What is a Defeat?

[June 5, 2021]  The Ancient Chinese General and philosopher Sun Tzu once wrote, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”  He was referring to the fact that no matter what happens on the battlefield to military forces, there is always a way to hold off defeat to the nation-state.

War is not always won on the battlefield.  Any conflict between nations has historically involved diplomacy, intelligence, economics, as well as military forces.  In the U.S. military’s war colleges, they use the DIME acronym to remind us of these factors as they affect the outcome of war.

Witness the many Middle East wars.

“Never has [an Arab] political regime entered into a war with Israel or the United States and lost politically.” – Iraq Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, January 9, 1991

Daniel Pipes’ article in the Middle East Quarterly title Give War a Chance: Arab Leaders Finesse Military Defeat suggests that a defeat on the battlefield with an opposing army does not mean defeat in a traditionally understood way.  One would think this kind of logic contrary to everything we learned by studying history and following the pattern of wars today.

In his article, Pipes uses several major Middle East Wars to make his point.  Here is a sampling:

The Six-Day War, June 1967. One of the most significant military defeats in human history prompted Egypt’s Nasser to apologize to his constituents and offer them his resignation. Still, they responded by massively pouring onto the streets and calling on their ra’is (president) to stay in power, which he did, more powerful than ever, until his death by natural causes in 1970.

The Yom Kippur War, 1973. The Israelis stumbled at first but recovered to score a brilliant military success against the combined Syrian and Egyptian armies. Nonetheless, Anwar Sadat of Egypt portrayed the war as an Egyptian triumph, one still celebrated to this day and used this purported success to legitimate subsequent diplomacy with Israel.

The Kuwait War, 1991.  The Iraq invasion of Kuwait led to the formation of a U.S.-led coalition.  After a shocking military defeat on the battlefield where Iraqi forces were routed (the “turkey shoot”) and the near-apocalyptic damage to civilian infrastructure, Saddam Hussein insisted that his country had won a legendary victory and trampled America’s prestige into the mud.

Pipes explains this odd phenomenon of claiming victory when one’s military forces are defeated.  He believes six factors account for it: honor, fatalism, conspiracism, bombast, publicity, and confusion.

Losing wars typically have profound implications.  But, according to Pipes, there are times when “Money for arms is abundant, the population’s suffering is irrelevant, the economic losses of little import and the ruler can expect to survive unscathed.”

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

13 thoughts on “What is a Defeat?

  1. Guns are Us

    How very interesting, Gen. Satterfield. Like many who have commented before, I would never have thought this the case. It shows my western bias about war.

    Reply
  2. Frank Graham

    You sure got a new perspective on a “defeat.” It should be that there are always serious consequences for losing. From the simple to the big and complex. Losing should make us reevaluate our stratagies and tactics.

    Reply
    1. Roger Yellowmule

      You got that right, Frank. And, another article that makes me think.

      Reply
  3. Yusaf from Texas

    Excellent article … agree with Chuck and others. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for an articulate summary of Pipes article. I also found it very convincing but I do think war is far more complex than what he intimates here.

    Reply
  4. Chuck USA

    Another spot-on article from the desk of Gen. Satterfield. Thanks for bringing up this idea and I appreciate Daniel Pipes in his analysis of Middle East wars. No wonder so many of their wars are attrition based. Citizens of tyrants don’t matter one whit.

    Reply
  5. Max Foster

    Wow, I never gave this much thought but now that I went and read the full article by Pipes (he writes a lot of good articles, BTW), it is amazing that any country or nation-state would not pay a heavy price for a military defeat. China is another example, not mentioned. But China has a huge excess population and could afford to lose several million citizens without any impact at all. Maybe they are also encouraged to start a war.

    Reply
    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      Normally, I would have said that is a nutty idea but I can see Pipes point and that of Gen. Satterfield that there are times when defeat in war doesn’t mean defeat in the traditional way those of us in the West interpret it. Put on your thinking cap here. That’s what I always tell my students.

      Reply
      1. Greg Heyman

        Ha Ha, great comments in this forum. Now, what else will China do?

        Reply
      2. Rev. Michael Cain

        Steady now! Let’s not be too quick to put ideas into the minds of China’s leaders. They already don’t give a sh** about their people. A few deaths would be good for them, esp. the elderly. But the elderly don’t fight wars, young people do and they need young people to pay for their elderly population.

        Reply
        1. JT Patterson

          Good point Rev Cain. Maybe this logic can’t be taken that far.

          Reply
  6. Randy Goodman

    Really great way to look at why the Middle East is always embroiled in wars …. no matter the outcome, their tyrannical government gains from it.

    Reply
    1. Billy Kenningston

      Can you imagine that no matter the outcome of a war, the people support their ruler even more. I don’t get it.

      Reply

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