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  • Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War
  • John P. Cann
Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War. Edited By Jan Angstrom and Isabelle Duyvesteyn . New York: Routledge, 2007. ISBN 0-415-40457-6. Photographs. Notes. References. Index. Pp. xviii, 241. $120.00.

Jan Angstrom and Isabelle Duyvesteyn have assembled ten eminent scholars, including themselves, in an attempt to explain how victory and defeat in modern war can be understood and explained. The book is divided into two sections that address first the nature and then the explanations of victory and defeat. Throughout the well-written and lucid discussions one is constantly reminded of Clausewitz and his notion that war is a continuation of politics by other means and that a war is never over even when the fighting has apparently stopped. The classic example of the German defeat in World War I, the injustice of Versailles, and the continuation of the conflict as World War II is cited. The thirty-year Indochina/Vietnam war might be another example, or even the return of Napoleon from Elba. History is replete with these sorts of cases. The book ably examines a number of them in its search for the answers to its posed questions.

Throughout history the more developed countries have been able to bring enormous and overwhelming military force to the conventional battlefield. The answer for their opponents, if they are to prevail, is to change the nature of the fight. There is nothing new in this approach, and it involves using the several elements of national power in addition to the military. In many cases an apparently flattened opponent is able to rise again and continue the fight using these means, something the authors term indirect war. The case in which North Vietnam had its army destroyed in the Tet Offensive of 1968, and the military victory clearly belonged to the U.S., was reversed through the public perception at home that the U.S. was caught by surprise when things were being advertised as under control. Public support swung against the war, and the North Vietnamese loss was generally perceived as a victory. While it took the North another four years to assemble a fresh army and have it destroyed again in the 1972 Easter Offensive, the perception of a U.S. military defeat was perpetuated, and the war effort was reversed on the battlefield for U.S. public opinion, the one that truly counted.

Although the original U.S. entry into Somalia in 1992 with 20,000 Marines for humanitarian reasons was a success, U.S. policy changed with the change in administrations, and the subsequent heavy reliance on military force to effect nation-building resulted in the highly publicized death of eighteen U.S. servicemen. The televised scenes of their mutilated bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was too much adverse publicity for President Clinton, and he never again exposed his administration to this risk of a perceived military defeat. This perception and its effect were not lost on Osama bin Laden and acted as a catalyst for his action.

This same perception hangs over the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq today. In looking at these two wars we are again reminded of the caution from Clausewitz that war is a risky endeavor and that one should be fully aware of what one is getting into. While Afghanistan is a campaign that remains compelling because of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Iraq was a [End Page 1328] war of choice. The U.S. sought the conventional decisive battle and won it, but once the "shock and awe" were over, it failed to understand or establish a plan to win the indirect war. Consequently today the U.S. is seen as having gone to war for the wrong reasons, as having mismanaged the "peace" that followed, and as having been largely responsible for the suffering of some twenty-seven million Iraqis. All of the authors in the book agree either explicitly or implicitly that the nature of winning this peace is political. The U.S. has failed on this battlefield and its performance in Iraq has become a critical factor in how the world...


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pp. 1328-1329
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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