How do you know when you’re winning?

In football it’s pretty easy: score more than the other guy. Even if you have more total yardage, more first downs, more aesthetically pleasing uniforms and plays, you still lose if you don’t have more points than the other team.
The timing is pretty straightforward in football also. You have to have the most points at the end of the game to win. Outscoring your opponent in the first half won’t do you any good if he out scores you by enough in the second. Time can be your friend – if you score enough points so there’s not enough time for your opponent to come back.

Baseball is a little different. Sure you win by scoring more than the other guy, but time is irrelevant. You can be leading by 20 runs – a seemingly insurmountable margin – going into the ninth. But with no time limit your opponent is allowed to play all night – to score as many as he can. You have to actually put him out.

In both football and baseball the winner is (under normal circumstances) always clear. You don’t leave the field wondering, “Did we win?” There are other options:

  • “We would have won if those guys hadn’t cheated.”
  • “While the scoreboard says we lost, we won a moral victory.”
  • “We worked hard and had fun, so I’d say we won.”

Each of these options seeks to redefine winning in a way outside the normal rules of the sport. Within the rules, you know when you win, you know when you lose. You can look at a loss as a victory, but it’s still a loss.

What about in war?

We’re stuck in a war in Iraq now. Some folks say we’ve won the war. We deposed Saddam Hussein, we’ve installed a democratic government. Sure, there are still difficulties to be worked out, but let’s let the Iraqis handle that. Since we’ve won we can bring our folks home. I’ve heard the response to this second argument that if we withdraw now, even if we call it a victory, our enemies will see it as our defeat. We need, by all means possible, to keep our enemies from seeing us as losers and themselves as winners.

I understand the notion at work here. If you have a ruthless enemy who is totally committed and fearless, the slightest sign of weakness will embolden him to finish you off. Withdrawing from Iraq at this stage would strengthen the radical Islamist conviction that America is a wimpy nation, afraid of a fight, leading them to multiply the kind of attack they did 9/11. After all, the consequences are only temporary.

I understand this notion, but I don’t think it can rule our actions. If we cannot count ourselves as winning until we have won not only by our own standards but by our enemies, we will find ourselves in a difficult, if not impossible place. Some of those who have declared themselves the enemy of America think that winning is defined by utterly subjecting your enemy: Killing all who actively oppose you, humiliating and subjugating all the rest. So we won’t win, by their standards until we kill every last armed opponent who stands against us, until we’ve completely imposed the American way of life on them, until we’ve forced them all to convert to Christianity.

If that’s what it takes to win in the eyes of the enemy, it’ll never happen. Not just because we can’t do it, but because we don’t want to do it. Americans – whether Democrats or Republicans –  like to think of themselves as performing their foreign service, whether it be fighting in wars, doing relief work, or sending foreign aide, as a blessing to other countries and their peoples. We see ourselves as good guys. Fortunately we’re not at the place where what counts as victory in the eyes of radical Islamists is even palatable to us. If we descended to that level, we have own by their account, but we will have lost by our own account.

At least I hope so.

I can think of one thing that would help us win by our own standards with the possibility of at least “not losing” by our enemies’ standards. But I’m not sure we can do it. What I have in mind is becoming inscrutable. To be inscrutable we would have to:

  • Act like we won.
  • Talk like we won.
  • Show no doubts about our winning.
  • Show magnanimity to those we’ve defeated.
  • Don’t give a clue what we’ll be up to next.

But, as I said, I don’t think we can do this. I don’t think any democracy can be inscrutable. Not only do we talk too much (You can’t talk too much and maintain any air of mystery), but we also lack the social, cultural and political unity to produce or maintain the united front necessary for inscrutability.

Maybe someone else has an idea that will work – that will be “beneficial for all concerned.”

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