Since U.S. Senator John McCain, bidding once again for the U.S. presidency, has now decided to position himself as the “we must succeed in Iraq” candidate, it is worth reflecting on what success in war means.
In the old days, the really old days, warring parties considered victory to be the sign of success. And victory meant crushing your enemy to the point that it could not hope to continue the struggle and recognized such futility, or the enemy was overwhelmed and eliminated.
In classical times, the destruction of Troy by the Greeks and Carthage by the Romans would have been instances of the latter. Even the destruction of Germany in WWII, while not eliminating Germans themselves, could fit that category. In the 1950s, Britain crushed the communists in Malaya and the Mau-Mau terrorists in Kenya.
The American war of independence is an example of the former. Britain decisively lost to the Americans and understood that it probably could not succeed, even with fresh effort. The success of the Union forces over the Confederacy in the U.S. civil war would also fall into that camp. Likewise, the victory over Japan in WWII was a case where to go on was understood by the Japanese as being nationally suicidal.
Many wars are never really settled satisfactorily. Either the parties fight to a standstill and then just negotiate some uneasy non-belligerent arrangement, or one side simply gives up, sometimes even when it is still militarily strong in the field. The peace following the seven years war between Britain and France in the mid-18th century and the Korean war of the 1950s amounted to “status quo ante-bellum” arrangements. Likewise the peace between Egypt and Irael remains, but tenuously.
Germany simply gave up in 1918, although its army was still occupying France. The French gave up on Vietnam and Algeria after WWII. Twenty years after France left Indo-China, the United States gave up on Vietnam as well.
So what would success in Iraq look like? You can’t give up (that doesn’t have much of a successful ring to it), you can’t crush the Iraqis (you claim to be there to “liberate” them), and you can’t really negotiate anything with anybody that will guarantee peace (that has already been tried and has failed).
I wait to hear Mr. McCain’s explanation.