The Pursuit of Victory: From Napoleon to Saddam Hussein

The Pursuit of Victory: From Napoleon to Saddam Hussein

The Pursuit of Victory: From Napoleon to Saddam Hussein

The Pursuit of Victory: From Napoleon to Saddam Hussein


In Western Europe and North America the idea that war can deliberately be used as an `instrument of policy' has become unfashionable, not least because of the carnage of two World Wars and the Americans' humiliating experience in Vietnam. But wars are still fought. Those who start wars clearly believe they are worthwhile. Why? In this original and provocative study, Brian Bond discusses the successes and failures of military and political leaders in their pursuit of victory over the last two centuries. Professor Bond argues that in order to be counted victorious, a leader has to progress beyond military triumph to preserve the political control needed to secure an advantageous and enduring peace settlement. Napoleon was a brilliant general, but failed as a statesman. Bismarck, on the other hand, was a success in skilfully exploiting Moltke's victories on the battlefield to create a unified Germany. In the First World War, Germany and her allies were defeated but at such great cost that confidence in the idea that war could be controlled, and the pursuit of victory made rational, received a terrible shock. Germany and Japan exploited their military opportunites between 1939 and 1942, but lack of political control and moderation brought them catastrophic defeat. After 1945, nuclear weapons and the increased complexity of international relations blurred the identity of `victors' and `losers' and seemed to make the idea of a `decisive' victory almost unthinkable. But this study warns against the assumption that war as an instrument of policy has now been completely discarded. The Falklands and Gulf conflicts show that aggressors are still prepared to risk war for tangible goals, and that their opponents are quite capable of responding successfully to such challenges.


'And everybody praised the Duke,
Who this great fight did win'.
'But what good came of it at last?'
Quoth little Peterkin:
'Why, that I cannot tell', said he,
'But 'twas a famous victory'.

(Robert Southey, After Blenheim)

From the viewpoint of its victims and their descendants, whether at Blenheim, Waterloo, Sedan, or Stalingrad, every victory is likely to be incomprehensible and hollow, if not indeed in the words of little Peterkin's sister 'a very wicked thing'. Their grandparents had been expelled from the battlefield and their home burnt; the country round 'with fire and sword was wasted far and wide'.

But Southey's bitter verses are suffused with irony: he knew (and we know) that terrible and destructive as war is, victory is usually sharply differentiated from defeat and often has profound and long-lasting political effects. Successful wars have played a vital role in establishing states and enhancing their power. Conversely, defeats have frequently led to widespread destruction, harsh occupation, and humiliation of the people--fates which Britain, the former Dominions, and the United States have been spared in modern history.

But what constitutes victory? All students of history must be struck by the ambivalence, irony, or transience of most military victories, however spectacular and 'decisive' they appear at the time. Yet apart from the enduring appeal of volumes devoted to 'decisive battles' and 'decisive wars' (discussed further in Chapter 3), comparatively few historians have focused on the issues of victory and defeat in war. The present study consequently seeks to open up an interesting and significant topic for further research and analysis.

In classical warfare, battles seldom lasted for longer than a single day and were frequently 'decisive' in the sense that one side was defeated on the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.