On May 1, 2003, in what would later be seen as one of the great miscalculations of modern political history, George W. Bush stepped up to a podium aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and her allies have prevailed.” The star-spangled banner that hung behind him declared “Mission Accomplished.” Though his administration later claimed the banner was created at the request of the ship’s crew, the speech was undeniably premature. At the moment he declared the war over, 140 United States service members had been killed in that conflict; since that day, 4,347 more soldiers have fallen.
In hindsight, what tripped Bush up was more than just misjudging how long the insurgency would last, or how long US troops and their allies would need to stay. He was there to declare victory—the fall of Baghdad and, memorably, of a statue of Saddam Hussein, one month earlier. But in fact the war had hardly begun. Bush had sent in American troops, and celebrated victory, without fully articulating what “victory” actually meant.
Ten years later, in the second term of a new presidency, we still don’t know. With tens of thousands of American troops deployed overseas, and more certain to be committed in future conflicts, it’s critical for us to understand what we’re aiming for when we speak of victory.
“Having clear language on victory is necessary because it’s the only way we can establish any coherence on what a society—both its policy makers and its public—can expect to achieve when they decide to use military force,” said William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy.”
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