The Art of Victory

Victory, like many women, is largely misunderstood. Too many consider her terms as limited to military decision. Not only is this wrong, but the crude mis-focus opens the door for War to snatch her back from your embrace. As difficult as it may be to achieve, military decision is perhaps the easier of the requirements necessary for victory. The difficulties of strategy, tactics and campaigning notwithstanding, to translate the fruits of these efforts into the desired post conflict context is by far the more vexing. But Victory cannot be won until the peace sustains the policy, sustains the reasons for resorting to violence in the first place. Unfortunately, more attention goes to the former than to the latter. It is as if someone is waving a shiny distraction at thinkers and combatants, luring them to focus overmuch on only one aspect, to tragic-comic effect.

I have referred elsewhere to War’s cheeky to perverse sense of humour, [1] and its sharp end is in particular evidence in the competing difficulties on the path to Victory. Of course the need to fight well cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, the aftermath of military decision offers little respite to good judgement and critical decision-making, and War here inflicts similar sanction as in combat upon those who miss-step. You can do everything brilliantly to that moment, you can grasp the means to impose your will or lead an inspired new political direction, and you can stand on the very cusp of Victory…and still fumble spectacularly towards defeat. Because what comes after the bullets is as important as the fighting, even as it is not treated as such. The volumes written on getting to the point of military decision are legion and matched by the relative paucity on how to do the next part equally well. This is a problem, as you achieve nothing if a task is unfinished, just as certainly as to say that “I almost ran a marathon” does not impress much.

The contemporary historical record sustains the point. Particularly where decisive military defeat has led to the end of hostilities, events of the last two centuries suggest the primacy of the “after” effort. At the tactical level, the first effort after the bullets stopped in the Civil War was to feed the Confederate Army. At all levels, the campaign begun in Normandy and ended in Berlin would have been far more destructively undone had the circumstances on the ground in the days, months, and years after not been attended to by the Allied forces. The same can be said of Japan.

Fast forward to recent efforts and the Phase IV operations have not impressed. The rise of insurgencies and even the return of the opponent, coupled with the mismanaged re-emergence of civil society and functioning infrastructure altogether suggest a lack of imagination and sound thinking.

Especially within the armed forces the intellectual investment into managing this aspect of war is too often given short shrift. It is treated as the second effort, the small matter of a clean up to be handled as and when. Further complicating things, there is often a degree of confusion as to who (civilian or military, American or local) will “lead.” At the tactical level there is also some implicit expectation that because the phase of destruction and death has been (largely) terminated the work is easier. This is not at all the case. [2]

No matter the circumstances, the armed forces will have to maintain a presence on the former fields of combat. At least for the purposes of security and order, at most to participate in the recovery and reconstruction, the universe of tasks for this phase of war is wide and requires thought and some training and preparation. [3] There is also fact that at the strategic level the orientation may have to shift from enemy to nascent ally – even as the players might not change much. To achieve military decision may require ruthless brutality, but to consolidate military decision to policy benefit and victory may rely the more upon compassion and humanity.

Satisfying the post-conflict terms of victory requires the balance between timeless principles and contextual flexibility. The timeless issues are those matters governing recovery and reconstruction, of society, the economy and the government. Such challenges would be sufficient to make any task difficult. However, the latter requirements, those which are ruled by the unique circumstances of the conflict, locale and participants, increase the complexity and often confound those whose only focus has been the fighting. One might be moved to consider that military decision is far simpler to achieve by comparison. By way of compensation, my sense is that when done well the fruits of such operations are obvious and influence the course of events.

It should be clear that the total Art of Victory, to include both the destructive and (re)constructive, deserves well more attention than it receives. To leave the modern battlefield when the fighting has ceased, to fail to prepare critically for what comes next, risks the dissipation of every gain made in combat. Perhaps “Phase IV Operations” lack the panache of fighting and leave off the opportunity for glory in battle. But there is no point in being a storied field commander to a lost cause. War does not end when the guns go silent, and victory will be elusive so long as “Mission: Accomplished” is seen come at the point of military decision.



[1] And this, in fact, is only one of its many traits. In truth, taking the sum of them all, the ‘thing’ in question takes on the sort of substance usually associated with an individual. I think a very good biographer – Claire Tomalin, Peter Ackroyd – could do an interesting treatment of War as its own character.

[2] Terry McDonald has written an interesting piece on approaches to stability operations, especially with respect to Humanitarian Assistance to Disaster Relief [HADR]. Many of the issues are similar between this work and the nature of post-hostilities operations. In the article he notes the inattention to this piece, writing that while the armed forces have learned thought much about the use of force on the modern battlefield, “the other piece of the operational triad remains ambiguous (that is non-kinetic) stability operations. Whatever shape future conflict may take, an urbanizing global population will likely see a higher number of stability operations….” (“Stability Center of Gravity: Planning with a Blank Sheet of Paper,” Small Wars Journal, October 29, 2013.)

[3] And as the recent soft power benefit in the Philippines demonstrates, HADR missions are likely to continue in the near future. As the two missions share many tasks in common, this regularity will provide the opportunity to work (in thinking, gear, and practices) the contours of the necessary tasks for post-hostilities operations.



11 thoughts on “The Art of Victory

  1. Pingback: Conquering as Virtue | Carrying the Gun

  2. Mike Wheatley says:

    If there was ever a blog post to be nailed to the doors of Westminster Cathedral, this was it.

    Is there a use for a non-armed- service for HADR? Both wrt interface with locals, and wrt recruiting non-military people? Something that anti-military nations could also contribute to? (Japan, Germany, etc.)

  3. Andy Young says:


    A fantastic article, and one that has given clarity to something that has been ruminating in my mind for a while, particularly wrt navies and maritime forces (afterall, 99% of the RN’s role is Stability, Security and International Engagement ranging from Policing to HADRO). The forthcoming seminar at RUSI discussing the reconstruction efforts in Germany post-1945 will hammer this point home.

    Interestingly, it could be argued that this is a very Clausewitzian argument, especially if you look at the simple fact that post-conflict it is the passion and the needs of the people that must take precedence. In this sense, military action is only setting the conditions for victory; it is a shaping operation all of its own…

    Could you explain further your thoughts? I am interested purely because when you look at 2005, Haiti and most recently the Philippines, it does not seem to make much sense; the only nations which contributed military assets to HADR are those with major expeditionary capabilities.

    • Mike Wheatley says:

      At the moment, the only organisations with heavy duty HADR assets are the military, specifically the combat logistics teams, and marines / amphibious forces.
      But it occurs to me that that is not a requirement.
      Some countries do Cost Guard activities with their military (Brazil) whilst others do it with a separate, explicitly civilian, organisation (USA).

      So, I was thinking: what if pacifist nations like Japan or Germany were to create a civilian “International Emergency Services” organisation, that would own those “austere logistics” assets, used in HADR? Like the US Coast Guard, there would be some clear rules allowing the military to take ownership of them during war time.
      This would allow them to be much more useful to their allies.

      Even within a non-pacifist nation, these organisations, being civilian, could recruit people that are either explicitly pacifist, or at least who don’t wish to join “the military” themselves – but the assets would still be available to the military during wartime – just look at the STUFT shipping during the Falklands. Being able to recruit from a wider pool of people should bring down the costs.

      The devil would be in the details, of course, but it strikes be as something worth looking into.

    • Andy Young says:


      Apologies for not replying sooner; been away… Get what you are saying, and on the surface, it all seems sound. Unfortunately, particularly in the current economic crisis, it is just too expensive.

      There is a major flaw when you look at people like the Germans or Japanese as explicitly ‘pacifist’ nations; especially with the latter, this is not the case, as both nations have very credible navies that undertake the full range of Maritime Security taskings, both at home and abroad. Japan has even invested in their own version of a ‘Through-Deck’ cruiser (and Aircraft Carrier by another name). But that is an aside.

      Unfortunately, this type of shipping is incredibly expensive to build, maintain and ‘man’, with a massive shorebased tail. When not in use specifically for HADRO, under a civilian org it will in effect end up being mothballed (an expensive process all of its own, and therefore of little utility), unless there is another use for it (such as Constabulary, International Engagement and Trg etc). In such cases, these ships are then ‘Forward Deployed’ in a state of readiness. That is why the US, UK, Netherlands and others in the Western hemisphere reserve their use within military organisations.

      Coast Guards operate within territorial waters; you mentioned the USCG which is slightly amorphous in that respect, but whose remit is very clearly defined as within the territorial and jurisdictional limits of the USA. There are Coast Guard personnel seconded or detatched elsewhere on trg missions, but they cannot deliver the support you suggest.

      Furthermore, STUFT is only of utility if you have a fully functioning port, otherwise you actually require specialist amphibious shipping that is capable of landing over the beach (look at Largs Bay during Haiti, the LSLs in Angola and the use of Illustrious during recent operations in the Philippines). These also require specialist Logisitics and support teams that are able of coordinating with a wide range of organisations, with the further ability to re-role at a moment’s notice. In my personal experience, there are few (if any) non-military (or military support) organisations that can achieve this at the cost of standing militaries (who can do more than one main role). Hence why in the UK our Landing Ship Auxillary (Docks) and support vessels are civilian run (Royal Fleet Auxillary) for gov’t purposes. What you are suggesting effectively already exists.

      Why (if as an expeditionary ready Nation) pay to have a separate, peace-time only organisation that owned assets required during hostilities? Or, as a so-called ‘pacifist’ (isolationist might be a better word) nation, pay to have assets that are incredibly expensive but of little or no use within your own territory? It makes sense in archiepelagic nations, or those with large coastlines, but these typically have other means of reaching far-flung areas.

      It is a great idea, but to my mind does not stack up for the above (very breifly and relatively poorly aritculated) reasons.

    • Mike Wheatley says:

      Thanks for your insightful and detailed reply.
      Yes, isolationist is a better word than pacifist.

      Your description does convince me that, actually, the civilian-run RFA is indeed the closest that we can get to my idea – it is already a hybrid civilian-military organisation. And given your knowledge of how much training is required, and the costs of mothballing, it doesn’t sound like we can improve on that.

      How do other nations handle this capability? Is RFA-style the norm? Or do other nations insist on fully military manning? (I’m particularly thinking of ways to get European allies to be more useful, given that we are not likely to get them to spend more.)

    • Andy Young says:


      Regards Europeans, the only significant amphib capability is held by the Netherlands, and that is again a hybrid organisation. The French have a much less developed capability that is run almost exclusively militarily. The US also run theirs almost exclusively militarily too (from what I have been told by some of their Logs officers).

      It would be great for the European nations to club together and provide a kind of HADRO Rapid Reaction Force, but again this is predicated on the adequate forward deployment of vessels with appropriate and cost effective support measures (including overseas basing rights etc) which are all out of our league in the current financial climate. I am not sure Germany would be willing to fork out the funds (and lets face it, this would sit with them) for an organisation that would have to undertake this tasking.

      The issue of training such an organisation would be an interesting one; you would have to outsource to specialist Maritime academies or centres of excellence, which works for established, fully functioning ports etc, but the only personnel with amphibious expertise on the scale we’re talking about are military. Given Gen Houghton’s RUSI speech last month, and the massive tempo that our Armed Forces (particularly the RN) are battling against, this seems unfeasible.

  4. Habeas Corpus says:

    Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard. – Chinngis Khan (allegedly) 13th century.

    The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see. – Winston Churchill 20th century.

  5. Andy – “Interestingly, it could be argued that this is a very Clausewitzian argument, especially if you look at the simple fact that post-conflict it is the passion and the needs of the people that must take precedence. In this sense, military action is only setting the conditions for victory; it is a shaping operation all of its own…” Exactly.

    Mike – I am with Andy on this somewhat, there is the issue of the duplication of effort between a new organization and what the armed forces already handle. However, you do see purely civilian institutions participating in these efforts – fire services, for example, have been used in foreign deployments. There may be a use for the creation of organizations with these non-kinetic functions (lift, water purification, field medical, fire services, etc.) in those countries which have some constitutional bar on military services. On the other hand, given that when included within the armed forces these units train to the most difficult conditions, probably the most competent and readily deployed are those in uniform and whose day jobs are in this area of work.

    Probably the better answer, given the funding issues, is for individual states to see HADR/O as a critical diplomatic function which would enable them to command a larger piece of the budgetary pie. Of course, then you have to ask yourself what of the foreign aid budget to cut…However, in terms of war and victory, this sort of practice would be beneficial in demonstrating their value in situations which totter on the brink of chaos and conflict.

  6. Mike Wheatley says:


    Thanks for the reply – you have convinced me!

    My only remaining question is, would it usefully increase France’s HADR capability, if they were convinced to make it more of a hybrid organisation?

  7. KoW says:

    You can then copy-paste that stable link and share your own comment to our post on a preferred social media platform, or whatnot.

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