Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War

Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War. Cian O’Driscoll. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Cian O’Driscoll has written a thoughtful, erudite book that manages to insightfully explore both just war theory and the nature of war. Across seven pithy chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, O’Driscoll develops an extended argument about why the concept of victory in war is problematic for just war theory and how the integration of victory into just war theory can lead to a more realistic, though tragic, appraisal of just war theory. His conclusions should interest not only just war scholars, but also the broader community of war studies scholars and military practitioners. The latter should be pleased by his call for greater realism in normative analysis of war and highly readable rethinking of just war theory. The former will undoubtedly read the book with some discomfort and dissatisfaction, but should take his arguments at face value, as an effort to improve rather than refute just war theory.

Victory and Just War Theory

Just war scholars distinguish between good wars and bad wars. Good wars are characterized by just causes and proportionate and discriminate prosecution, along with other more fine-grained criteria. Bad wars are the opposite.[1] However, this description omits the final phase of war, its termination. Professor O’Driscoll brings the concept—or idiom—of victory back into just war theory. He believes victory is particularly problematic for just war theory and therefore is important to engage specifically, in addition to paying more attention to war termination in general.[2] O’Driscoll identifies and engages the reasons why just war scholars avoid discussing victory and shows why these reasons are unsatisfying. Each of the seven chapters starts with a statement of one of these reasons, which he calls problems, before developing a counter-argument using an impressive range of classic and modern just war thinkers to elucidate his position. O’Driscoll’s extended essay then concludes with the argument that a closer investigation into the implications of victory by just war scholars will improve just war theory, despite the complications it brings to the table. In this sense, O’Driscoll distances himself from critics that seek to fundamentally undermine just war theory.

The Good Reasons

The seven reasons just war scholars avoid discussing victory, identified by O’Driscoll, include both plausibly justifiable scholarly reasons and less justifiable, self-serving reasons. In the first category, the general argument just war scholars give for not including victory, as presented by O’Driscoll, is that all research communities must draw a line somewhere about what is relevant and what is outside their purview. The reason for having fields, sub-fields, specializations, research communities, and the like is to allow for specialization. The parameter set by just war scholars focuses on the reasons for war and the conduct of war. How wars end has never been a prime concern for just war theory and there is no pressing reason to get into that complex topic now. O’Driscoll disagrees and sees the arguments for bracketing or excluding victory as unconvincing, because victory has always been part of the just war conversation, as shown in his exegesis of Saint Augustine.[3]

“St. Augustine in His Study” by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502 (Wikimedia)

The second reason just war scholars claim victory lies outside their purview is that scholars of strategic studies and military history focus plenty of attention on the causes of victory and defeat and it is best left in their expert hands. O’Driscoll responds that victory in war has long been viewed as having moral and not just military relevance, and assumptions about the moral character of the victor continue to permeate just war theory.[4] Finally, because decisive victory is irrelevant in modern war, in that it does not happen, it is a moot point.[5] Why should just war theorists feel compelled to study something that no longer occurs? O’Driscoll sees some truth in this argument, but shifts the terrain slightly to say that just war theory actually assumes decisive victory is likely and therefore lacks realism.

The general basis for O’Driscoll’s view  is the unity of war. He does not believe it is justifiable to exclude war termination from the commencement and prosecution of war. In this he is swimming against the tide. In strategic studies, the causes of war are usually discussed separately from discussions of warfighting, which is usually distinct from the study of war termination and the stabilization or peacebuilding stage of conflict. There is no prima facie reason why moral philosophers and political theorists cannot make the same separation. And yet, I find O’Driscoll’s argument convincing: there is a continuity between how wars start, how they are fought, and how they end. The interconnectedness is strong enough to require any general theory of war to address all three elements of war. Scholars of strategic studies should take a lesson from this argument and consider moving toward a more holistic understanding of war. Foundational scholars like Carl Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu do make a claim to a comprehensive study of war, but most modern scholarship is more fine-grained and compartmentalized.

The most questionable part of O’Driscoll’s analysis of the issues above relates to the issue of modern war and decisive victory. While the author notes the difficulty of conceptualizing victory, and the likelihood that decisive victory is a concept relevant to only a relatively short historical period, he still makes it the centerpiece of his analysis and treats it as mostly unproblematic.[6] O’Driscoll views the term success as euphemistic rather than as encompassing a wider range of outcomes. For example, one might say that North Vietnam was successful in its war against the United States, but one might hesitate to call it victory. Furthermore, some strategic studies scholars, following Clausewitz, are reluctant to use the term victory, because war is generally part of a larger conflict which does not begin or end with war.[7] The messiness of the concept of victory does not negate O’Driscoll’s work, but it opens up another avenue of inquiry that will most likely support O’Driscoll’s conclusions.

The Real Reasons

Just war theorists have a second category of reasons for ignoring victory. O’Driscoll portrays this set of reasons as self-serving in the sense that avoiding the concept of victory allows just war theorists to avoid dealing with difficult challenges to their core beliefs. The unifying theme of this set of problems for just war theory is the fear that “just war is just war.”[8] If there is nothing special about just wars—in that all wars are vicious and bloody and are equally bad—then just war theory loses its raison d'etre. To maintain their delusions and idealization of just war, as O’Driscoll frames it, theorists try to hide behind the claim that just wars end in peace rather than victory for one side and are more akin to judicial actions imparting punishment rather than seeking victory.[9] Furthermore, just war scholars want to avoid consideration of victory because it would compel them to consider the possibility of conquest and entitlement to spoils of war, which is wholly contrary to how just war scholars think of war.[10] Finally, the idea of victory fosters an escalatory logic by encouraging both sides to strive to the utmost to win and vanquish the other.[11] For these reasons, just war scholars find it is best to avoid the topic of victory altogether.

Not surprisingly, O’Driscoll finds all these arguments unpersuasive, because they are hopelessly divorced from the reality of war. First, to the extent that peace is possible, it requires victory of some sort to be achieved, and that victory must be achieved through force of arms. Second, whatever the purpose of war, it cannot escape its nature. As O’Driscoll cogently states: “While war might be employed to serve a higher purpose, it can never transcend its own base nature.”[12] So, while establishing peace and punishing transgressions might be the purpose of war, the basic nature of war is the violent struggle to vanquish one’s foe. Part and parcel of the nature of war is the power imbalance between the victors and the vanquished and all that follows from that including the possible justification of conquest. A final aspect of war brought into focus by the lens of victory, is the inherently escalatory nature of war and how just war theory may exacerbate this tendency. Just war scholars may hope to maintain a “spirit of moderation” in the conduct of war by avoiding a discussion of victory, but O’Driscoll sees this as a fool’s errand and doubles down on his critique by arguing that just war itself reinforces the escalatory logic of warfare. If striving for victory encourages unrestrained warfare, striving for victory while believing that one’s cause is just provides even greater impetus to “win-at-all costs mentality.”[13]

A landscape by George Edmund Butler of the battlefield at Polygon Wood, painted in 1918 (Wikimedia)

Victory and the Nature of War

Professor O’Driscoll thus takes just war theorists to the place they fear: just war is just regular war with a false gloss of respectability. However, he counsels us to not turn away from this reality and instead face it and fully embrace the tragedy of war. In this place of hopelessness, there is a way forward. By acknowledging the tragic nature of war, the need to apply principles of justice to war becomes even more pronounced. In the author’s words, “Unless one is willing to surrender the conviction that we can, should, and must subject warfare to normative scrutiny, this desperate grasping to discern what counts as right and wrong in the context of war ought to be respected and perhaps even welcomed for what it is: namely, a resolute if somewhat forlorn commitment to ordering (as best we can) the affairs of international society according to principles of justice.”[14]

To those of us who have suffered ourselves, seen family and friends suffer, or lost comrades to war, these arguments may resonate in a deeply personal way.

All of this, when recast in a personal light, speaks to the fundamental truths revealed in this book. To those of us who have suffered ourselves, seen family and friends suffer, or lost comrades to war, these arguments may resonate in a deeply personal way. Through this intimate lens, a portrait of war comes into focus. First, we see the purely tragic nature of combat. A dead friend is a dead friend. All the justice in the world cannot change that fact or lighten the burden of shame, anger, and loss. But, at the same time, we may understand our friend died for a just cause and it may alleviate the heartache, at least a little. This is where Cian O’Driscoll takes us. To a place we fear to go, a place of tragedy and heartbreak, but also a place of hope. We can find meaning in striving for justice and for doing everything possible to mitigate the horrors of war. We will mostly fail, but that is not the point.

Jeffrey W. Meiser is an assistant professor at the University of Portland and was previously an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. His book, Power and Restraint: The Rise of the United States, 1898-1941, was published by Georgetown University Press in 2015.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Cian O’Driscoll, Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020), 2.

[2] O’Driscoll, Victory, 11.

[3] O’Driscoll, Victory, chapter 1.

[4] O’Driscoll, Victory, chapter 3.

[5] O’Driscoll, Victory, chapter 6.

[6] See O’Driscoll, Victory, 4-7.

[7] For example, see Everett Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age (Routledge, 2005), chapter 2.

[8] Ken Booth quoted in O’Driscoll, Victory, 12.

[9] O’Driscoll, Victory, chapters 2 and 4.

[10] O’Driscoll, Victory, chapter 5.

[11] O’Driscoll, Victory, chapter 7.

[12] O’Driscoll, Victory, 89.

[13] O’Driscoll, Victory, 127.

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