Learning to Win, Not Defeat

In the continuing series of blog posts to spur professional military discussion, I offer a thought piece arguing for a reorientation of the conceptualization of warfare in the near to mid term — or at the very least in this piece of the spectrum of conflict. For a bit of summer fun, rather than prescriptive questions, in this case you are invited to discuss and challenge my interpretations. Enjoy the read and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


The new documentary “Kill Team” narrates the degeneration of one Army unit to a state in which criminal acts were validated and suggests that military training focussed upon killing is to blame. At the tactical level, I cannot agree. Sustaining any specific military training is the foundation in discipline and order. To wit, proficiency in killing does not mean that troops on the front lines are little more than automatons of death. Rather, events such as these rely far more significantly upon the command and leadership climate which shapes the attitudes and activities of the line units than upon the combat training of the soldiery. And so it is necessary to understand what influences and shapes that climate. Taking this approach, I would argue that the real source of the problem is that how warfare is conceptualized is too focussed upon the killing, upon destruction, upon defeat.

Understandably, given the overwhelming model of the 2oth Century’s two World Wars, American armed forces (and those of the West generally to varying degrees) have come to define their activities in two realms, often occurring in sequence from defeat the enemy to win the war. Further to that, the first objective was largely defined in terms of physical destruction. And so the standard template was to first fight and destroy the opposing forces, then to put society back together afterwards. Given the the mass armies of industries in those wars, that prioritization made sense because the enemy force was a real obstacle to the necessary terms of victory and peace. Along the way, however, this priority escaped the bounds of its own context and came to be viewed as an eternal truth – that victory necessarily equals defeat of the enemy force.

However, when one considers these values as the context which informs command and leadership it is questionable that they serve well the needs of contemporary warfare. Whether in the urban jungle or the boondocks, a reasonable model for the contemporary style of conflict is generally irregular and light forces using asymmetric tactics and reliant upon a general level of support from the local population. Unfortunately, in an environment where the defeat of the enemy must necessarily occur within the civilian population, the prevailing wisdom described above does not serve and may in fact harm current efforts because collateral damage becomes losses and casualties for those that cause it. The confluence of political consciousness, mass information and social media make this so. A reasonable interpretation of recent events is that this effect weighs heaviest upon the dominant or foreign actor in a conflict and is the source of strategic equivalence between weak and strong that has been on display in the recent asymmetric conflicts.

And so, the new calculus of collateral damage has allowed the insurgent/irregular forces to contend successfully against wealthier, militarily more proficient forces. (1)  This puts the armed forces on the horns of a dilemma: the focus upon defeating the enemy may be getting in the way of winning the war. In conflicts like OIF/OEF, so long as the physical destruction of the enemy remains the dominant objective of the armed forces, not only will more such sad events occur, but the translation of military activity to political benefit will continue elude the US and the West.



1. Israel you need to learn this lesson. Whatever the other issues, in the cold calculus of war, you own every Palestinian civilian you kill because you are the stronger of the two in the conflict with Hamas. If you were fighting Egypt or Iran, then this would not apply — see, it’s not about unfairly binding you, it’s about making you see the emergent strategic imperatives.





11 thoughts on “Learning to Win, Not Defeat

  1. leo715 says:

    To be fair the last three major IDF ops inGaza were not intended to defeat Hama’s but rather to degrade its military capabilities. Winning the hearts and minds of Gaza’s civilian population became impossible after the disengage ment in 2005.

    • Jill Sargent Russell says:

      Sacrificing strategic ground for tactical benefit is questionable logic. If they create more enmity through collateral damage than the risk they are mitigating then it is a losing proposition. Whether the ops are intended to gain hearts and minds, they are certainly losing them.

  2. Ewan Lawson says:

    I think a related issue is that we have lost sight of understanding what defeat means. Perhaps as a legacy of the Cold War there is often a focus on ‘writing down’ adversary military capability in the belief that this will reach a level that will equate to defeat. However, surely defeat is a cognitive state and is the point at which the adversary gives up and agrees to come to the negotiating table. Depending on the nature of the adversary that could be achieved in a variety of ways and not only by the destruction of military capability?

  3. James says:

    Sir Rupert Smith argues in his book, “Utility of Force” that traditional industrialist conflict that the West grew accustomed to fighitng during both World Wars no longer exists and modern conflict has now shifted to ‘war amongst the people’. In this new paradigm, force alone can not achieve a successful outcome. A multi layered approach should be taken to resolving a conflict, of which force is just one facet. Force should be focussed on changing the enemies intentions rather than attempting to destroy him complete.

    Hand in hand with this concept is David Kilcullen’s argument that in a counter insurgency campaign (that the West continually seems to find itself involved in) the vital terrain is not the road junctions or high features throughout the AO, rather it is the population. The population is where the insurgent draws its strength from, as such, force should focus on separating the insurgent from the local populace rather than directly targeting him. Focussing on killing or destroying the enemy in the traditional sense will likely result in causing collateral damage. This is ultimately counter productive, as it will result in driving the insurgent and the population closer together.

    An insurgency’s centre of gravity is the support it receives from the population – if it is removed from this source of support the insurgency will die, or it will commit itself to greater risk in an attempt to regain with the population.

    Such risks may include conducting large scale attacks on Western forces in order to retain legitimacy or fear amongst the populace. This plays to a Western forces strengths and their weaknesses – in a large scale attack Western forces are able employ their advantage in weaponry and technology on insurgent forces in order to cause mass causalities amongst the attacking force. Additionally, attacking Western forces in close proximity to a civilian population will most likely result in killing innocent civilians – further alienating it from its traditional power source.

    Hope I’ve made some sense and not just rambled

  4. Andrew says:

    As an infantry officer in the US Army with experience in Afghanistan I would argue that a major disconnect exists between the three levels of war.

    At the strategic level, leaders know that one cannot simply kill all the insurgents and go home. The key to success is a combination of factors involving security, economic development, political stability and the rule of law.

    These concepts are relatively easy for the brigades and battalions at the operational level to understand, but more difficult to address. Winning the war quickly devolves into chasing metrics and turning gumballs on a Powerpoint slide from red to amber to green.

    At the company, or tactical, level leaders struggle with how to execute ambiguous missions from higher, ones that do not always fit into the nice, neat model of force-on-force combat operations. These missions involve a lot more talking and observing than acting, which is a difficult concept for many junior infantry soldiers to grasp.

    .It is possible to have success in this environment. Soldiers, as you argue, are not automatons. They will execute the missions they are given to the best of their abilities. I would argue that the greatest challenge lies not in changing the conceptualization of war but in closing the gap in the understanding of how the concept of the modern battlefield has changed.

  5. Peter T says:

    The trouble is that winning over the population (or at least reconciling them to your preferred outcome) requires taking seriously what they want. Vietnamese peasants wanted an end to landlord rule, Pashtun Afghans want to be free to pursue their traditional life, Palestinians want much of their land back and an end to Israeli appropriation. When you are fighting to maintain landlord rule, change a way of life or take someone’s land, then your choices are limited. It comes back to reconciling your military means to your political ends, and changing the ends if necessary.

    A lot of discussion around this starts by assuming that the enemy population just wants what the average Western voter is assumed to want (“political stability, rule of law, economic development…”) without asking the basic political question – stability to whom, economic development for whom, whose law…

    • Mike Wheatley says:

      “taking seriously what they want”
      However, what some of them – the general, non-combatant public – want, is unacceptable.
      Some Palestinians want all jews to be killed.
      Some Afghans want a traditional society that excludes women’s rights, despite the wishes of these women.
      This needs to be taken seriously, not just ignored, but not appeased either.
      Part of the campaign has to include a political campaign, not just to give the people what they want – which is often unacceptable – but to change what they want.

  6. Ewan Lawson says:

    Whilst I agree with John that the cognitive dimension can be covered by ‘breaking the enemy’s will to fight’ I would argue that it is language that is not helpful in thinking about how to win in contemporary conflicts. I would suggest that as a phrase it has utility in thinking about tactical action and the moral component of fighting power but it tends to lead to an approach which is solely about killing people and breaking things. Whilst this is clearly the primary function of militaries, it is unlikely to be the only aspect of national power that will be important in winning.

  7. Jill Sargent Russell says:

    The conventional wisdom is not to read the comments section, but in this case the rule does not apply. Great points all.

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