Small Wars Journal

War Should Always Be the Lesser Evil – or Not Be

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.


Don Bacon

Sat, 01/07/2012 - 12:47pm

<blockquote>(SO) 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. </blockquote>
People do profit by war. It doesn't matter if somebody else's children die, or what it costs, or if the country is worse off -- the wars are profitable for them. There are many ex-military 'beltway bandits' for example that are profiting handsomely from the current wars via sweetheart contracts for goods and services, including many functions that the military should be doing itself.

Elective wars are always illegal under the UN Charter, and have proven to be unsuccessful as well. Vietnam won the Vietnam War, Iran/Iraq won OIF. The US experience in Afghanistan is proving to be no more successful than the losses experienced by other imperialist powers. There are better ways to adjudicate international differences. Some agencies specialize in it. But it doesn't pay as well.

Peter J. Munson

Sat, 01/07/2012 - 11:14am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 01/07/2012 - 7:45am

Not to nitpick, but as a guy who spent 3 summers fighting wildfires in SW Oregon, pre-emptive controlled fires are a major tool employed to prevent or mitigate major uncontrolled fires. This is true in major urban fires as well. Always controversial, often getting out of control and becoming as desrtuctive as what one hoped to prevent. Playing with fire is a dangerous thing. So is working with fire.

But any decision to light a fire should be made with a full awareness of how fire operates in general (need for fuel, heat and oxygen, and heat travels up), and how those principle are likely to apply in the environment one hopes to initiate and control this fire within. When it comes to interventions and resultant insurgencies we have a set of rule books that are more of the flat earth and sea serpent variety, filled with legends and false assumptions. We need a better understanding of the fundamentals free from such fantasy if we are going to engage in these types of conflicts.