Victory: the Triumph and Tragedy of Just War

Cian O’Driscoll joined Politics at Glasgow in 2007. Prior to this, Cian completed his PhD in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth. Cian’s principal area of research is the intersection between normative IR Theory and the history of political thought, with a particular focus on the ethics of war. His published work examines the development of the just war tradition over time and the role it plays in circumscribing contemporary debates about the rights and wrongs of warfare. Cian’s work has been published in leading journals in the field, including International Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Global Security StudiesReview of International Studies, and Ethics & International Affairs. His first monograph, The Renegotiation of the Just War Tradition (Palgrave), was published in 2008. His ISRF fellowship will be devoted to work on his second monograph, which will be entitled Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War (forthcoming: Oxford University Press). Cian was the Principal Investigator on the ESRC research project, Moral Victories: Ethics, Exit Strategies, and the Ending of Wars. Cian has also co-edited several volumes, including Moral Victories: The Ethics of Winning Wars (Oxford University Press, 2017), Just War Thinkers (London: 2017), and Just War: Authority, Tradition, Practice (Georgetown University Press: 2013). Cian is the Chair of International Ethics section of the International Studies Association. Prior to this, he was a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the co-convenor of the Glasgow Global Security Network. He is currently the Politics Impact Champion.


When, if ever, is a political community justified in going to war?  Is there such a thing as a just war?  If there is, how should it be waged?  Does anything go, or must communities respect strict limitations when conducting hostilities?  These are hard questions to answer.  The principal conceptual framework for addressing them is the just war tradition.  While its key tenets-e.g., the principles of ‘just cause’, ‘last resort’, and ‘discrimination’-are frequently invoked by today’s political and military leaders, the just war tradition boasts a long and venerable history, encompassing contributions from classical political thought, early Christian political theology, medieval chivalric thinking, early modern jurisprudence, and contemporary political philosophy.  Thus defined, the tradition comprises an evolving body of thought that aims to distil the wisdom of the ages into a useful guide for thinking through the ethical questions war raises.  This project makes a novel contribution to this tradition by focusing upon the concept of victory, and asking what it means in relation to the idea of just war.  Although the idiom of ‘winning’ is central to how war is framed, just war scholars have been reticent to engage it.  Why is this, and is it a mistake?  Is victory a helpful concept for thinking through the ethical issues that war raises, or have just war scholars been wise to excise it from their discourse?  Straddling International Political Theory, War Studies, and the History of Political Thought, this project thereby presents a new approach to the old and overlooked, yet also urgent, question of what victory means in relation to just war.  In so doing, it employs the just war tradition to shed new light on what victory might mean, while using victory as a prism through which to develop a critical ‘historical ontology’ of just war.

The Research Idea

Ever since Aristotle defined victory as the telos of military science, the idea that war is all about winning has been deeply lodged in popular consciousness.   General Douglas Macarthur captured this when he proclaimed victory the ‘very object’ of war.  There are, however, reasons to query the applicability of the concept of victory to modern warfare.  Even if contemporary wars can be brought to a decisive conclusion, which many commentators doubt, they are usually sufficiently destructive to ensure that the mere idea of either side ‘winning’ has an ironic ring.  Victory thus appears integral to how we think about war, but also noticeably at odds with its present realities.  Stepping into this breach, this project, which is directed toward the production of a research monograph, will break new ground by examining how the concept of victory relates to current ethical thinking about war.  As such, it investigates whether and to what degree the notion of victory comports with the idea of just war, the predominant frame in the western world for addressing the ethical questions war raises.  Building on an analysis of how the notion of victory has been treated in the just war tradition from antiquity to today, it asks how the relation between victory and just war should be understood today.  It concludes not only that current ways of thinking about victory are problematic in their own right, but also that, more fundamentally, they reveal the tragic contradiction at the heart of the very idea of just war.


The just war tradition is a body of thought that addresses the rights and wrongs of warfare.  Boasts a venerable history that dates to antiquity, it has coalesced around three thematic concerns: the jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and jus post bellum. The jus ad bellum pertains to the recourse to war: In what circumstances might communities be justified in resorting to war?  The jus in bello bears on the conduct of war: How can a war be waged justly?  The jus post bellum treats the termination of war: What responsibilities do belligerents acquire in the aftermath of war?  The mainstream literature cashes these concerns out via a set of interlinked principles, notably ‘just cause’, ‘proper authority’, ‘discrimination’, and ‘proportionality’.  It would, however, be wrong to dismiss the just war tradition as an esoteric academic indulgence, removed from the rough and tumble of the real world.  In actuality, the tradition is at the beating heart of international relations: it informs military strategy, underpins international law, permeates the statements of political leaders, and frames public discourse on war and peace.  As the literature on just war has grown in recent years, so too has the range of topics it covers: scholars have extended its framework to tackle, for instance, drone warfare, espionage, and economic sanctions.  One topic that is conspicuous by its absence is, however, victory.  This project both problematizes this important oversight and uses it as a basis for a timely critical re-evaluation of the notion of just war.

The Focus

As noted above, the just war tradition is a major factor in contemporary international relations, priming how matters of war and peace are framed by political and military leaders and the general public.  How is victory posited within this discourse?  This is not a purely theoretical question.  How we answer it-i.e., how we understand winning in the context of a just war-will inform how we think about (and indeed approach) the termination of violent conflicts, such as those currently taking place in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  In each of these cases, the international community is confronted with the challenge not only of attempting to bring a bloody and protracted war to a satisfactory conclusion, but of figuring out what such a conclusion might look like in the first place.  Little progress has so far been made on either front.  As one prominent commentator on military matters, Andrew Bacevich, has observed, while western leaders are convinced that these are wars that somehow need to be won, and continue to commit themselves to this goal, they still ‘do not have the foggiest notion of what victory would look like.’   Looking beyond the specifics of these cases, this project aims to develop a fresh approach to the underlying problem of victory in contemporary warfare.  It will do so, not by treating victory as a narrowly strategic concept, but by exploring its (otherwise overlooked) ethical dimensions, and, in particular, problematizing its relation to the idea of just war.

Theoretical Novelty

Addressing the concept of victory in relation to just war is not simply a case of extending the just war framework to treat an issue that has hitherto been overlooked; it involves challenging a taboo.  This means developing an ‘historical ontology’ that uncovers the hidden history of victory in just war thinking.  Substantively, this will entail examining seven tensions that one encounters when considering victory in light of the evolution of just war thinking.  (1) The concept of victory precipitates a form of triumphalism that clashes with the just war ethos.  (2) Since its formative expression in early Christian thought, the idea of just war has historically been pitched in opposition to the discourse of victory. (3) Victory is a strategic concept, not a normative one.  (4) Just war is properly understood not as a form of war, but as a practice of law enforcement; victory is therefore extraneous to it.  (5) Victory is historically associated with the problematic practice of conquest.  (6) Viewed as an imperative, victory generates an escalatory logic that undermines the emphasis just war scholars place on moderation.  (7) Victory is an obsolete concept that does not apply to modern war.  By critically interrogating each of these tensions, this project will illuminate the vexed relation between victory and just war.  Specifically, it will demonstrate, on the one hand, that victory cannot be understood apart from the idea of just war, and, on the other, that it is also simultaneously both integral and antithetical to it.


The aim of this project is to examine the role that victory can, does, and should play in just war thinking, and, on the back of this, to offer a critical re-evaluation of the just war tradition today.  This is an interdisciplinary task that will require engagement with literature from International Relations, Political Theory, Theology, Military History, War Studies, and Moral Philosophy.  I propose to pursue it as an historian of political thought would, that is, by considering both how different understandings of the relation between victory and just war have developed over time and how they circumscribe contemporary discourse.  This will entail elucidating and critically examining each of the seven tensions listed above by reference, first, to their manifestation in contemporary just war discourse, and, second, to their formation in the deeper history of the tradition.  Two examples will illuminate this.  The first tension, pertaining to triumphalism, will be explored by setting 20th century debates about ‘total victory’ alongside a discussion of the role of trophies in classical Greek and Roman warfare.  Likewise, the second tension, that the just war tradition is historically hostile to the idea of victory, will be treated via an examination of both Saint Augustine’s rejection of victory and the reception of his views in later just war thinking.  Subsequent tensions will be handled similarly, with each one elucidated via a discussion of a contemporary issue and related in a sequential manner to a different formative moment in the development of the just war tradition.

Work Plan

This project has a clear work plan.  It is directed toward the production of a research monograph.  The monograph, which is entitled Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War, and already under contract with Oxford University Press, will comprise seven substantive chapters (modelled on the list supplied above), plus introduction and conclusion.  Drafts of the first four chapters (1-4) and introduction have already been produced, but require revision.  The remaining chapters (5-7) and conclusion still have to be written.  Receipt of this fellowship would grant me the time away from teaching (and related tasks) that I need to complete this programme of work in a timely manner.  If I am fortunate and my application is successful, I will seek relief from teaching for the full academic year 2018-19, and would pursue the following deliverables:

May 2018: Complete first draft of Chapter 5

September 2018: Complete first draft of Chapter 6

February 2019: Complete first draft of Chapter 7

March 2019: Complete revised final draft of Chapter 1

April 2019: Complete revised final draft of Chapter 2

May 2019: Complete revised final draft of Chapter 3

June 2019: Complete revised final draft of Chapter 4

July 2019: Complete revised final draft of Chapter 5-7

August 2019: Complete final draft of Intro & Conclusion

September 2019: Submit complete manuscript to press

I also plan on presenting draft chapters at various conferences, including the conventions of the International Studies Association (ISA) and the International Society for Military Ethics (ISME), during 2018-19.


This project builds on my career-long engagement with the ethics of war, and in particular upon my interest in the historiographical and political contestation of the idea of just war.  When published, the monograph associated with this project will be my second in the field, and it will sit alongside the three volumes I have co-edited.  At that point, I plan to (a) carry out a range of dissemination activities to ensure that the monograph receives the widest possible readership; and (b) use it as a platform to develop a larger project with colleagues at Glasgow.  Beginning with (a), as soon as the monograph has been submitted to the publishing house, I plan to condense its main argument into an essay-length paper, which I will submit by December 2019 to International Theory, a leading International Relations journal.  I will supplement this by developing a shorter piece aimed at a wider general public audience, to be published in a periodical such as The Conversation and by presenting chapters derived from the monograph at academic conferences.  Turning to (b), my work on victory and its role in just war thinking will serve as a bridge to the project I am currently developing with Dr Naomi Head and Dr Ty Solomon on how, on an experiential level, soldiers negotiate the tensions that arise between the moral and strategic dimensions of warfare.  We aim to direct this project toward, among other things, the production of a co-authored monograph and a publicly accessible podcast series.