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Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray.

April 2002

52 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author explores the concept of victory in the war in terrorism, but he does so by placing it within the larger currents of change that are sweeping the global security environment. He contends that the time-tested idea of decisive victory is still an important one, but must be designed very carefully in this dangerous new world. To do so correctly can provide the foundation for an effective strategy. To fail to do so could be the first step toward strategic defeat.


The idea of victory, let alone decisive victory, was very much out of style during the Cold War. The theory and practice of limited war in the nuclear age was more concerned to minimize the risks of escalation to nuclear holocaust than to win the conflict of the day. That changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War; indeed so much so that from 1991 to the present, with the painful exception of Somalia, the United States has known nothing but victory in its exercise of military power. The author challenges the view that war lacks the power of decision, arguing instead that war, even when not concluding with clear success for one side, still has the power of decision. This monograph discusses the idea of decisive victory with reference to different levels of analysis—the operational, strategic, and political. It is suggested that the concept of decisive victory needs to be supplemented by two ancillary concepts, strategic success and strategic advantage.

The author explores the means and methods most conducive to achievement of decisive victory. He explains that objectively “better” armies tend to win (war may be the realm of chance, but the dice are loaded in favor of those who are militarily competent); that there is no magic formula which can guarantee victory (not even today's information-led revolution in military affairs [RMA], which tends to equate precise firepower with war); that technology is not a panacea, the answer to all military and strategy difficulties; that the complexity of war and strategy allows for innovative, even asymmetrical, exercises in substitution as belligerents strive to emphasize strength and conceal weakness; and that it is essential to know your enemies, especially if you require them to cooperate in a deterrent or coercive relationship.

The author concludes by arguing that the concept of decisive victory is meaningful and important. Also it advises that different enemies in different wars will require the application of different military means and methods. One size in military style will not fit all cases. Readers are recommended not to think of decisive victory in terms of a simple either/or. Strategic success or advantage may serve the goals of policy quite well enough. Finally, the point is made that, among Western states at least, the United States today is surely unique in being interested in the idea of and capability for decisive military victory. America's European allies currently do not discern any serious military issues as clouds on their peaceful horizons.

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