Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War

| December 21, 2022
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Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War, Cian O’Driscoll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 192 pp., cloth $94, eBook $92.99.

The central claim of Cian O’Driscoll’s new book, Victory, is twofold: first, just war theorists have paid insufficient attention to the concept, practice, and ramifications of “victory” as an element of armed conflict; second, if they did so, they would be rewarded with a more nuanced, more realistic, and probably more cautious understanding of the very notion of just war itself. By failing to acknowledge the centrality of victory as an ambition of warriors, both just and unjust, and to face up to the various ways in which it imbues any practice of war with unattractive connotations of conquest, triumphalism, and humiliation, just war theorists, O’Driscoll maintains, are prone to presenting an overly optimistic view of ethical war.

O’Driscoll’s method of exploring the theme of victory is novel and designed to make available the intellectual riches of various traditions of thinking about justice and war. Rather than attempting a systematic analysis of the place of victory within a single paradigmatic theory of just war, he examines treatments of the theme from a wide range of influential figures in the history of just war thought, from Cicero to Vattel to St. Augustine to Jean Elshtain. His analysis draws on the idea of crusading “holy war” and on the early-modern idea of “regular war” as well as on sources more closely aligned with the modern idea of “just war.”

The book is organized into seven core chapters, each examining a different problem. They illuminate from different angles both the reasons why the theme of victory has received such sparse attention and the value of examining it carefully. Its neglect, for instance, may be attributable to its ostensibly empirical and strategic nature and, hence, to its remoteness from properly normative concerns. Its affinity with conquest is another reason, as is the apparent decline of decisive moments of victory as a facet of war in recent decades. This way of proceeding is, in turn, highly suggestive for contemporary theorists in the way it unearths knots of normative complexity and ambiguity that would benefit from careful attention in just war theory, and as a result enrich the theory. O’Driscoll handles the range of divergent philosophical and theological perspectives on which he draws deftly and with a lightness of touch that makes for enjoyable reading.

The insights O’Driscoll finds in his trawl through the history of ideas are always interesting and often challenging. Indeed, at the time of writing, his essays on the theme of victory speak quite directly to contemporary events. Guided by the seminal discussions that occur in Cicero’s surviving works of political philosophy, for instance, chapter 2 explores the relationship between victory as a military aim and peace as the proper moral and political end of war. The two can run into conflict in cases where belligerents are offered peace before they have been able to achieve a decisive victory over their opponents. The classic illustration is the end of World War I. Without the benefit of hindsight, German capitulation in 1918 looks, on the face of things, like an unmitigated good, bringing an end to a brutal conflict. But Allied leaders would later blame the outbreak of World War II in Europe, only twenty years later, on the fact that Germany had not been defeated decisively in 1918 (p. 41). To prevent further outbreaks of international aggression, they maintain, it is sometimes necessary to extinguish all hope that an outbreak will succeed. A decisive victory is more likely to ensure that aggressors accept defeat. However, others warn that pursuing outright victory can have the opposite effect, humiliating the defeated and embedding resentments that may engender future conflicts. There is surely a credible argument, they maintain, that it was the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles rather than the failure to humiliate Germany in 1918 that sowed the seeds of future aggression. A humiliating defeat in 1918 might only have deepened this effect.

The salience of this kind of dilemma can be seen in contemporary Ukraine. At the time of writing, Western-backed Ukrainian forces are engaged in a defensive war against the Russian invasion. Some have recently argued that Ukraine ought not to pursue victory in any comprehensive sense but should instead sue for peace even before securing all the territories taken by Russia in 2022 (let alone the territories taken in 2014). And even Ukraine’s most enthusiastic supporters are tempted to stop short of something resembling a resounding defeatof Russia. They argue that Vladimir Putin must be offered an “off-ramp,” which would permit him to describe retreat as something other than outright defeat. O’Driscoll’s analysis reflects the plausibility of this sort of reasoning but also indicates why the opposite approach might also have merits. After all, if an off-ramp permits an aggressive state to deny the fact of failure, the state might be more likely to revisit its military objectives in the future. There is a difficult tension to negotiate between two opposing principles: “Just as a victory should not be too subtle, nor should it be too overwhelming. The key must lie, then, in striking a balance between these poles: that is to say, in achieving a victory that is sufficiently incontrovertible to settle a conflict conclusively without being in any way excessive” (p. 44).

This is just one example from the many insightful discussions offered in O’Driscoll’s book. Among other things, he explores the relationship between symbolizing victory in different kinds of ritual (such as in Greek and Roman triumphs) and the material nature of defeat. He invites readers to think carefully about the relationship between war, victory, and the distribution of territorial rights post bellum. And he offers an illuminating discussion of the different functions that war has been thought to serve vis-à-vis justice: for instance, between viewing just war as the execution of a prior judgment of wrongdoing, treating it as an epistemic device to discover (through divine intervention) which side was in the right, and treating it as a decision-making procedure in cases of irresolvable normative conflict.

Through the prism of victory, O’Driscoll’s successive essays point to a “tragic” conception of just war. Just war, on this view, typically involves conflicting goals, ethical remainders, and unintended consequences. Even when the just side wins, victory entails significant moral costs and the outcomes are often morally ambiguous at best. The need to secure victory over an opponent may “corrode the basis for the peace” (p. 148) it is aimed at securing. Paying careful attention to victory, on the other hand, also forces theorists to confront the likelihood that unjust sides will prevail at least as often as just sides will (even in that small subset of historic wars where there is something that could meaningfully be called a “just side”).

Against this image of just war that O’Driscoll builds, contemporary accounts are often too optimistic, he states, because they are too coy about war’s physically brutal and morally untidy nature. He agrees with critics of “ethical war” like Ken Booth, Maja Zehfuss, and Andrew Fiala that “the language of just war is seductive. It has a way of lulling people into a sanguine acceptance of war by leading them to believe that, so long as all the relevant jus ad bellum and jus in bello principles are satisfied, the use of force can be, not merely justified, but unproblematically so” (p. 150). It would be interesting to hear more about the precise nature of O’Driscoll’s conception of “tragedy.” His reference to the likelihood of moral “remainder” suggests an affinity with Michael Walzer’s notion of “dirty hands,” for instance, but he does not engage extensively with this idea.

In any case, O’Driscoll’s book will have great value both to just war theorists and their critics. It is original, provocative, and insightful, and it is a delight to read.


—Christopher Finlay

Christopher J. Finlay is a professor in political theory at Durham University. His books include Terrorism and the Right to Resist: A Theory of Just Revolutionary War (2015) and Is Just War Possible? (2018).

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 36.4

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