Defining ‘winning’

I’ve been writing quite a bit recently about war and its unwinnability. I’ve been thinking a lot more about this, and I want to clarify that in those writings I was referring primarily to wars being won or not won in the traditional military sense of “winning”– that is, that the victorious country is able to either destroy or defeat (that is an important distinction, right there) the armed forces of the opposing side and thereby to impose its own political will on the defeated country.
It is that “thereby” that seems increasingly– or perhaps in some cases, completely– unattainable these days.
Destruction– yes, that has certainly occurred. In Iraq in 2003, the Saddam-era armed forces were first defeated and then completely disbanded. In Lebanon in 2006, the Israelis were never able to destroy Hizbullah– but they were able to sow massive amounts of destruction on the country’s vital infrastructure, including on an entire, quite sizeable chunk of the South Beirut Dahiya.
But despite* that level of destruction, Israel was unable to defeat Hizbullah– which it had sought to achieve by imposing its will on the government of Lebanon, and forcing Beirut to crack down on Hizbullah.
And in Iraq in and since 2003, even though the US was able to defeat and enitrely disband the Saddam-era armies it has still been incapable of imposing its will on the Baghdad government.
So traditional, military kinds of victory have not been attainable in these two cases.
That’s why I want to shift the policy discussion to a different, much richer and more human-centered definition of “victory”. This is one that would flow quite naturally from the principles of human security, which include, crucially, the two principles that:

    1. True security in the modern age is people-centered, rather than addressing the needs/desires of nation states to defend their territory against aggression from outside (or from competing national claims to the same terrain,) and
    2. The human security of all the peoples of the world is interdependent: increasing the human security of any one group of people increases the human security of all others; and decreasing the human security of any one group decreases the security of all others. That is, unlike in the traditional, “nation-state” model of security, human security is a matter of win-win synergies, rather than a zero-sum game.

Therefore, to “win” in human-security terms in Iraq or Afghanistan would involve looking primarily at the human security situation of the Iraqi and Afghan peoples, and certainly not at the narrow national interests of any outsiders. And if the human security situation of the peoples of those two countries can be significantly and durably improved, then that helps increase the true security of everyone else, from close neighbors to people in distant countries like Europe or the United States.

    (By the way, I wanted to provide a link here to the 2003 final report of the UN’s “Commission on Human Security.” But it looks as though someone forgot to renew the Commission’s domain name,, so you can’t find it there any more. Can anyone tell me where else this report might be lodged and thus available to the web-prowling public?… Update August 1: Thanks to commenter Charles Cameron who told us that the text has been archived here. It’s a pretty large PDF file. Ch. 1 strikes me as particularly crucial, since it lays out the theoretical approach of HS.)

* Although I wrote “despite” that level of destruction, it also seems clear to me that, in the case of Lebanon 2006, it was precisely because of the level of destruction that the IDF sowed throughout Lebanon that Israel was unable to impose its political goals on Beirut. In other words, the “Shock and Awe” aspects of Israel’s attack proved actively counter-productive…

29 thoughts on “Defining ‘winning’”

  1. wars being won or not won in the traditional military sense of “winning”
    Iraq war “invasion” it’s not tradition war in any sense.
    Iraq invaded by imperial power that has power that not just kills will cover their crimes and acts.
    If you think in traditions way for this war your assessment of wining have no credentials here.
    But if we thinks what this invasion gave and will give the imperial power and how that shape the new orders where most states now taken in account this empire have no respect and no regrets of any thing they only interested to hold the power and resources to complete their coming troubling life they don’t care how much they lost neither the care millions been killed and millions are made refuges.
    So talking about wining is a chewing gum Helena trying to disused by us.
    While billions of dollars are vanished in name of this war, billions of Iraqi oil produced no one know where that gone, billions of Iraq petro-oil gone no one knows what’s happen, in 1991 tones and tones on natural uranium lifted from north Iraq after 1991 when Bill Clinton said that US secured here stock from natural uranium for an century!! (this from Iraq land), so what’s now they got God’s knows let us not forgot those 550 Million cubic meter of uranium transferred to Canada on claims that was sold to them, neither the prices of sale announced nor any one knows where is the sale money goes.
    So Helena the tradition thinking is go here its better each one lock after himself and lets run for the peaces of Iraqi Walk cake let talk to those guys and discussing with them from Ali Allawi to Rend Al-Raheem and other folks who all have same agenda each one looking to get as much as he could from the Iraqi Walkcake.

  2. Actually, I think the “human security” element is quite clear to Israeli Jews now: they were hunted like animals from across the border in 1978, and now other killers come to take their bodies as trophies for ransom to liberate the original killers of ’78.
    “Audacious and innovative”, eh? The last people to do that (seek Jewish bodies as trophies qua Jewish bodies) have a bit of a bad reputation in the civilized world.

  3. The US “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan are against the citizens of those countries, and we may safely extrapolate the current situations to conclude that these “wars” will never be “won.” I/P is similar. Would Americans ever give in to a foreign occupying military force which is wantonly killing, capturing and torturing Americans? I think not.
    Never mind “human security” — this is basic, universal human nature. As it says on New Hampshire license plates, “Live Free or Die.”
    The basic reason that the citizens of these countries are resisting US aggression is because of US human rights violations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (I’m reading now from “Re-Engage”, p. 63) proclaims the equality of all persons before the law, and states that everyone has the right to due process, including a fair trial if accused. While much has been made of the recent US Supreme Court decision granting these rights to a couple of hundred people held by the US in Cuba, nothing was said about the tens of thousands of prisoners the US holds, many to be tortured according to current US law, in other countries where the US military holds power. Again, I/P is similar. (And our politicians whine about Burma and Tibet. Shame on them.)
    The lesson here, and it is a good one thanks to the valiant Iraqis, Afghanis and Palestinians who are resisting oppression, is that the human soul cannot be conquered. Let’s celebrate the heroes who are teaching us this lesson and not even consider that we may ever, or should ever, celebrate a “victory” over them because a “victory” over them will be a “victory” over us all, and what a pity that would be.

  4. Beautifully said, Don Bacon. Chris Hedges and Laila Al Arian (daughter of political prisoner Sami Al Arian, now held in the USA for 5 years, subjected to very poor treatment, and still not released despite having been acquitted by a jury on all charges against him) have recently published a book sub-titled America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians. The full title is Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.

  5. It has become popular with former supporters of the war to blame the Iraqis for the Americans’ failure. The Iraqis did not choose democracy or the Iraqis did not choose freedom, Americans like to say, or the Iraqis have to decide to stop killing each other or Iraqis have to “step up.” But such complaints misplace the blame. Sunni and Shia Iraqis protested the American occupation as soon as it began, and demanded elections and sovereignty. The U.S. ignored their demands and instead imposed a dictator on them, Paul Bremer, hoping he would pave the way for an Iraqi strongman to rule in our stead. Other former supporters of the war, echoing the simplistic sentiments heard during the Balkan wars, now blame the alleged “ancient hatred” between Sunnis and Shias, who have been fighting each other for “thousands of years.” But Iraq had no history of civil war or sectarian violence even approaching this scale until the Americans arrived. Iraq is not Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other and America could pretend it had no role. We did this to Iraq. And it is time the U.S and the international community “step up” to the resulting humanitarian nightmare.

    Nir Rosen

    Anyone hearing about central India’s ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides, where growers are killing themselves at a terrifying clip, has to be horrified. But among the more disturbed must be the once-grand poobah of post-invasion Iraq, U.S. diplomat L. Paul Bremer.

    Why Bremer? Because Indian farmers are choosing death after finding themselves caught in a loop of crop failure and debt rooted in genetically modified and patented agriculture — the same farming model that Bremer introduced to Iraq during his tenure as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that ruled the “new Iraq” in its chaotic early days.

    In his 400 days of service as CPA administrator, Bremer issued a series of directives known collectively as the “100 Orders.” Bremer’s orders set up the building blocks of the new Iraq, and among them is Order 81 PDF, officially titled Amendments to Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law, enacted by Bremer on April 26, 2004.

    Order 81 generated very little press attention when it was issued. And what coverage it did spark tended to get the details wrong. Reports claimed that what the United States’ man in Iraq had done was no less than tell each and every Iraqi farmer — growers who had been tilling the soil of Mesopotamia for thousands of years — that from here on out they could not reuse seeds from their fields or trade seeds with their neighbors, but instead they would be required to purchase all of their seeds from the likes of U.S. agriculture conglomerates like Monsanto.

    Bremer, 400 days, 100 Orders.

  6. Isn’t Bremer said some where five millions Iraqi enough to rule Iraq!!!
    Of course it’s enough for him and his handlers then all the richness goes to empire of lairs.
    They are wining Helena in sense of this sick and imperial thinking but they are not wining in tradition thinking of war. This is just to calm us and self- necessities to chill ourselves I guess, isn’t Helena?
    Helena, TONY Blair and George Bush have achieved the impossible – they have made. What Bush and Blair have achieved is making Iraq even more murderously violent. Helena remembers what Tony Blair the “English witchcraft” said before the war “NOW OR NEVER”!!!
    It’s the BIGEST theft NOW or NEVER

  7. The trial of Saddam Hussein marks the first time since the UN was created that a head of state has been put on trial by an invading, occupying power. This book seeks to draw public attention to the threat this precedent poses to developing nations worldwide, and to its distortive influence on the further evolution of international law.

    Al-Ani documents the trail of illegalities marking the destruction of Iraq at the hands of the US and UK, from the genocidal sanctions of the 1990s, the US State Department pre-invasion planning that commenced in 2001, and the 2003 invasion, to the setting up and proceedings of the tribunal that swiftly dispatched Saddam Hussein.

    BY Dr. Abdul-Haq Al-Ani
    يوميات الجنود الأمريكان في بلاد الرافدين
    جمع وترجمة بثينة الناصري
    بثينة الناصري: كاتبة عراقية ومترجمة مقيمة في القاهرة
    يُُطلب الكتاب من المترجمة

  8. You are correct, Helena.
    The Pushtun, another word for “the people who speak Pashto or its dialect, Pakhto” are the largest group on Earth, numbering 25 millions, with a language and no country.
    The Kurds, numbering 20 millions, are the second largest.
    In case you were wondering, I think the Quechua, number 10 million, spread along the Andes in many countries, are the third.
    It is probably not a coincidence that they all live in the mountains.
    What are we trying to win? Until we define that, we can not “win.” If we are trying to win a democratic and stable Iraq, we need to define stable. If Iraqis elect (unlikely, but possible) Moqtada al-Sadr, or another outspoken anti-America, will that be considered stable? How can we said to be pro-democratic if we don’t accept democratic results?
    That said, Helena, you have some _weird_ commenters.

  9. Josh SN: “How can we said to be pro-democratic if we don’t accept democratic results? That said, Helena, you have some _weird_ commenters.”
    Two opposing comments — weird. Will the real Josh please rise? — an open-minded democrat or a slanderous autocratic elitist?

  10. Not winning, not losing; rather destruction of a nation for the sake of personal power will be the Bush legacy hung around the neck of America’s next generations. Bush’s legacy will be destruction and waste. “You break it, you own it”. Nice words from a “quaint”, formerly respectible time that George does not figure applies to him. He has no intention of paying. What do call a person who breaks into your home, breaks your most valued possessions, demeans you, and laughs?

  11. JamesL: “What do call a person who breaks into your home, breaks your most valued possessions, demeans you, and laughs?”
    Answer: A cop.

  12. You break it, you own it is not even remotely the same thing as you break it, you pay for it. I believe I commented on that when professional-liar-now-turned-whining-sniveler Colin “b-b-b-b-but, I was deceeeeeeeeeived” Powell first introduced the concept in regards to Iraq.

  13. Shirin: “You break it, you own it is not even remotely the same thing as you break it, you pay for it….”
    Shirin, you are correct on the meaning, and I appreciate your posts. I think the colloquial phrase is “…own it”, meaning, in a retail store, you must then pay for it. My recollection was that was the phrase Powell was quoted as having used.
    Perhaps Bush felt that if he broke Iraq, he could have it. I think Bush deserves something far different. An all expense paid trip to the Hague would be a good start.

  14. I mean, yes, I’m weird, but the Lebanon war of 2006 was the culmination of a deliberately-cultivated Foucauldian and Agamben-ian politics of the body, on both sides. (What is Israel doing with the bodies of 100-and-change Palestinian and Lebanese?) Societies that make war symbolically upon the body or use dead bodies as bargaining chips like Algeria and Israel/Lebanon are quite odd, because they don’t devolve into Balkan-style genocide for the most part. What is going on is a form of symbolic communication, to be sure, but the message is that the body’s sacral character is to be manipulated. It would interest me to confirm that the Arab bodies were handled according to stringent Halachic criteria (they probably were) of Kavod Ha’Meth (Respect for the dead) whilst Hezbollah’s football games with Israeli heads are all over the web.

  15. Eurosabra, I’m mystified by that last reference of yours. I Googled “Hezbollah’s football games with Israeli heads” and couldn’t find anything remotely relevant. So that assertion that these are “all over the web” seems quite ill-founded.

  16. Maybe defining wining isn’t the most important issue at the moment.
    From Think Progress, via Chris Floyd:
    “EXCLUSIVE: To Provoke War, Cheney Considered Proposal To Dress Up Navy Seals As Iranians And Shoot At Them»
    Speaking at the Campus Progress journalism conference earlier this month, Seymour Hersh — a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for The New Yorker — revealed that Bush administration officials held a meeting recently in the Vice President’s office to discuss ways to provoke a war with Iran.
    In Hersh’s most recent article, he reports that this meeting occurred in the wake of the overblown incident in the Strait of Hormuz, when a U.S. carrier almost shot at a few small Iranian speedboats. The “meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. ‘The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,’” according to one of Hersh’s sources.
    During the journalism conference event, I asked Hersh specifically about this meeting and if he could elaborate on what occurred. Hersh explained that, during the meeting in Cheney’s office, an idea was considered to dress up Navy Seals as Iranians, put them on fake Iranian speedboats, and shoot at them. This idea, intended to provoke an Iran war, was ultimately rejected……”
    And for those who find Floyd too direct,

  17. “This idea, intended to provoke an Iran war, was ultimately rejected……”
    “ultimately rejected……”
    Are we reassured?

  18. In the Fall of 1971, I was rotating out of Vietnam, after two consecutive tours. By this time, the war had become a stalemate. We had too much technology and firepower in place, for the VC and NVA to mount any large serious threats against us. Yet, we were not able to break the spirit of the Vietnamese people.
    I became very close to an extended family of Vietnamese. I quickly grew to love them, and they responded similarly. Every time I returned to the ‘rear area’, against orders I would stay at their home. We would stay up watching TV and talking. I wanted to learn everything about their Country and culture. They warmed to the task of sharing with me. I remember a particularly moving discussion I had one evening. We were watching TV, and it was a Vietnamese equivalent of a music video, although done live. Like most Vietnamese songs, it was very sad.
    This was an observation I had made awhile back. I asked my friend Leim, “Why are are all Vietnamese songs so sad?” I was only 19, and the obvious escaped me. He replied, “Steve, Vietnam’s history has been written in tears. We have been conquered and ruled by the Mongols, Siamese, Chinese, French, Japanese and now America. Our desire and fight for freedom goes back so many generations, it is all we know.”
    I realized, like a slap in the face, we would never achieve our version of victory here. This was no communist insurgency. It was just like our Revolution. They were fighting for independence, and after hundreds of years, we were on the wrong side of this war.
    Just before I left Vietnam, General Westmoreland was asked why he could not win the war, now that he had military superiority. He responded, “What do you want me to do, bomb Saigon?” He finally figured it out. As long as a single Vietnamese lived, we could not achieve victory.
    As the drums for war with Iraq began to beat, my knowledge of the region (largely provided by a British friend), told me we were walking into a similar situation. It is not exactly the same, but the bottomline is the same. We were going to engage in an occupational strategy, against an entire country willing to pick-up a family member’s, or fallen countryman’s rifle and continue the fight. You cannot defeat this kind of foe, except with genocide. I am sure Cheney, and his ilk, see that as acceptable. I worry they will try to sugar-coat it, and do just that.

  19. JamesL, thanks for the kind words.
    Powell’s choice of words is “interesting” – and quite telling, I think. As if he did not know perfectly well what the real purpose was for invading Iraq! Since Pottery Barn has no such “rule” and never has (and were quite unhappy at hist oh, so universally heard suggestion that they did!), he could have said it another way, such as “you break it, you buy it”. That, at least would imply some price to be paid for the crime of breaking an entire country.
    And which big-time “news” anchor was it who very happily – perhaps even proudly – said in a nationwide newscast in 2003 “in a few days we are going to own that country”?
    Of course, they all failed to take into consideration the Iraqi people. Some of us could have told them what was going to happen, but they would not listen to US.

  20. Shirin, many of us did in fact tell them prior to March 2003 what was very likely to happen after an invasion of Iraq– including just about everyone who knows anything serious about the modern Middle East (as opposed, to say, medieval historian Bernard Lewis, etc.) Also, as you recall, a small handful of wise elders like Sen. Robert Byrd. But the US government– the administration and the vast majority of members of congress including of course Sens Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Joe Biden, etc etc– all insisted (1) that they knew better and (2) that those of us who warned against the invasion were doing so for unpatriotic and possibly anti-Israeli reasons, and therefore should not be listened to.
    Those latter arguments were of course systematically circulated by Chalabi’s networks and by AIPAC and other segments of the pro-Israeli community in the US who all worked hard to remove from any influence on decisionmaking everyone– including people inside the US State Department!– who understood anything about the dynamics of the modern Middle East.
    So in part, and at some levels, the decisionmaking was based on “ignorance” at the level of the top decisionmakers. But that “ignorance” had been systematically cultivated by extremely “interested” parties. Also, the fact that Bush himself, for example, may embody that quality of ignorance does not absolve him from the responsibility of having the chosen the advisers he listened to and those who had been effectively silenced, and for having allowed the intense and destructive politicization of the decisionmaking process to occur– even if most of what happened was planned and implemented by his Vice.
    Hazeltine– Your point well taken. It was, after all, only THAT particular harebrained and criminal scheme to spark a US-Iran war that, Hersh said, had been vetoed. Doubtless there are others in the works, too.

  21. Helena,
    I am not saying I covered the topic completely, but there were lots of different reasons for fighting Iraq, and only a few, legalistic or speculative reasons for not doing it. The press reinforced this by presenting many hundreds of war supporters, and only allowing a half dozen (pre-)war critics on the air.
    Mr. Bacon,
    Sometimes I feel like a radical left and right winger, so, that I’d appear to be opposite things wouldn’t surprise me. I fully support other countries electing whoever they want. I believe lots of people, including many Americans, don’t really know much of anything about what is going on in America or the world, and so it concerns me that they vote. I’m contradictory there, since I also point out that U.S. foreign policy impacts a lot of the rest of the world, but they don’t get a vote.
    If you think this is a problem, I blithely point to Godel (who is both a great mathematician, and an interesting philosopher) and his incompleteness theorem, which says that _any_ system (including systems of thought) must be inconsistent (containing internal contradiction) or incomplete.

  22. We win baseball games, not wars. If we add all the negatives and positives from our Iraqi adventure, we will never be on the plus side. Too many bad things have happened for things to ever to balance out. In a Kafka way of thinking though, if enough people believe something, it must be true. If enough people tell each other something, it is even more surely true. Facts are made irrelevant. Ron

  23. We win baseball games, not wars. If we add all the negatives and positives from our Iraqi adventure, we will never be on the plus side. Too many bad things have happened for things to ever to balance out. In a Kafka way of thinking though, if enough people believe something, it must be true. If enough people tell each other something, it is even more surely true. Facts are made irrelevant. Ron

  24. If we add all the negatives and positives from our Iraqi adventure…
    What are the positives?

  25. Helena, try “Hezbollah displays Israeli body parts”.
    That’s the sort of thing that tipped me back into 9mm Zionism, to paraphrase an old Israeli song: “Death has no face, but his form measures 9mm.”

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