January 2020 Handgrenade

John T Kuehn's picture

January 2020

Handgrenade of the Month

The Fleeting Nature of Victory:  the Case of Iraq

By John T. Kuehn

            In another forum I characterized the American experience in Iraq from 2003 – 2014 as a military disaster.    I chose a later date to include the fall of Mosul to ISIS, which belied the lasting stability and success the US believed it had achieved in Iraq after 2011’s withdrawal.

Of course, someone writing of that experience in 2011 might’ve characterized the US experience as a success, a victory, a qualified one, but a victory (however undeserved) nonetheless.  In response someone else asked me for my definition of victory, and I responded that I was far more interested in the characteristics of military disaster and failure.  The question itself highlights the Colin Gray view of the American way of war, our obsession with victory, when it is the amelioration of failure that is perhaps a more achievable outcome, or the amelioration of mistakes and missteps.

            In thinking a bit more about this issue, it occurred to me that we look differently at the so called successes (and failures) in war gone by over time.  Not a unique view, but one worth considering.  The sheen often fades from once glorious victories (Desert Storm, or the First Gulf War, for example) and sometimes the cup of defeat is not so empty and bitter after all (the defeat of Egypt in 1973 for example).

            My challenge to the Handgrenade readership then is this,  can you think of other cases of victories that over time have appeared less and less “victorious”?

Bon Annee.

Keywords: victory, Defeat

Wouldn't the apparent victory of the US in the Cold War be an instance of a victory that wasn't quite as glorious as it first looked?

Dear John,

A brief reply like this is hardly adequate to discuss the weighty question of what constitutes victory or defeat. But I'd like to comment only on your statement "sometimes the cup of defeat is not so empty and bitter after all (the defeat of Egypt in 1973 for example)."

In Egypt, the "Ramadan War" itself -- and not only its result over time, regaining "every inch of sacred Egyptian soil" -- never was regarded as a defeat at all. Its anniversary was and is celebrated, and among the sites dedicated to memorializing it is an entire museum, a photo from which adorns the jacket of the book "The Soviet-Israeli War 1967-1973" that I co-authored with Isabella Ginor. Egypt's national and military pride were redeemed by the ostensibly impossible feat of crossing the Suez Canal, overwhelming the Bar-Lev Line, and inflicting on the hitherto invincible Israelis enormous losses in their own terms. The latter's subsequent success in turning the tables did not, in the Egyptian narrative, negate these achievements. It is here in Israel that the Yom Kippur War was and remains a national trauma, despite the ultimate, heroic repulse of the Egyptian and Syrian attacks.

It was for the USSR, which invested not merely massive material and political support but direct military intervention, that the '73 war turned into a defeat as it enabled Egypt to leave the Soviet sphere. Russia's present reestablishment there -- reactivating old bases and resuming major arms sales for the first time since the 1970s -- may yet indeed provide an example of sweetening the bitter cup of defeat.

Thanks for your thought-provoking handgrenades, and have a great 2020!

Gideon Remez
Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

World War I could probably counted as such in more ways than one. Germany defeats Russia in 1917-1918, only to lose the war altogether a few months later. The Entente victory over Germany in 1918 seems to mostly pave the way for World War II.

Stephen Satkiewicz

Stephen, the idea of World War I as a pyrrhic victory is well established, especially vis-à-vis France, by scholars like Bob Doughty.

I was waiting for someone to perhaps bring up Korea, whose 70th anniversary outbreak we will soon commemorate (I hope). At the time, and in the writing of folks like T.R. Feherenbach, it was seen as an out and out defeat in the US. One president lost his job and another president wisely settled for the status quo anti bellum. Certainly the Chinese saw it at the time, and still see it, as a victory for the PRC. As did the NKPA and Kim Il-Sung
However, it is American attitudes that have changed most. We now see this limited war for what it was, something more than a stalemate, and something less than the kind of victory Americans cherish in their historical (or a-historical) memory. George Kennan, if he were alive would probably characterize it as the kind of victory after the fighting for the kind of containment he envisioned, a capitalist repudiation of the Marxist-Lenninist worldview by virtue of the wild prosperity of South Korea compared to the dismal misery of the North (but of course perceptions have changed even these relatively objective measures because of the Stalinist mind control in the north, and the numbing effects of hedonism in the south).

So the Korean War seems to me to be a fine case study for how American attitudes, and South Korean for that matter, can change.
Any China hands have anything to add about changes in Chinese perceptions?

vr, John T. Kuehn, Platte City, Missouri and sometimes Fort Leavenworth Kansas

The US began its participation in the Korean War with a goal of saving South Korea from being conquered by Communist forces. In September 1950 the US adopted a much more ambitious goal, conquering North Korea and uniting the Korean peninsula under anti-Communist rule. The US achieved the first goal but not the second. It would be perfectly reasonable to define "victory" in terms of the first goal, and say the US won the war. It would be equally reasonable to define "victory" in terms of the second, and say that the US did not win the war. The fact that there are two reasonable and valid definitions of victory that lead to opposite conclusions is one reason I do not think the question, whether the US won the Korean War, is a useful question.

Americans tended not to treat the war as a victory. I think a big part of the reason was that General Douglas MacArthur bitterly resented President Truman's policies for the war, and loudly asserted that those policies had precluded victory.

The Chinese went into the war with a goal of saving North Korea from conquest by anti-Communist forces. In December 1950, they adopted a much more ambitious goal, uniting the peninsula under Communist rule. They achieved the first goal but not the second.

I am not really familiar with the Chinese literature on the war, but I believe the Chinese treat it as a victory. They have available a reasonable definition of victory (achieving their original goal by driving US forces out of North Korea) that would make it a victory, and after a century of repeated humiliations by foreign powers, I cannot imagine them not choosing to use a definition that allows them to believe that they finally achieved a victory.