puttering out ? HUH ? You’ve got to be joking.

    I remember it like it was yesterday. And even the leftist intellectuals over there knew it that day. And they applauded like everyone else, and nobody cared to ask what they were applauding for. It was one of those rare and truly historic days. And everybody was on their ass, from the old geezers who lived through WW2 to the teens like myself. Overnight, half our history books were missing the most important chapter. If you call that puttering out, then yeah, I can guarantee you’ll be disappointed no matter what. No award for guessing that one.

  6. Michael Hteshew,

    “There’s only one group of people who can truly defeat the insurgents in Iraq. The Iraqis. Our job is not to defeat them. Our job is to enable the Iraqis to defeat them”

    Well said. So much so that I may steal it.

  7. Shannon, I think that you are generally correct. Iraq is a battle, not the whole war. There’s a lot of other stuff happening, and it’s happening worldwide. But Iraq is the most visible action so it’s what we focus on. We won’t know the full story of what happened today for another twenty or thirty years.

    BTW, I agree with you about the artificiality of the win/lose way of framing things. One group of people that drives this false framing is the press. The press needs product, it needs constant action to write about so that it can sell advertising. It needs something to be happening even when nothing is happening. Thus the emphasis on worthless arguments about “What Bush/Kerry needs to do for X to happen” and “How Bush/Kerry can convince Y group that he can do the job.” I don’t think many people decide things that way. I don’t. I decided who to vote for based on my broad impressions of what Bush and Kerry are like and what they’re likely to do. I’m not likely to change my vote now based on some clever argument using focus-group-tested debater’s tricks. The press, however, pays close attention to that kind of stuff, and to other minutiae that miss the big picture.

  8. I found Sylvain’s comment moving; my husband taught in Prague the semester before and the semester after the Velvet Revolution (our last daughter born in between). The public euphoria expressed after the fall of the old communist government didn’t usher in a golden age, but everyone knew, felt that a decisive turn in history had been made.

    Talking to those old Charter 77 people, you still, today, get a sense of this wonder and a sense of how strongly they feel that the old way was completely discredited, however imperfect the new order may be.

    However, some of the next generation and some of the expats while rejoicing in the triumph do not always seem to feel that the ideas of the old regime were, themselves, discredited. They can afford to be critical of America and American influence (and the same values disconnected from America) because communism no longer threatens them; sometimes, this can even lead to nostalgia.

    After the end of World War II, no one anywhere would make an argument for fascism. The deaths under communism were greater but this “velvet” defeat has not so thoroughly discredited the ideas of communism.

    I hope some day that no one anywhere will accept terrorism as a valid method or see the kind of Islam that nurtures it as a true religion. religion.

  9. Sylvain Galineau,

    The fall of the Berlin is certainly as good a indication of the end of the Cold War as any and is better than most but…

    … at the time the wall fell everybody did not say, “That’s it the Cold War is over”. People at the time thought it was incredibly significant and that it could signal the end of the war but they weren’t sure. My spouse was pursing a degree in Eastern European studies at the time and I can tell you that the experts in the field were not at all convinced it was over in ’89.

    The wall fell in 89 but the Soviet Union wasn’t dissolved until ’91. Again, at the time, people were not quite sure what was going on. I think we will see the same thing happen in Iraq. I think the defeat of Al-Sadar will be viewed historically as a smashing victory and perhaps the turning point of the entire conflict but how many people would agree with me right this moment?

    I think that to many people are asking when is V-I day and who will sign the surrender papers? (Okay maybe not that bad but damn near) My concern is that absent the clear markers of victory they will conclude we face defeat.

    Game theorist hold that only a tiny, artificial set of competitions have conditions of clear winning and losing but people apply the concept to virtually all competition.

    If to many people get locked into thinking of the conflict as if it was a sports game the long term effect on the war in Iraq and the war beyond Iraq will suffer.

  10. Shannon, maybe nobody in the US saw it that way. But nobody I know in Europe believed otherwise. It was over. In fact, ‘Cold War Over’ was the most common headline across Europe that day. I don’t care that a few experts weren’t so sure. For the rest of us, it was it. The End, the beginning of the end : whatever, dudes; it’s game over already, so get with the bloody program. As for the Soviet Union from 89 to 91, who believed in it ?…After Tchernobyl, the Afghanistan debacle, the loss of grip on East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe and the fall of the Wall, it was just a lame duck anachronism, a walking relic nobody was scared of. No sane person questioned its imminent ending, and Gorbachev clearly indicated the beast had neither pulse no juice left.

    A grand memory. So you’ll understand if I’m a bit sensitive when people mess with it…

  11. Jonathan is correct that Iraq is a battle in the war, not the whole war.

    This war is going to be as long and as difficult as the Cold War was. It isn’t going to be won with a single battle or series of battles in a single theater. But it’s possible for us to make progress if we stick with it.

    This nation is willing to stick with that kind of thing. Arguably the Cold War began in 1948 with the Berlin crisis, and as I said I consider it to have ended in 1991. Between those two dates, this nation was pretty steadfast in continuing the struggle, no matter which party controlled the White House and/or one or the other chamber in Congress.

    Certainly there were differences of opinion about how we should do it, but never any doubt that we had to. No one had any idea how long it would last, or whether it would ever end. I know that I never expected the USSR to implode and vanish the way it did in 1991.

  12. I haven’t learned enough about our founding fathers, but was it Washington who wanted, “Strong political ties with no one, but strong economic ties with everyone?” Something of that pretense. I would have to agree with what the Predident said as a criteron for “winning.” A democratic and soverign nation is a win for everyone in the world.

    Recently, Gen. Davis came to talk with us. His message was there are those who will choose prosperity in Iraq, and those that will choose death. “Simple” as that…

  13. Sylvain Galineau,

    I’ll defer to your greater direct experience in that regard.

    I am most concerned with the idea of how the cultural concepts of winning and losing as applied to open ended conflicts undermines public morale and political support for the conflict. From that perspective, I am interested in how people conceive of events before they occur.

    Five years before the wall came down or even the month before the fall of the wall was almost unimaginable. When Reagan challenged Gorbachev ┬áto “Tear down this wall!” he was widely mocked. The idea that the wall could come down and that it would be a symbolic end of the Cold War wasn’t on anybodies radar screen. Reagan only said it to highlight his perception of the insincerity of Gorbachev’s reforms.

    Culturally, WWII was our perfect war. It started with a surprise attack by Japan. Then Germany declared war on us. The entire war was retaliatory in nature. The war ended in each theater cleanly on specific days with the formal surrender of totally defeated nation states. WWII became our cultural template for how all wars should happen.

    Ever since then we have been trying to cram every conflict into that template. When the conflict doesn’t fit that template our polity becomes confused, frustrated and defeatist. They believe were are failing and the war was ill conceived because it doesn’t follow the broad outlines of WWII.

    I think it is important to break people out the concept of war as a ritualized sporting contest. Most wars don’t follow the template of WWII and never will. Most wars start in an indistinct manner and end the same way. If enough people in the electorate keep expecting Iraq to fit the WWII template they will conclude that we are failing no matter how real our successes and they will stop supporting the war and we will in fact fail.

    That’s why I don’t like the use of Win/Lose in the context of Iraq or the broader war on terrorism.

  14. Regarding usage and meaning of “win” and “lose”, also note the coverage of last night’s debate. Who “won” the debate? Well, we won’t know for sure until November 3. Impressing pundits wasn’t the objective. Getting elected was the objective.

  15. How wonderful a surprise it is to find Steven den Beste still writing. Reading his first comment, I recognized his style almost immediately and dared to hope as I scrolled down to see the author. Huzzah! It is he, indeed!

    I think that a defining event to the end of the battle for Iraq (and I can’t take credit for this) will be if whoever is elected to the Presidency in Iraq’s first election actually steps down upon losing a subsequent election or abides by any term limits imposed on him by the Iraqi Constitution. A peaceful transfer of power to a political rival is a key indicator that the democratic process has taken root and has blossomed into a stable country.

    There may still be random attacks, but they will look more and more futile as time goes on and continuity of the government exists.

  16. Shannon,

    – So what if people didn’t see it the end of the Cold War coming five years ahead of time ? Who has this kind of foresight ? Do you think we saw victory coming in 1940 ? Or even in 43 ?

    – I don’t think it has anything to do with World War 2. War has always been extremely ritualized. In fact, insofar as I understand warfare history, the narrative is that the ritualistic nature of the exercise is essentially breaking down. I doubt people expect a conventional war. Most people are smart and know the Iraq campaign was the exception, not the rule. And although the point has not been made much lately, Bush reminded the electorate that it would be fought in the shadows on many occasions.

    – So I don’t think most Americans compare Iraq to WW2; the analogies that can drawn are too vague and general to fit the day-to-day reality of operations, the enemy, the locale and the goals and the political context. In fact, and for all the unease it causes in conservative ranks, it is closer today to Vietnam than it is to WW2. And that is why they are bound to see it as ill-conceived. And this is where focusing on Vietnam for a few months might not be such a Democratic blunder after all.

    – Win and lose are perfectly appropriate terms. What else are you going to use to qualify failure or success ? I honestly don’t think we need to worry about semantic creep here. To some extent, I agree that the very successful conventional campaign in Iraq might have created the expectations you outline. I’m pretty sure we’re back on tracks now.

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