PURPLE PATCH: The Illusion of Victory
We learn from history that war breeds war. That is natural. The atmosphere of war stimulates all varieties of the bellicose bacilli, and these tend to find favorable conditions in the aftermath-in what, with unconscious irony, is usually described as the restoration of peace.
Conditions are especially favourable to their renewal in the aftermath of a long and exhausting war and most of all in a war which ends with the appearance of a definite victory for one of the belligerent sides. For then, those who belong to the defeated side naturally tend to put the blame for all their troubles upon the victors and thus upon the simple fact of defeat instead of upon their own folly. They feel that if they had won they would have avoided any ill-effects.
We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate — a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals. In the case of a victory gained by an alliance, the most common case, this is a most common sequel. It seems to be the natural result of the removal of a strong third-party check.
The first lesson has always been recognized when passions cool. The second is not so obvious, so that it may be worth amplification. A too complete victory inevitably complicates the problems of making a just and wise peace settlement. When there is no longer the counterbalance of an opposing force to control the appetites of the victors, there is no check on the conflict of views and interests between the parties to the alliance. The divergence is then apt to become so acute as to turn the comradeship of common danger into the hospitality of mutual dissatisfaction — so that the ally of one war becomes the enemy in the next.
Victory in the true sense implies that the state of peace, and of one’s people, is better after the war than before. Victory in this sense is only possible if a quick result can be gained or if a long effort can be economically proportioned to the national resources. The end must be adjusted to the means. It is wiser to run risks of war for the sake of finishing with victory — a conclusion that runs counter to custom but is supported by experience. Indeed, deepening study of past experience leads to the conclusion that nations might often have come nearer to their object by taking advantage of a lull in the struggle to discuss a settlement than by pursuing the war with the aim of “victory.”
Where the two sides are too evenly matched to offer a reasonable chance of early success to either, the statesman is wise who can learn something from the psychology of strategy. It is an elementary principle of strategy that, if you find your opponent in a strong position costly to force, you should leave him a line of retreat — as the quickest way of loosening his resistance. It should, equally, be a principle of policy, especially in war, to provide your opponent with a ladder by which he can climb down.
Sir Liddell Hart, one of the greatest military thinkers of the twentieth century, was a distinguished British military historian and strategist. Author of more than 30 books, translated into more than two dozen languages, Hart’s famous works include histories of the “First World War” and “Second World War”. The above excerpt is from his book “Why Don’t We Learn from History?”
— Contributed by Ammar Ali Qureshi