One of the great little books about warfare is Fred Ikle's Every War Must End. Like Arms and Influence, the title Every War Must End captures the essential point of the book: of course, every war has both a beginning and an end. The end is supposed to create the outcome envisioned at the beginning. How often does that happen?
Ikle starts his book by pointing out how easy it is to start a war, and how difficult it is to end one. The usual culprit is the element of the unexpected ("No plan survives the first contact with the enemy"). Navigating the twists and turns of events takes longer than the direct course that national leaders had desired.
However, Ikle points out a far more insidious and less recognized factor: War aims often are not very clear at the outset, and they often mutate during the war itself.
Imperial Japan, for example, didn't have a clear vision of what the world would look like after war with the United States. Clearly, by establishing some kind of "defensive perimeter" around the Pacific, it would stand a better chance of establishing the "East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". However, it wasn't obvious among Japanese leaders what they expected the United States to do. Surrender after Pearl Harbor? Give up soon after the initial battles proved costly? Lift the economic sanctions against Japan? Come to some other accommodation with the Japanese? Certainly, Japan felt backed into a corner by the diplomatic and economic pressures the Americans were exerting, and they had to do something to stop their imperial ambitions from being further thwarted. (Again, the dangerous lure of "do something" appears.) The whole point of Pearl Harbor, in the end, was to compel American leaders to make a decision--but to do what?
War aims also change. Imperial Germany in WWI, Ikle argues, started the war trying to assert German equality among its European peers. One of Germany's desired outcomes, for example, was to expand the limited colonial possessions they had as a latecomer to the European balance of power game. But as the war dragged on, the need to justify German casualties sometimes inflated expectations. By 1917 and 1918, some German leaders imagined that they might not only expand their colonial possessions, but also build a larger European empire, stretching from Alsace-Lorraine to captured territories in Russia.
The most familiar example of changing war aims for Americans, of course, is Vietnam. The United States started took on the responsibility in the 1950s for preventing a domino from falling in East Asia. Having long ago abandoned the domino theory, the US ended the war trying to preserve its credibility, regardless of how strategic Vietnam really was.
Clearly, if you're not sure how to measure victory, either because the definition has changed or it was fuzzy to begin with, it's extremely hard to reach victory. Nations may expend their blood and treasure in the wrong places; political arguments over what victory really means may paralyze decision-making; public support may collapse if victory doesn't seem to be in sight, or worse, if the public feels as though they were misled into believing the war was about something other than the real objective.
So, not surprisingly, this discussion about the slipperiness of war aims leads us to some obvious questions about victory in our current conflicts:
What is victory in the war on terror?
Is it a war on terror, terrorism, or terrorists?
What was the aim of the war in Afghanistan? To eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda from using any part of Afghanistan? Simply eject them from Kabul and a few other regions? Eliminate their organizations altogether?
And, of course, the big question: What was the goal of the war in Iraq? And why was this war, and this time, necessary to achieve that aim?
There may be good answers to all these questions. Some Some were stated clearly (remove Saddam Hussein) and actually had broad support. had clear answers (remove WMDs) that changed or evaporated. Most never had clear answers at all, particularly in regards to terrorism.
Since we're citizens, not subjects, it's our own responsibility to frame what would be acceptable answers for ourselves. We can then judge leaders by these standards, as well as the war aims they stated. I'd recommend turning off the TV or the radio, putting down the newspaper, or stop reading the news online for a day. Instead, think about the questions posed above: what, for you, defines victory against terrorists, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Without the daily distractions of ongoing events (something to which political leaders often fall victim), you might be surprised by your own answers.
Next, I'll talk about an instrument that helps define what the war aims are, and has a special significance in democratic societies: the declaration of war.