Winning Wars: The Enduring Nature and Changing Character of Victory from Antiquity to the 21st Century

  • Published

Winning Wars: The Enduring Nature and Changing Character of Victory from Antiquity to the 21st Century by Matthias Strohn. Casemate Publishers, 2020, 315 pp. 

"So, What is Winning?" This is the question posed by Andrew Sharpe in the final chapter of Winning Wars, and it is a question that the book seeks to answer through its expansive examination of global conflicts. A collection of essays written by veterans and academics, the book synthesizes various perspectives on war fighting since antiquity. The opening chapters feature a historical analysis of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period, and the Napoleonic Era. This is followed by an evaluation of contemporary conflicts and cultural traditions that encapsulate victory in warfare. These chapters encompass the World Wars, the Cold War, The Troubles, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and several other examples of modern conflict, as well as cultural perspectives from Russia, China, and Iran.

Published for the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR), the eighteen contributors are notable in their own right, with several having published books in their field of expertise. Because each chapter focuses on a specific historical time period, culture, or modern conflict, and is written by an expert in that subject, the reader is provided with an extensive historical and cultural context from which to analyze the armed conflicts of today. Needless to say, Winning Wars is not limited to history, as it incorporates elements of international relations and cultural anthropology in ways that complement its contribution to the field of military science.

As one might expect, the authors do not settle on a permanent, uninterrupted definition of what “winning” actually means. This is largely due to the fact that this definition has changed rapidly over time. As such, the authors find themselves discussing ‘winning’ (as opposed to winning), because a contemporary understanding of winning is, in some cases, very different to what ‘winning’ has looked like in times and places past. This is of great interest to all of those who currently serve, however, as we enter our 20th year in Afghanistan. As John France writes in the second chapter, our recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan  “represent something more like the experience of Europe in the Middle Ages — worlds in which war is a norm and winning is hard to define” (p. 44).

Due to the academic nature of the book, the contributors stay away from making political pronouncements regarding current military engagements. However, they do offer policy recommendations beyond the typical condemnation of mission creep or criticism of short-sighted US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, they highlight the reluctance in Washington to account for, and adapt to, strategic goals that changed over time, recommending policy makers “expect goals to change” in modern asymmetrical conflict (p. 144). They point to inconsistent communication between senior members of the armed forces and the civilian leadership that persisted for years, quoting senior officers who were openly skeptical of policy to other officers, but never relayed strategic concerns to policy makers. The authors recommend “robust dialogue between civilian and military leaders” to facilitate adequate forethought and preparation for a wide range of possible military outcomes, and to solidify coherent and achievable military objectives (p. 144). These foreign policy interests of policy makers should be considered against the potential risks and costs an intervention, and the authors are clear that the probability of issues such as mission creep are a viable reason to avoid entanglements altogether. Given the current status of these conflicts, and assessing the numerous risks that were unaccounted for in the outset of these conflicts, the authors are abundantly forthright in their counsel, “Staying out of wars is usually the best strategy of all, if one cannot define national interests” (p. 145).

In total, the book is ambitious; each chapter could be a full-length book in and of itself. But the authors succeed at presenting a wide range of information in a way that is easily digestible and relevant to the overall analysis. Every chapter offered a comprehensive assessment of a complex subject matter that could be used to complement further inquiry into military strategy and policymaking. For example, Chapter 9, by Richard Kuno, presented one of the most thorough and clear-sighted analysis of the Syrian Civil War that is available for public consumption. Chapter 11, by Kerry Brown, offers insight into the historical and cultural factors that influence actions we see from China’s leadership today. The authors show how ambiguous definitions of ‘winning’ have impacted conflicts from Ancient Rome, to Northern Ireland, and even South Sudan. Due to the multitude of contributors, the book provides a unique insight into a wide variety of subjects without feeling overly condensed or rushed. It can provide useful insights to anyone; students and subject matter experts alike can find something to gain from this book. Most importantly, its emphasis on contemporary warfare can provide consequential information for our current military and civilian leadership, if they are willing to hear it. As such, the lessons from Winning Wars should be taken to heart as we assess our position in conflicts around the globe.

Lt Micah Mudlaff, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."