EDITORIAL: No substitute for victory

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President Obama isn’t sure if victory is the U.S. objective in Afghanistan. On July 23, ABC’s Terry Moran asked the president to define victory in Afghanistan. He responded, “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.” Fidelity to history requires us to note that Emperor Hirohito did not sign the Japanese articles of surrender on the Battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, and was not even at the ceremony.

Historical accuracy aside, Mr. Obama was trying to reiterate part of what George W. Bush said on many occasions during his presidency: The war on terrorism is not a conventional war, and it will not be won by conventional military means. When President Bush made this point in an August 2004 interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, he was excoriated by Democrats, who accused the president of defeatism. Perhaps those same critics would be interested in weighing in this time, too.

There is scant difference between the Bush and Obama strategies in Afghanistan. The “stronger and smarter” approach Mr. Obama introduced in March is substantively little different from the Bush administration’s 2004 Afghan counterinsurgency strategy. Both seek to secure the country, promote a stable government and defeat the terrorists who seek to attack the United States. However, one important difference is that the Obama administration generally eschews the word “war.” Defense jargon du jour indicates that our country has shifted from “fighting a war” to “engaging in overseas contingencies.” This renders the whole question of victory moot. Wars are won or lost; contingency operations just come and go.

The Bush administration had no problem with the word “victory,” even using the same historical example as Mr. Obama. The 2003 U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism said victory will not come as a “single defining moment” and “will not be marked by the likes of the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri that ended World War II.” In his November 2005 speech on Iraq, titled “A Strategy for Victory,” Mr. Bush said, “victory in Iraq will not come in the form of an enemy’s surrender, or be signaled by a single particular event — there will be no Battleship Missouri.” The old battleship has been deployed more times rhetorically than it was in war.

There is no harm, and a great deal of good, in calling the achievement of war objectives a victory. After all, if you can’t say you won a war, the implication is you lost it. The pursuit of victory also makes war’s sacrifices more meaningful. John P. Roche, special assistant to President Johnson, wrote in 1968 that the basic issue in Vietnam was whether a free society could fight a limited war for limited objectives. “It is very difficult to tell a young soldier,” he wrote, “Go out there and fight, perhaps die, for a good bargaining position.”

Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously said that “there is no substitute for victory,” a fact that remains true today. We cannot alter the nature of war by redefining it to conform to shifting political fashion. Our men and women in uniform are putting their lives on the line overseas fighting an implacable enemy. Their commander in chief should allow them the opportunity to say that their objective is victory.

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