*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

A few weeks back, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker triumphantly announced the peace deal between the government of Columbia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). While positive, this declaration rings hollow as the exception that proves the rule – a tentative treaty, however, at the end, roughly 7,000 guerrillas held a country of 50 million hostage over 50 years at a cost of some 220,000 lives. Churchill would be aghast: Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few.

One reason this occasion merited a more somber statement: military victory is dead. And it was killed by a bunch of cheap stuff.

The term “victory” is loaded, so let’s stipulate it means unambiguous, unchallenged, and unquestioned strategic success – something more than a “win,” because, while one might “eke out a win,” no one “ekes out a victory.” Wins are represented by a mere letter (“w”); victory is a tickertape with tanks.

Which is something I’ll never see in my military career; I should explain. When a government has a political goal that cannot be obtained other than by force, the military gets involved and selects some objective designed to obtain said goal. Those military objectives can be classified broadly, as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz did, into either a limited aim (i.e. “occupy some…frontier-districts” to use “for bargaining”), or a larger aim to completely disarm the enemy, “render[ing] him politically helpless or military impotent.” Lo, we’ve arrived at the problem: War has become so inexpensive that anyone can afford the traditional military means of strategic significance – so we can never fully disarm the enemy. And a perpetually armed enemy means no more parades (particularly in Nice).

Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few.

It’s a buyer’s market in war, and the baseline capabilities (shoot, move, and communicate) are at snake-belly prices. Tactical weaponry, like AK-47s are plentiful, rented, and shipped from battlefield to battlefield, and the most lethal weapon U.S. forces encountered at the height of the Iraq War, the improvised explosive device, could be had for as little as $265. Moving is cost-effective too in the “pickup truck era of warfare,” and reports on foreign fighters in Syria remind us that cheap, global travel makes it possible for nearly anyone on the planet to rapidly arrive in an active war zone with money to spare. Also, while the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba shut down the megacity Mumbai in 2008 for less than what many traveling youth soccer teams spend in a season, using unprotected social media networks, communication has gotten even easier for the emerging warrior with today’s widely available unhackable phones and apps. These low and no-cost commo systems are the glue that binds single wolves into coordinated wolf-packs with guns, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts. The good news: Ukraine can crowdfund aerial surveillance against Russian incursions. The less-good news: strikes, like 9/11, cost less than three seconds of a single Super Bowl ad. With prices so low, why would anyone ever give up their fire, maneuver, and control platforms?

All of which explains why military victory has gone away. Consider the Middle East, and the recent comment by a Hezbollah leader, “This can go on for a hundred years,” and his comrade’s complementary analysis, that “as long as we are there, nobody will win.” With such a modestly priced war stock on offer, it’s no wonder Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees with the insurgents, recently concluding, of the four wars currently burning across the region, the U.S. has “no prospect” of strategic victory in any. Or that Modern War Institute scholar Andrew Bacevich assesses bluntly, “If winning implies achieving stated political objectives, U.S. forces don’t win.” This is what happens when David’s slingshot is always full.

The guerrillas know what many don’t: It’s the era, stupid. This is the nature of the age, as Joshua Cooper Ramos describes, “a nightmare reality in which we must fight adaptive microthreats and ideas, both of which appear to be impossible to destroy even with the most expensive weapons.” Largely correct, one point merits minor amendment – it’s meaningless to destroy when it’s so cheap to get back in the game, a hallmark of a time in which Wolverine-like regeneration is regular.

This theme even extends to more civilized conflicts. Take the Gawker case: begrudged hedge fund giant Peter Thiel funded former wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the journalistic insurrectionists at Gawker Media, which forced the website’s writers to lay down their keyboards. However, as author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out – Gawker’s leader, Nick Denton, can literally walk across the street, with a few dollars, and start right over. Another journalist opined, “Mr. Thiel’s victory was a hollow one – you might even say he lost. While he may have killed Gawker, its sensibility and influence on the rest of the news business survive.” Perhaps Thiel should have waited 50 more years, as Columbia had to, to write his “victory” op-ed? He may come to regret the essay as his own “Mission Accomplished” moment.

True with websites, so it goes with warfare. We live in the cheap war era, where the attacker has the advantage and the violent veto is always possible. Political leaders can speak and say tough stuff, promise ruthless revenge – it doesn’t matter, ultimately, because if you can’t disarm the enemy, you can’t parade the tanks. We’ve reached the end of victory’s road, and at this juncture it’s time to embrace other terms, a less-loaded lexicon, like “strategic advantage,” “relative gain,” and “sustainable marginalization.” Victory’s been defeated; it’s time we recognized that and moved on to what we actually can accomplish.



  1. Manage to avoid battle until your organization can count on certain victory.
    You must calculate many advantages.
    Before you go to battle, your organization’s analysis may indicate that you might not win. You can count few advantages.
    Many advantages add up to victory.
    Few advantages add up to defeat.
    How can you know your advantages without analyzing them?
    We can see where we are by means of our observations.
    We can foresee our victory or defeat by planning.
    -Sun Tzu

  2. When was military victory ever permanent, without follow-on economic and political measures to make it stick? The Romans absorbed conquered territories into the Empire — peace through assimilation. The Chinese did the same to would-be conquerors.

    Napoleon won victory after victory…but in the end, the rest of Europe ended it by separating him from his armies and imprisoning him on St Helena. Not that that stopped France and Germany from going at it periodically for another 125 years. Every time Alsace-Lorraine changed hands, there was a victory parade, but the smart money kept two flags in the attic.

    Appomattox was a Northern victory, but it took occupation and political reforms to stitch the South back into the Union (and some would say that’s not complete).

    Armistice Day, 1918? Lots of parades. But Germany was back in just over 20 years.

    VE and VJ Days marked the model military victories we crave, but without 40 years of occupation…er, security assistance underpinned by another existential threat to knit everyone together, would it have stuck?

    The popular image of “victory” in many people’s mind is an illusion borne of the stadium rather than the battlefield — the defeated enemy acknowledges defeat, lays down his arms, and accepts the victor’s conditions without further conflict. It’s a flawed vision, because absent continued external coercion or outright destruction, it’s never happened. The only change, as Matt pointed out, is that technology has increased the individual’s power to create mayhem, making it easier to maintain or reconsitute resistance.

  3. An observer of our military actions over the last two decades in the Middle East could in no way have predicted the splintered, irrational, “Turn-Your-Back-And-You-Have-Two-New-Enemies”, scenario the US faces today.

    Perhaps a look back over our shoulder, examining cause and effect relationships along the road is in order.

    CAUSE: The US fights a just and honorable war assisting many Middle East allies and other countries free Kuwait.

    EFFECT: Saddam Hussein is driven from Kuwait and the country is returned to its rightful government.

    CAUSE: The US does not leave the Middle East after rescuing Kuwait, but rather, stays in peripheral countries militarily “To Protect Our Interests” with an imperialist attitude resented by cultures that have an ingrained,religious hatred for that type of presence by foreigners.

    EFFECT: The rise of Bin Laden and many more like him today and the deaths of 3,000 Americans on our soil, attacked in our homeland because we did not leave the Middle East.

    CAUSE: The US reacts to 911 by setting up an elaborate Homeland Security apparatus and beefing up the National Security Agency by orders of magnitude, technologically, while putting in place a carefully concealed legal apparatus to counter terrorism.

    EFFECT: The US has no outside terrorist incidents of a 911 magnitude since the Twin Towers fell in 2001 but Americans develop real concerns about our government and its role in controlling our lives as whistle blower disclosures regarding the apparatus of intelligence operation reveal potential constitutional issues.

    CAUSE: The US invades Iraq fed by false, intentionally staged intelligence, fronted by agencies and industries bent on economic gain. The US sets about war fighting and nation building programs that seek to displace a culture that had evolved through conflict and war lords for hundreds of years and is tied to the absolute requirement that religious practices be part and parcel of government, a principle the US has rejected as unworkable since our Constitution was written

    EFFECT: Failure to build anything substantial in the form of a nation over a 15 year period. The deaths or crippling of our finest soldiers, dramatic increases in our national debt and a cynicism among our citizens with respect to the $Billions that have gone into the pockets of corporations supporting our huge Military Industrial Complex (MIC) and wasteful USAID Programs by companies that spend more lobbying Congress than they pay in taxes.

    CAUSE: The present Middle East unrest due to ISIS/ISIL and other splinter groups we thought had been scattered to the winds.

    EFFECT: UN Security Council meets with many nations talking and less than a half dozen nations carefully and selectively participating in an air war against terrorism while the remainder watch the outcome. Our military and corporate defense establishment (MIC) shout, “Sequestration to reduce military spending must end!” and estimates two years will be required with more American boots on the ground to train an Iraq force that we had already trained for a decade before the Iraq government disbanded it.

    CAUSE (PROJECTED): A political battle like none seen in recent times during the coming US national elections, driven by concerned American citizens and their view of the US role in the Middle East, our burgeoning national debt approaching $20 Trillion and the fact that the culture in that part of the world has had a very difficult time figuring out how we can help them over the last two decades while we near energy independence from oil and require some nation building of our own in the homeland.

    EFFECT (PROJECTED): A leader and a political climate that will permit prudence, tough decisions, carefully avoidance of bad intelligence and overreaction so that we do not continue to sink into the oil and blood soaked desert of Middle East cultural revolutions as global corporations consuming the MIC and USAID tax payer dollars prosper, parking their assets overseas while our young become indebted for generations.


  4. One of things that needs to go is this Mall Ninja BS about a “Warrior Class”. In more backwards times, the warrior class were nothing more than glorified cannon fodder.

  5. I disagree. The FARC and ELN were able to able to terrorize much of Colombia from the 1960s to the 1990’s because the government and society of Colombia were not willing to commit the blood and treasure necessary to defeat them. In the later years the guerrillas also allied themselves to the drug cartels, serving as their muscle. The corruption that the drug gangs’ millions support also made the counter-insurgency that much more difficult. When President Uribe decided to take the bull by the horns and combine a serious military campaign with a drive to reform the country’s economy and political systems the guerrillas were in fact defeated. They only agreed to sign the treaty because they finally recognized that fact. By the time they did so they had dwindled to the status of being little more than a nuisance to Columbia’s society.

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