Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

What does it mean to win a war?

  • The popular ideas of victory and defeat now being promoted by some Western pundits and politicians will end up dragging out the war in Ukraine and causing more suffering
  • Past philosophers of war may offer better and more humane guidance

Perhaps as a former colonial subject in Hong Kong, I used to read a lot of British writers such as the military historian Liddell Hart. One of Hart’s pet peeves was Clausewitz. Subsequent wider reading makes me question his critical, almost angry judgments. Now, I think the Prussian general might have been more on the mark than the British captain.

Maybe if I had been a German colonial subject, I might have started with Clausewitz and ended with Hart. How Western imperialism messed with the minds of its subjects, long after its end! It did give some of us, sometimes, a decent education. In my reading experience, the French were clearly superior interpreters of German thought; just consider Raymond Aron’s magnum opus Penser la guerre, Clausewitz.

Some philosophers of war

If Hart, Aron and Clausewitz were alive today, what might they think about the war in Ukraine and the meaning of victory – and whether or not that should even be the aim? The problem is that most people’s image of a military victory is that over a prostrated enemy or an annihilated one, like those photos of destroyed Berlin, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, or the formal surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri. Such victories are undeniable physical facts. Hart, more than any other influential military writer of the last century, attributes that kind of (image of) victory – the end result of total war and universal destruction – to Clausewitz.

But often, throughout military history, claims of victory were controversial or open to interpretation. However the war in Ukraine turns out, it will likely be inconclusive and open to disputes, with all sides claiming some kind of “victory” or at least fulfilment of war aims. When the guns fell silent, Clausewitz once wrote, contesting political claims began.

This is perhaps the real difference between Hart’s Clausewitz and Aron’s Clausewitz, or war as war and war as politics. For Clausewitz himself, war is, of course, both war AND politics, a dialectical whole. He was, like many educated Germans of his time, influenced by Hegel and thought dialectically, in terms of opposites and their reconciliation – defence and offence, ends and means, tactics and strategy. But Hart was a military man while Aron was a political philosopher (and a sociologist), who spent most of World War II editing a Free France newspaper in London. That might account for their contrasting interpretations.

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Aron once described Alexis de Tocqueville as an aristocrat who learned to accept the inevitability of the coming democratic age. He might have said that Clausewitz – who preferred the more restrained “cabinet warfare”, or wars between princes, of the 17th and 18th centuries – came to terms with the inevitability – but not the desirability – of Napoleonic total war and partisan warfare, and their full destructiveness that came to define modernity. To visualise the destructiveness of partisan warfare, or what Clausewitz and Mao Zedong called “arming the people”, just think of Iraq and Syria. Some pundits in the West think the Ukrainians should wage a partisan war against the Russians; well, not if you want their country completely levelled.


In The Ghost of Napoleon and elsewhere, Hart thinks Clausewitz fetishised “total war”, whose industrialised mass slaughter was realised in World War I. However, if John Mearsheimer was right, Hart’s deliberate misinterpretation of Clausewitz would have been an exercise in “careerism”. A well-known American international relations scholar, Mearsheimer has, nowadays, influenced many people on the view that there was some basis to Vladimir Putin’s claim that the threat of Nato’s eastward expansion forced his hand on Ukraine. His 2015 lecture, “Why is Ukraine the West’s fault?”, has notched up more than 23 million views. His 1988 book, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, was a complete hatchet job on the Brit’s reputation.

Mearsheimer had little to say about Clausewitz, but if he was at least partly right about Hart, one could draw a direct connection between Hart’s critique of Clausewitz whom Hart blamed for the WWI mass slaughter with its wars of attrition; and Hart’s self-promotion of being a prophet of mechanised warfare.

To avoid a repeat of the concentrated frontal assault of “mass on mass”, as in the Western Front, Hart theorised the “indirect approach”, based on mechanisation with tanks that could launch massive armoured attacks and tactical air support, with the aim not of physically destroying the enemy but of paralysing its command and communication structure.

That was the myth that Hart supposedly created for himself: his ideas were ignored during the interwar years by the British army staff only to be realised by the Germans with the blitzkrieg in 1939. Some historians have concluded that so far as the British military was concerned, Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, whose reputation as a military historian and theorist rivalled and even exceeded Hart’s, was the first to propose a precursor of the blitzkrieg with his unrealised “Plan 1919” that was developed in May 1918. Fuller was a fascinatingly brilliant eccentric, who was also a spiritualist, a borderline fascist and an unorthodox interpreter of Clausewitz.

What might the war philosophers say about Ukraine?

Many Western military experts had thought the Russians would have launched in Ukraine some kind of blitzkrieg, which required superior communication and coordination. Instead, they have proved to be inept and now seem bogged down in a war of attrition, their military reputation tarnished.


If so, how might the war in Ukraine end or come to be defined? It looks increasingly unlikely that one side will prevail over the other in any indisputable or unequivocal way. In this light, Ukraine may claim victory by preserving its independence and nationhood. However, it might not even have been Putin’s intention to take over the country; at most it was to stage a regime change in Kyiv, which now seems unlikely. The West will claim a moral victory for freedom and democracy – against tyrants and autocrats everywhere, not just the one in Moscow.

Russia, however, may also claim victory if it can secure control over the eastern Donbas region, with its two breakaway “republics”, along with the earlier-conquered Crimea. It’s not an accident that Ukraine and Russia are throwing their best and most experienced troops against each other on the eastern front; the other theatres of operations are now sideshows.

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“Our forces will focus on the main thing – the complete liberation of Donbas,” said Sergei Rudskoi, first deputy chief of the general staff, on Friday.


Of course, even that outcome would still be at too high a price for Putin, who could have won all that without a full-scale invasion of the country, which spread his troops thin, resulted in unreasonably high casualties and shattered their image as invincible.

Meanwhile, some kind of security guarantee would be negotiated, with both sides claiming it was what they had wanted all along. Ukraine would not seek to join Nato after all, for Putin’s face-saving; yet Nato would likely extend protection to covering Ukraine, which would amount to a de facto membership.

Would such outcomes have been acceptable to Clausewitz and his idea of victory? On Hart’s interpretation, it would not. For Aron, it is only to be expected and anticipated.