The Win Mentality in Wars
Oct 20, 2010

The Win Mentality in Wars

One of the major ways in which the merits of war are discussed in the public discourse is the idea of "winning" the war. We support wars we can win and desire to withdraw from wars we will lose.  We intuitively see this question as a binary yes/no question posed for a single, objective, condition that determines whether we have or have not won.    There are two major problems with a "win" mentality when it comes to fighting wars.  One is a matter of definitions and "winning" not being an appropriate metaphor for today's wars, the other a matter of moral objectives in war.

To claim we have "won" requires defining an objective victory condition. For the most part, this is both difficult and misses the point. Instead of a single objective condition, there is a spectrum of different objectives, sometimes very imprecise or interrelated objectives, that we usually wish to obtain. Moreover, "winning" may not mean passing some distinct level but simply making progress on an issue, perhaps merely incremental progress.  A maximal objective in a failed state might be a complete cessation of violence and the introduction of a westernized, democratic, liberal state without violence and a high quality of life. This is unlikely to be obtained, but we can work incrementally to reduce suffering and violence and put in place the beginnings of a democratic state. Take Iraq which both the Bush and Obama admins claims to have "won". The democracy there is a failure, but has the basics in place. Violence remains high, but somewhat less so than earlier in the war. Quality of life is slowly improving. So while the maximal objectives in Iraq have not been achieved, it has moved forward in various ways in the spectrum over the last couple years. Especially when it comes to nation building in failed states like Afghanistan, we cannot expect any simple objective victory condition to be possible to be easily defined in a sentence or two.


Take the concept of the War on Terror as endorsed by the Bush and Obama administrations. The idea of winning this war is fundamentally flawed as a metaphor. We can not expect to eliminate all terrorists acts anywhere, ever. What we can do however is attempt to minimize the amount of terrorism that occurs. At no point do we say we have won this war, but we can make the claims that we have improved or worsened our safety from terrorism. Improvement, not winning, out to be our goal here.

On the moral side, assuming we have come up with an appropriate idea of winning, we have to balance the costs of winning with the moral virtue of obtaining some level of victory. Very often it is presented in the media that winning is a good thing in and of itself. This is not true, it is good if and only if the result is superior to that of all other actions.  If a million people die in Iraq, is this travesty enough to counteract whatever has been obtained by war? The point is clear: simply saying "we need to win at all costs" is both morally questionable and doesn't even make much sense given the variable, imprecise, objectives of war. It should be noted that the metric for having created a morally superior or inferior outcome should  be applied not just to comparing a "do nothing" (often meaning simply the present if analyzing a future action) strategy to a war strategy. It should also be applied to alternative courses of action and various courses of war. Even if I grant that a war led to a better outcome for a people, one must also show the outcome was better than any other reasonable course of action in war or otherwise. Would a diplomatic and economic aid solution have been better, for instance? This applies well in Afghanistan where I have advocated the possibility of intervention leading to a better situation for the Afghan people. However, just because our war may (with may being the operative word) lead to a better outcome than doing nothing, I think a significantly differently focused intervention effort would have been vastly superior to either option for both the Afghan people and ourselves.

Part of the difficulties with definitions and the winning metaphor as well as the morality of wars has to do with the ways wars have changed over the last century. As I have outlined, we have experienced a steady shift in wars towards decentralized, stateless wars against abstractions like "terrorism". With this shift, the ability to define cogent, singular, objective victory conditions like "stop the Nazis" has fallen away and the win mentality that once applied no longer does despite remaining prevalent. Furthermore, as we engage in wars less because of being presented by an existential threat (although both Iraq and Afghanistan got cast in these terms by the administration) and more for humanitarian reasons, we must put an even higher impetus on making sure our objectives are genuinely morally superior. When we ourselves are in danger from a threat, a broad range of actions may be justified. When we are acting less for ourselves and more for others humanitarian problems, we must be very careful to be attentive towards the entire costs of all of our actions.

One interesting consequence of the win mentality is a focus on symbols of winning. For instance, capturing Osama bin Laden is a symbol of success in the Afghanistan war, as was the capture of Saddam Hussein for Iraq. The problem is, it shifts the focus unduly on these symbols and we have seen this in the early part of the war where "find Osama" was the myopic focus of the war to much detriment.

This mentality that winning wars is a good thing is such an entrenched mentality that it actually gets used in rhetoric for things unrelated to actual war. For example, the war on drugs, the war on poverty or even a "war on cars" (this latter being the reverse, ie we need to win a war declared on car drivers).  The winning war rhetoric is so glorified it can help out other causes by lending its prestige to them. Winning a war on drugs sounds like a virtuous things to do until one realizes it suffers the kind of definition and moral problems above apply here and the current result of this endeavor is very poor indeed on many levels.

This winning wars rhetoric is very glorified and prevalent in our culture. Yet as we have seen it simply does not apply an leads to many moral and practical difficulties. Instead I suggest a more nuanced, in depth approach where we identify a series of areas for improvement and then consider their moral virtues before acting. War is simply too complicated and consequential to be something that is merely won or lost.

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