In There is No Substitue For Victory, Adam Elkus wrote,
Why you would you fight a war if you didn’t want to win?
(…) there is a straightforward argument that we cannot “win” wars anymore.
and thus falls in line with Western mainstream military experts. He argued against greedy strategic objectives in war and appears to be frustrated by the resilience and elusiveness of the armed opposition faced by Western forces during the past years. This kind of opposition cannot be defeated once and for all with conventional recipes. You may disarm them in a Clausewitzian way, but unarmed elements would simply re-arm. These opponents refuse to sign a peace treaty or to surrender en masse. A full occupation of their country does not end a war, it does rather begin one. It's awfully difficult to declare a classic victory in such a fight.
This points at the real problem; many military experts seem to apply a misguided understanding of the purpose of war and do not seem to make enough use of their understanding of the nature of war:
War is destructive.
It's not productive, hence you can only have a net gain if you take away something from a beaten enemy. This worked for Mongols and others, but there's in my opinion no way how to conclude a conflict with profit with strategic objectives such as 'establish a cooperative government in a distant place'.
This doesn't even take into acount the philosophical difficulty of monetarising all costs and benefits for a comparson. What's an appropriate price in blood for having a more cooperative government in a distant place?
If you cannot make profit, you cannot expect that a war of choice adds to your countries' quality of life.
Many wars are avoidable, and should certainly be avoided if waging war means that the nation will be worse off at the end than without waging war. To go the other way would no doubt be wrong.
It's not difficult to explain why - policy, strategy, tactics aside – Western warfare of the last decade was a failure. It was bound to do more harm than good for us. It was indeed the result of poor political decisions, but the overoptimistic objectives merely made it worse. No Western warfare or military action since mid-2002 ever stood a chance to shine in a cost/benefit comparison and yes that's the criterion. No government should wage war without having at least a justifiable hope that war isn't worse than peace. To do otherwise would prohibit every justification for the mass destruction and mass killing which are associated with warfare.
The way to go is to make sure we drop the childish notion of victory which purports that we're already fine if our opponents fail officially. War should not be about this idea of victory at all. War should be understood as the lesser evil if some foreign power ruins the alternative of peace.
Elkus' title was “There is No Substitute for Victory”. Well, there is. With the usual notion of victory being all-too often pointless, what really counts is that the military does damage control: It should be sent to war if peace would be even worse. A military force suceeds if a war's outcome is less terrible than what was expected of peace. That's as much substitute for “victory” as we need.
Now we need politicians who get it right – an everlasting challenge.
In other words; soldiers are like firefighters; they should be equipped, competent and be sent when a house burns in the neighbourhood. No arsonist is ever going to serve the community with fire, and no-one should misunderstand fire as promising gains. To set fire to buildings should not be a tool of municipality policy.