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Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | April 2002

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The idea of victory, let alone decisive victory, was very much out of style during the Cold War. The theory and practice of limited war in the nuclear age was more concerned to minimize the risks of escalation to nuclear holocaust than to win the conflict of the day. That changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War; indeed so much so that from 1991 to the present, with the painful exception of Somalia, the United States has known nothing but victory in its exercise of military power. The author challenges the view that war lacks the power of decision, arguing instead that war, even when not concluding with clear success for one side, still has the power of decision. This monograph discusses the idea of decisive victory with reference to different levels of analysis?the operational, strategic, and political. It is suggested that the concept of decisive victory needs to be supplemented by two ancillary concepts, strategic success and strategic advantage.

The author explores the means and methods most conducive to achievement of decisive victory. He explains that objectively ?better? armies tend to win (war may be the realm of chance, but the dice are loaded in favor of those who are militarily competent); that there is no magic formula which can guarantee victory (not even today?s information-led revolution in military affairs [RMA], which tends to equate precise firepower with war); that technology is not a panacea, the answer to all military and strategy difficulties; that the complexity of war and strategy allows for innovative, even asymmetrical, exercises in substitution as belligerents strive to emphasize strength and conceal weakness; and that it is essential to know your enemies, especially if you require them to cooperate in a deterrent or coercive relationship.

The author concludes by arguing that the concept of decisive victory is meaningful and important. Also it advises that different enemies in different wars will require the application of different military means and methods. One size in military style will not fit all cases. Readers are recommended not to think of decisive victory in terms of a simple either/or. Strategic success or advantage may serve the goals of policy quite well enough. Finally, the point is made that, among Western states at least, the United States today is surely unique in being interested in the idea of and capability for decisive military victory. America?s European allies currently do not discern any serious military issues as clouds on their peaceful horizons.


The justification for this monograph was explained succinctly in a brilliant essay written a generation ago by French scholar, Raymond Aron. ?Strategic thought draws its inspiration each century, or rather at each moment of history, from the problems which events themselves pose.?1 Since September 11, 2001, it has been open season for efforts to grapple with the deceptively simple concept of victory. Journalists and other commentators have penned analyses with such titles as ?The elusive character of victory,? and ?What Victory Means.?2 If ?victory? unadorned is hard to corral intellectually, what sense can we make of ?decisive victory?? Is the concept a theoretical artifact from a past age, or does it retain vitality, particularly for the hegemonic United States of today? I will argue that decisive victory, adjective and noun, is a meaningful and important concept.

Before plunging into the muddy waters of definition, it may be useful to recall a little history. Although since 1991 victory has come back into fashion as a proper outcome to be expected of the use of American arms, for the duration of the Cold War it was most emphatically one of yesterday?s ideas. In very good part for reason of the sensible fear of escalation to nuclear holocaust, the only kind of conflict that the United States dared wage in the nuclear era was limited war. Writing at the tail end of the golden decade of modern American strategic thought (1955-66), Thomas C. Schelling argued that

?victory? inadequately expresses what a nation wants from its military forces. Mostly it wants, in these times, the influence that resides in latent force. It wants the bargaining power that comes from its capacity to hurt, not just the direct consequence of successful military action. Even total victory over an enemy provides at best an opportunity for unopposed violence against the enemy populations. How to use that opportunity in the national interest, or in some wider interest, can be just as important as the achievement of victory itself; but traditional military suicide does not tell us how to use that capacity for inflicting pain.3

To strategic sophisticates in the 1950s and 1960s, victory was an atavistic notion. American theorists found the Clausewitz that they wanted to find in On War, which is to say the post-1827 Clausewitz who revised some of his manuscript in order to balance his discussion of ?absolute war? with consideration of ?real war? for limited aims.4 But on the first page of Book One, Chapter 1, Clausewitz insists that ?War is thus an act offorce to compel our enemy to do our will.?5He rams the point home by saying that ?to impose our will on the enemy is its object [the object of the act of force that is war]. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare.? Of course, in the sentences quoted the great man is explaining and exploring the nature of war, not offering advice on its conduct. But Clausewitz?s admirably terse summary of the nature and object of war did not find much intellectual favor in Cold War America. After all, in a nuclear age would it not be dangerous in the extreme, even perilously irresponsible, to attempt ?to compel our enemy to do our will?? Has not Michael Quinlan written persuasively that ?a nuclear state is a state that no one can afford to make desperate.?6 To extend Quinlan?s point, a nuclear state is a state against which no one can afford to press for victory.

Readers can imagine the shock and horror that resulted when in 1980I published (with Keith B. Payne) an article on nuclear strategy bearing the exciting title, ?Victory Is Possible.?7 A year earlier I had expounded at some length on ?Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory,? but the pages of International Security, or my dense prose, probably were too forbidding to attract nonacademics.8 While I was trying to inject a little strategic reasoning into debate over what passed for nuclear strategy, others made like complaint about extra-nuclear matters also. For example, in a characteristically robust essay of 1982 vintage entitled ?On the Meaning of Victory,? Edward N. Luttwak recorded his view that:

The West has become comfortably habituated to defeat. Victory is viewed with great suspicion, if not outright hostility. After all, if the right-thinking are to achieve their great aim of abolishing war they must first persuade us that victory is futile or, better still, actually harmful.9

Through the middle years of the 1980s, and in good part to help offset the belligerent facade of earlier talk of the United States ?prevailing? in a nuclear war,10 Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger repeated the sensible sounding mantra that ?a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.?11 He had earlier aired the following thought, which, despite its honesty and common-sense logic, had not played too well politically: ?You show me a Secretary of Defense who?s planning not to prevail, and I?ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.?12

Luttwak?s 1982 judgment that ?[v]ictory is viewed with great suspicion, if not outright hostility,? was to be vindicated on the grand scale a decade later, when most Western scholars of the subject insisted that although theUnion of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) lost the Cold War, the United States had not won it.13 So far out of strategic fashion had victory become, that the decade 1991-2001 should have caused some traumatic shock among professional pessimists. With the exception of the Somalia debacle of 1993-94, the United States enjoyed a decade of all but unalloyed strategic success. From the Gulf War in 1991, through Bosnia in 1995, to Kosovo in 1999, concluding (after a fashion) with Afghanistan in 200 1-02, the United States achieved fair facsimiles of victory. 14 Given the absence of any such facsimile, fair or otherwise, from 1945 to 1991, this was a notable reversal of strategic fortune. Had the U.S. military machine improved dramatically, or had its political masters at last been able to select cooperatively inept foes? Wherever the truth may lie, and I suspect it reposes in a combination of military professional excellence, technological superiority, and enemy incompetence, victory became a habit, indeed was the expectation, over the past decade?at least until now.

Hubris Invites Nemesis.15The decade that opened with victory over the USSR, and with a campaign in the Gulf memorialized immodestly and contentiously for the U.S. Army by Major General Robert Scales in a book titled Certain Victory, and by Norman Friedman for the U.S. Navy in Desert Victory, closed with what appeared to be another brilliant success, this time in Central Asia. 16 For the fourth time in 10 years, American airpower delivered military success, most recently (2001-02) in a style of joint warfare that was as novel as it was appealing to a country still nervous of committing large forces on the ground in distant climes. Both America?s friends and foes have noticed a certain military triumphalism about U.S. policy. The George W. Bush administration, in particular, is the beneficiary and the victim of recent military success. It is the beneficiary of a recently acquired (and well-merited) reputation for military effectiveness, as befits the contemporary hegemon. As with Rome in its early imperial centuries, America today is unchallengeable in regularwarfare. Also as with Rome, however, a mixture of unusual incompetence, bad luck, and a smart enemy can produce the occasional imperial disaster (happily, Mogadishu was only a minor embarrassment compared with Publius Quintilius Varus?s loss of three legions in the Teutoberger Wald in 9 AD). Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make overweeningly proud. The so-miscalled ?war against terrorism?17 (apart from being a linguistic atrocity) has been launched by an understandably vengeful American hegemon that today is the victim both of its recent military successes and of its own growing conviction that in practice the age-old lore of strategy can be short-circuited by high technology.

Osama bin Laden may or may not prove to be nemesis for American strategic hubris, but he and the elements he represents are likely to show up some contemporary leading American attitudes for what they are, as examples of what historians have called ?victory disease.?18 Germany in 1940-4 1 and Japan in 1942 both fell victim to the illusion of their own invincibility, an illusion fed by the misreading of the causes of their early successes. A new American way of war was demonstrated in Afghanistan, one which married long-range airpower, space systems, special operations forces (SOF), and local allies. But success in Afghanistan may tell us more about the hapless Taleban and its al-Qaeda co-belligerents, than it does about a plausible high road to victory in future conflicts. If, as I beg leave to doubt, the misnamed war against terrorism is World War III, as Lawrence Freedman speculates,19 the decade of victory from Kuwait City to Kabul is likely to come to a crashing halt. It is perhaps ironic, if not actually unfair, that a hegemonic United States, preeminent in the most advanced ways of regular warfare, should twice be thwarted strategically; first after 1945 by its own nuclear discovery,20 and now today by exceptionally asymmetrical enemies. The long nuclear stand-off challenged traditional understanding of victory, as goal and as descriptor. The new stand-off between the asymmetrical strategic cultures ofhegemonic superpower and transnational terrorism similarly throws into question both the meaning of victory and the sense in its pursuit as high policy, grand strategy, and operational art.

I have chosen not to trouble these opening paragraphs with scholarly quibbles about the definition of terms. Such casualness cannot be indulged any longer, however, because we will be unable to proceed very far down the road to decisive victory unless we are clear enough in our own minds as to just what conditions are and are not, consistent with that destination.


As a military objective, decisive victory is not controversial. Whether or not the decision sought needs to be conclusive, if not necessarily quite of a Carthaginian character (Carthago delenda est), is a matter initially for policy to decide and then for political-military dialogue as events unfold. The quest for decisive success in the 21st century will more and more carry the risk of yielding only a painful Pyrrhic victory, as some of America?s enemies prudently equip themselves with weapons of mass destruction. Desperate dictators, recognizing that they stand helplessly on the brink of personal and régime oblivion, may prove to be beyond deterrence or compellence, should the United States give them the choice. The common sense strategic logic of the U.S. commitment to homeland missile defense, as well as to mobile theater missile defense, is too self-evident to require further comment here.

This lengthy exploration of the meaning and achievement of decisive victory yields four claims that merit elevation as concluding thoughts. First, decisive victory is both possible and important, though it is never guaranteed, not even by military-technological excellence. The assertion that war never solves anything, that it is inherently indecisive, is simply wrong. All of history reveals the decision power of the threat or use of force. In a moral sense it may be preferable to talk rather than fight, but the West is unduly inclined to talk when it should be fighting. Bosnia, Kosovo, and al-Qaeda were all instances of enemies who should have been addressed militarily long before they actually were. America?s European allies are increasingly nervous of what they discern as an assertive, unilateralist, military triumphalist United States, disinclined either to pursue serious dialogue with potential ?rogues? or to live with strategic irritants. Always provided the United States does not truly succumb to its own high-tech variant of that historically familiar malady, ?victory disease,? it is to be hoped that the anxieties of debellicized allies will not disarm the superpower guardian of the international order.

Second, one size cannot fit all in the deterrence or conduct of war. If the United States were to find in the decades ahead that once again it faced a clearly dominant threat from a great power,91 probably China or, less plausibly, China and Russia, it might well find itself needing to improvise in real-time. From the Gulf to Afghanistan, via the Balkans, U.S. military power was granted the initiative and generally time to correct for early errors. Most styles in war lack universal applicability. Blitzkrieg worked well enough in restricted terrain against poor French and British armies that compounded their problems in quantity with the commission of disastrousoperational moves.92 It worked much less well in Russian terrain against an enemy who declined to acknowledge decisive defeat.93 If the American way of war becomes formulaic, albeit technologically impressive, it invites smart enemies to attempt to wage the kind of conflict wherein U.S. strengths would be at a heavy discount. Any belief that U.S. military power, somewhat transformed by the exploitation of information systems of all kinds, can plan to fight almost without regard to enemy preferences and abilities, should be hastily buried. Following the Japanese experience (the 1904 and 1941 ?model?), for example, it is not likely that China would prove to be a passive foe, content or obliged to fight only on American terms.94

Third, decisive victory, though a meaningful concept, is not a clear-cut alternative to defeat, or even to indecisive victory. Both decision and victory register on scales that allow for more and for less. If the ideal type of military encounter which should yield a decisive outcome was the brief but bloody clash of arms between the citizen hoplites of the Greek city states,95 then the war upon which the United States today says it is embarked is at the opposite end of the spectrum of potential for decision. In words attributed to Mao Tse-tung: ?There is in guerrilla warfare no such thing as a decisive battle.?96 Decisive victory needs to be supplemented in American public discourse with the less imperial notions of strategic advantage and strategic success. It is distinctly American to believe that wars should be unmistakably militarily winnable and to be intolerant of apparently indecisive operations.97 Much as the U.S. defense community had to come to terms with the unique constraints imposed by the emergence in the 1950s of a strategic context of mutual nuclear deterrence, so today it needs to adjust to the frustrating realities of war against transnational terrorist organizations. America?s NATO allies, as well as Russia, China, and a host of other polities, have more or less extensive experience of war against, and living with, terrorists. For the United States, notwith-standing the occasional outrage committed by the manic Left and Right?or 30-odd years ago by African-American extremists?the idea of living permanently, if uneasily, with the insecurity of terrorist menace is novel. America?s information-led RMA certainly has some utility in the war on terror, particularly for distant surveillance and targeting, but it is not going to deliver anything grander than some strategic success.

Fourth, and finally, the fact of U.S. interest in the concept of decisive victory is in itself politically and culturally revealing. It is difficult to imagine this topic arousing any interest whatsoever in any NATO member other than the United States. The general irrelevance of military power in NATO-European and EU policy calculation, and the comfortable assumption of a coalition context for all military issues, renders the concept of decisive victory a throwback to less happy times for Europeans. It is no exaggeration to say that despite the character of NATO, which is still, just about, a collective defense organization, America?s European friends and allies inhabit a universe that poses no serious military questions. It is true that Kosovo in 1999 was a NATO undertaking, but that episode, and indeed the whole sorry ex-Yugoslavian story of the 1990s, showed how far NATO-Europe has travelled down the road leading to military impotence.

There is a time and sometimes a place for insistence upon decisive victory. Europeans, snakebitten by two world wars ?at home,? are less than intrigued by means and methods to achieve such military success. When Americans encounter honest but culturally alien European disinterest in the capability to achieve decisive victory, they are naturally inclined to suspect allied motives, while breathing a sigh of relief that their preferred way in war really does not require the complication of non-American assistance (local allies are another matter). A problem for the quality of U.S. policy and strategy is that as NATO allies merit less and less military respect in Washington, so their views on globalsecurity more and more are discounted. The United States increasingly finds itself strictly in a league of its own, wherein it listens to little but the echo of its own domestic debate about the use of force. Dialogue among unequals is always difficult, but in this case it is urgently needed as the United States embarks upon the first war of the 21st century, if not World War III.


1. Raymond Aron, ?The Evolution of Modern Strategic Thought,? in Alastair Buchan, ed., Problems of Modern Strategy, London: ISS, 1970, p. 25.

2. ?The Elusive Character ofVictory,? The Economist, November 24, 2001, pp. 11-12; Conrad Black, ?What Victory Means,? The National Interest, No. 66, Winter 2001/02, pp. 155-64.

3. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966, p. 31.

4. See Azar Gat, The Origins of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to Clausewitz, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, ch. 7, esp. p. 199.

5. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 75, emphasis original.

6. Michael Quinlan, Thinking about Nuclear Weapons, London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 1997, p. 19.

7. Colin S. Gray and Keith B. Payne, ?Victory Is Possible,? Foreign Policy, No. 39, Summer 1980, pp. 14-27. The title, picked by the editor of the journal, would have been improved had the words ?but improbable,? been added.

8. Colin S. Gray, ?Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory,? International Security, Vol.4, No. 9., Summer 1979, pp. 54-87.

9. Edward N. Luttwak, On the Meaning of Victory: Essays on Strategy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986, p. 289.

10.The commitment to ?prevail? in a nuclear war was written in the new Defense Guidance, 1984-1988, document which was inevitably leaked to The Washington Post. For a relevant quotation, see Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 2nd ed., New York: St. Martin?s Press, 1989, p. 406.

11. Casper W. Weinberger, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1986, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 4, 1985, p. 45.

12.CasperW. Weinbergerin The New York Times, August 9, 1982.

13. For example, Stephen Kotkin,ArmageddonAverted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. A different opinion animates Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration?s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994; and William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. Odom notes that ?a program of U.S. military modernization based on new technologies confronted the Soviet military with another challenge it could not hope to meet.? P. 87.

14. See Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, London: Bantam Press, 1999, on Somalia; Robert C. Owen, ed.,DeliberateForce:A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, January 2000, on Bosnia 1995; and Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO?s Air War for Kosovo:A Strategic and Operational Assessment, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001.

15.With thanks for the inspiration provided by Ian Kershaw: Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, London: Allen Lane, 1998; Hitler, 1936-1943: Nemesis, London: Allen Lane, 2000.

16.Robert H. Scales, Jr., Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Staff, 1993; Norman Friedman, Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991. The Air Force story was told in Richard P. Hallion, Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992; and, in ways not wholly beloved by the USAF hierarchy, in its commissioned Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS) (5 vols). See Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Summary Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993. The official Air Force reaction to the GWAPS volumes was not notably dissimilar from the Royal Navy?s distancing response to the volumes of the official history of Naval Operations in the Great War written by Julian S. Corbett.

17. For an influential British dissenting voice, see Michael Howard, ?Mistake to Declare this is a ?War,?? RUSI Journal, Vol. 146, No. 6, December 2001, pp. 1-4.

18. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, writing about 1940, have commented that ?For the Germans, the victory over France suggested that everything was possible for the Third Reich.?A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 89.

19. Lawrence Freedman, ?The Third World War?? Survival, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 6 1-88.

20. Save with reference to politically meaningless and morally abominable destructive potential, nuclear armaments almost certainly rendered the two superpowers less powerful than they would have been without the nuclear discovery. Today, nuclear arms are the weapons of the weak, not the strong. The U.S. Government in 2002 is thoroughly disinterested in its nuclear arsenal, save only for its uncertain residual value to help deter the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction against U.S. interests. Usable American military power is thoroughly conventional. The nuclear emphasis in recent Russian military doctrine attests to Moscow?s appreciation of the weakness of its conventional forces.

91 On the logic of international competition, see John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

92 Robert Allan Doughty, The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1990, tells the story of tactical and operational disaster well.

93 See David M. Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

94 The main title tells all in Qiao Liang and Wan Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare: Assumptions on War and Tactics in the Age of Globalization, Beijing: PLA Literature Arts Publishing House, February 1999. China could well prove to be a dangerous, asymmetrical opponent, one compelled to think imaginatively by America?s regular military strengths.

95 See Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989; and Stephen Mitchell, ?Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece,? in Alan B. Lloyd, ed., Battle in Antiquity, London: Gerald Duckworth, 1996, pp. 87-105.

96 Mao Tse-tung, attrib., On Guerrilla Warfare, Samuel B. Griffith, trans., New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1961, p. 52.

97. See Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 3rd ed., London: Frank Cass, 2001, Appendix B: ?The Weinberger Doctrine.?