Posted on 19 March 2021 in symposia

ISRF Symposium: Victory – The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War

In February 2021, former ISRF Fellow Cian O’Driscoll discussed his book Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War with Faye Donnelly and Neil Renic.


ISRF Academic Editor

Can wars ever be won? Is there such a thing as a just war?

An online ISRF event in February 2021 brought former ISRF Fellow Cian O’Driscoll together with Dr Faye Donnelly (University of St Andrews) and Dr Neil Renic (University of Hamburg) to discuss Dr O’Driscoll’s important new book, Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War.

This edited symposium draws together the contributions of all three speakers, as an aide-mémoire for those present at the event and a resource for those unable to join us. A video recording of the event is available here.

CIAN O’DRISCOLL: Getting started, let me say a few words about where the book came from. If I had to trace it to one initial impulse, I would say that it came from my unease at the idea of being—or at least being seen to be—a ‘just war theorist.’ There’s only a fine line between writing about the just war tradition and championing it. And this made me—and still makes me, in fact—quite uncomfortable. The situation would arise frequently that whenever I was invited to speak at an academic conference or a seminar series, I would think I was speaking about the just war tradition and offering a set of critical thoughts about it, only to find that, when it came to the Q&A, I would end up defending the just war tradition, and would be seen as somehow as its defender or champion. And this, as I said, made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

That feeling of unease has probably only grown in the last couple of years, especially as I’ve since had the opportunity to deliver some teaching in military academies and the like, where the people who you’re speaking to about who they may or may not kill are people who will actually be on the ‘pointy’ end of things. I would say that the discomfort that this engendered is built into the fabric of this book, and this book is an attempt to work it out.

This discomfort was first made manifest by some holiday reading, about 10 years ago, when I first read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I loved the book. And like a lot of people, I found myself stuck on the question of whether George was right to kill Lenny. On the one hand, I could see that George’s act of killing was a self-giving act of love, tragic but true. George did not wish to kill Lenny but he felt obliged to in order to preserve some kind of base level of justice, and the way he undertook the grisly task was designed to minimize the pain that Lenny would feel, to keep it within bounds, and it was carried out with remorse, with regret, with an attempt to contain rather than spread or escalate violence. Viewed in this light, then, George’s killing of Lenny perfectly encapsulates the logic of the Augustinian just war.

On the other hand, I couldn’t but see how base, how pointless, how miserable it was. George killing Lenny didn’t make the world a better, happier, or more peaceful place. It merely perpetuated the cycle of wretched violence that diminishes everyone. Everyone is unhappy at the end of the book, Lenny is dead and George is broken. After sitting with this for a little while, I decided that George’s killing of Lenny could be both of these things. And perhaps more to the point, that when it comes to how we think about political violence, the idea of just war might be a part of the solution; but it’s definitely also a part of the problem.

So the book we’re talking about today is an attempt to probe that ‘doubleness’ and to push down and thereby figure out the discomfort we might feel when thinking about ideas of justice in relation to war. As I mention in the Preface to the book, the idea for it first came to me in St. Andrews. Tony Lang and the late Nick Rengger had invited me to a workshop in their department on Larry May’s excellent book (which was still forthcoming at the time) on jus post bellum, that is, justice after war. The book’s title was After War Ends, and it engages questions of how we think about justice in relation to the ‘termination phase’ or the ending of war.[1] Musing on the notion of the ending of a war, and how we define it, which seemed to be tripping all of us in the room up, I suggested that instead of talking about ‘endings’ or ‘terminations’ or ‘conclusions,’ we just plug in the terms that we use to think about war anyway, namely ‘victory’ and ‘defeat,’ and start from there.

I’m pretty sure that this was a daft suggestion. But I think was also an interesting one. Not interesting because of what it suggested, or how I meant it. But interesting on account of the reaction it prompted around the room. Everyone was in agreement: it was a boneheadedly stupid proposal. Idiotic. Everyone took their turn to shoot it down. What shocked me about this was not that people thought it was a bad idea—I was aware of that myself. Rather, what shocked me was that they were unanimous on this. Having been in enough academic seminars to recognize that if you ask two academics a question, you’ll get three points of view, I was very surprised to see a group agree so wholeheartedly and emphatically on something. Mindful of that, I thought that there must be something going on there and that it would be interesting to look into it.

That’s where the book starts. It asks why just war theorists have a problem with victory. Why are they so opposed to talking in this term? What is it about the concept of victory, in other words, that they are so allergic to, so disturbed by? I won’t summarize the book here. Rather, I’ll skip straight through to the argument or to the answer I provide to this question. The answer I arrive at is that thinking about just war in light of victory reveals the harsh truth that, to quote Ken Booth, “just war is just war,” by which I mean just war is nothing special, it’s merely just another form of political violence, just as brutish as any other kind of war.[2] But where some just war theorists see the fact that victory reveals this aspect of just war as a reason for avoiding the concept of victory, I argue the opposite, that it’s a reason for engaging it, confronting it. By grappling with victory, I conclude, just war theorists will come face to face with the tragic character of war. It will prevent us, I think, from ever forgetting that just war is not exclusively a solution to the ills of the world, but a symptom of them. This should not, however, be taken as a case for quietism or for throwing the idea of just war out the window, for giving up on it. The source of its limitations is, I suggest, also the very same reason why we need it.

FAYE DONNELLY: I want to begin by really congratulating Cian on the book. This is one of the best academic books I’ve ever read, period. If you can just take that as my main message, that’s it. From page 1 to page 151, Cian presents a powerful case for why we need to pay attention to victory in just war theory, but also beyond. For me, a major strength of the book is that Cian doesn’t shy away from really difficult questions. Instead, he openly acknowledges and engages with some of the toughest criticisms that might actually be leveled against him as he makes this argument. I find that really refreshing. As he just mentioned in his comments, his continued conversation with Ken Booth and the claim that ‘just war is just a war’ was very reflective, but also added a critical edge to the conversation for me. I also loved how clearly Cian’s own narrative voice and insights guide the entire text. Commanding this level of authority as an author takes a lot of skill, but also a lot of talent. More than that, it requires you to have complete understanding of an issue.

I’d like to use the rest of my time to try to spark some conversation by asking four main questions. So first, the book applies the idea of ‘thinking with history,’ which is introduced on page 14. And in the main text, there are several fascinating accounts of victory, parades, rituals, trophies, and so on. So, I wanted to raise a question around how this theme of thinking history weaves all the chapters together. And more than that, how does this book then deal with questions of memory and commemoration, including in everyday spaces, like the school curriculum, or even museum exhibitions?

My second question relates to the way that Cian analyzes peace and war simultaneously. In doing so, he really encourages us to think very seriously about striking the right balance between peace and war and to acknowledge that these are often conflicting and don’t overlap in neat ways. Yet for just war theories and theorists I wonder if this challenge might be particularly difficult. On the one hand, this is an eternal “circle that cannot be easily squared”, as Cian notes. On the other hand, just war theory has different ways of conceptualising these ends, and the conflicts between them. For the sake of argument, it tends to separate them into different moments, talking about justice before, during and after war. What I’m wondering is Cian’s book pushes at but also transcends these somewhat reified boundaries around jus ad bellum, jus in bello, just post bellum, and jus ex bello.

Third, as I read the book, I couldn’t shake the idea of contestation––in part because it’s discussed in various ways throughout. Particularly, I wanted to hear a little bit more about who actually has the power to contest victory. And if claiming victory is a powerful speech act, or even a de-securitizing move, then which audiences must accept such a claim? And what happens when claims to victory are contested in ways that cannot be resolved by Just War Theory, or even by international war crime tribunals? So contestation of victory might be a little bit bigger than maybe it’s given credit for in the text, or at least the way I read the text.

Here is my final question. I felt like your argument actually has a lot to offer other debates taking place beyond just war theory. I was wondering what would happen if we take your insights about victory into different fields that revolve around war? How could it be applied to the idea of cyber war, which you mention in chapter 5, or drone warfare, which is hinted at in chapter 6? And then some of my favorite work at the minute is taking place in critical military studies, which looks at the sensory aspects of war. So how would your argument fit into that debate? When I read your third chapter, which is called ‘The Smell of Napalm in the Morning,’ I was made to think of Kevin McSorley’s work, where he’s actually talking about the smell of warfare. How might that have changed your discussion? Likewise, although you use a lot of historical examples, could your argument also be relevant to more contemporary events? So how does the discussion of police brutality that you talked about in chapter 4 be made to speak to current events like the Black Lives Matter movement, or events in Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, just to name a few examples?

NEIL RENIC: Thanks so much for having me. I’m genuinely honored to be able to speak about Cian’s new book Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War. To put it far too briefly, I love this book. Firstly, and I think close to most importantly, it was an enjoyable read—it was interesting, engaging, and accessible. I love it when you can actually hear the distinct voice of the author in the book you’re reading. And this was certainly that.

In terms of content, I won’t add too much to what Faye’s already said. But I will note that the book touched upon and helped clarify many of the issues I’m currently grappling with in my own work on technology, specifically the role of techno-optimism in our understanding and practice of war. When working on these issues, I’m often struck by just how unmoored so much of this techno-optimism actually is from a serious consideration of ends. Take armed drones, for example. We have this zombie myth, most recently revivified by the Azerbaijan and Armenian conflict, of drones as the ultimate game changer, technological silver bullets that enable those in power to secure clean, comprehensive, and final victory. When I read these accounts, particularly the more breathless versions, I’m reminded again of how necessary it is to actually follow Cian’s advice, and interrogate what victory actually means and should actually mean in the context of war. Too often victory is this vague and hollow thing, synonymous with success, but empty of virtually everything else.

Without a richer understanding of history, it’s very hard to answer a lot of necessary questions, including, what are we willing to do or sacrifice in order to secure it? And just as importantly, what aren’t we willing to do? What aren’t we willing to sacrifice? And the reason for this incuriosity can be guessed. To properly consider victory in just war, as Cian does, is to quickly realize how high the price of it really is, at least the type of victory the morally serious should want—too high a price, for many. So the alternative too often is to simply jettison such difficult thinking, to reimagine victory in simple, technologically achievable terms: the tabulation of enemy dead, or some other crude metric. And Cian’s book really helped me make sense of all of this, and I’m very grateful for it.

In the spirit of brevity, I’m going to restrict myself to one more comment and a single question regarding Cian’s understanding of tragedy and its relationship with just war. Cian, you suggest, correctly in my opinion, that the reluctance of contemporary just war theorists to properly engage the concept of victory derives—at least partly—from an unwillingness to recognize the tragic dimensions of just war. First of all, I agree. Victory is a fraught concept, particularly when pursued by those committed to just cause and conduct in war. And tragedy or a tragic recognition clarifies this fact. Tragedy reiterates the salience of the moral dilemma, challenges that defy easy diagnosis and resolution. It reminds us that the relationship between justice and suffering is an uneasy one and that virtuous intention unmoored from prudence can actually be more destructive than outright malice. And above all, it cautions us to tread lightly, for the world, in general but on the battlefield specifically, is more complex and untamable than we know.

These are all critically important lessons for me, particularly in the context of war. And your book illuminates each of them terrifically. So congratulations, genuinely well done. But I do think some mild caution is needed. As you write, the language of ‘just’ is seductive. But so too, I would argue, is the language of ‘tragedy.’ It’s likely true, as you write, that while war might be employed for a higher purpose, it can never transcend its own base nature. However, I think this lesson can be over-internalized to a degree that induces a fatalistic paralysis, a resignation that all wars, no matter our noble intent, or the noble intent of their architects, inevitably lead to unacceptably ruinous ends.

I think two problems can come from this marination in tragedy. It can firstly distract us from the fact that for all the horrors of war, it may at times be the only tool we have available to avert something worse. The tragedy of war may be worth enduring and inflicting, for example, if it alleviates the crime of genocide, or protects states worth protecting in self-defense.

But secondly, and I think just as importantly, an over-emphasis on just war-as-tragedy can blunt rather than enhance our moral sensibilities. Take, for example, the Western air war against ISIS in 2014, a conflict that produced an incredibly high level of collateral civilian death. Now, it is possible to frame this as the tragic consequence of war’s inability to transcend its own base nature. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the most useful lens. The collateral damage in that conflict was not tragically high. It was foreseeably and avoidably high—perhaps criminally high. I think we sometimes focus on tragedy in war to a degree that obscures just how much of it can be restrained by changes in policy or shifts in preference, or through deeper reflection on our responsibilities as belligerents. There is, in other words, a risk that the tragic recognition can impede rather than facilitate the kind of moral action we want to see in war.

Now, it’s very important to stress here that I think your actual engagement with tragedy in this book is remarkably nuanced. I don’t think you drown in it or marinate in it. In fact, I think you offer an excellent counterbalance to those who do. But I think the risk is there, nevertheless.

In closing, I’ll ask my question. In practical terms, how does our approach to just war and unjust war change with greater recognition of its tragic dimensions? Does it?

CIAN O’DRISCOLL: Thanks so much. There’s a lot to take in there, as the comments were really rich. So thank you very much, Faye and Neil.

Faye asked about the vignettes in the book and what the rationale or the logic was behind their inclusion. So the form the book took is that after sitting down and being told that victory was a very bad idea, and that just war theorists would never think about it, I decided to investigate the reasons why just war theorists think it’s such a bad idea. And I arrived at seven reasons why just war theorists are so keen to avoid victory. And then I devoted a chapter of the book apiece to each of those reasons. And that’s generally the form the book takes. What I was hoping to do was to pick a different historical vignette and thinker which allowed us to crystallize and show us how that problem manifested itself in the evolution of the just war tradition, and also in the practical material realities that we’re seeking to engage with. And further to that, I made an attempt to select different vignettes and thinkers from different periods, so that when read as a piece, each of these cases can be aggregated to offer a kind of a, shall we say, critical history of the just war tradition from Cicero right up to the present day. That was the thinking behind that use of vignettes. I’m not entirely sure as to whether it succeeded or not, but the best part about it was that the vignettes were a lot of fun to write, and a lot of fun to research.

On the subject of commemoration and memory, I think this is really interesting. I think the concept of victory speaks to our need for finality and conclusiveness, which is as it were a prerequisite for commemoration. And there’s almost this ontological urge or requirement to find finality. So the battles and the contestation over victory is an essential prelude to those kind of ‘culture wars’ about how we commemorate particular wars.

On the subject of how the just war tradition breaks down into these component parts—jus ad bellum, jus in bello, jus ex bello, jus post bellum—and how it cashes out war in this very sequential, linear way, which almost does violence to the interconnectedness of the topic, an interconnectedness which I think the concept of victory helps destabilize. So I couldn’t agree more with your comments here, Faye. My sense is that part of the problem with just war thinking is that these are heuristic devices, they’re analytic categories. But when you use them enough times, they reify into something harder and become mistaken for actual historical or empirical categories. Such that there are several different phases of war: a beginning phase, a contestation phase, a conclusion phase. This is a trick that theory pulls on us. And you see this manifest in the invasion of Iraq, where part of the problem with the war planning was precisely that it was so sequenced.

I’m going to bunch some of your final questions together. You spoke of the contestation of victory and its indeterminacy. I would in the first instance draw people’s attention to forthcoming work by Andy Hom in this general area, but also a very fine book by Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney, in which they talk about how, in international society, victory and defeat get described in modern wars and how those claims are sometimes contested.[3] It’s a very fine book.

More generally, however, and this speaks also to your question about Black Lives Matter and policing, one of the things that you get at when you start talking about war and just war through the lens of victory is just how little the concept of the practice of war actually works anymore. What I mean by this is that warfare, insofar as it supposedly or ostensibly serves a function as a means of dispute resolution, must have some clear way of demarcating who is the winner and who is the loser and when it’s all over. This was the purpose or the rationale behind some of those rituals we discussed, like the Roman triumph or the Greek battlefield trophy: they signaled and confirmed who won, who lost, and when the war was over. The problem today, and this has been a problem for a large part of history, is that war lacks such a mechanism for determining when war concludes. There are no battlefield trophies. There’s no final whistle for warfare today. And that makes the notion of victory even more politically contestable and even more charged. Yet while it gets more and more difficult to define, identify in practice, and determine who won, the term still retains its evocative, emotive content.

Finally, you mentioned some work on by Kevin McSorley on the body, embodiment, and the experience of war. This sounds fascinating and speaks to some other things I’m currently thinking about and working on. The only work on that topic I’ve engaged in any systematic way is a fantastic essay on ‘The Scars of Victory’ by Brent Steele and Luke Campbell.[4] But beyond that, I’m batting for zero there.

Neil, thanks so much for your comments as well. I’m going to come at this in two slightly different ways. First, the reason for going this direction and for highlighting tragedy was that I became interested, for some reason, in Ares and Athena and how they figure in Homeric myth cycles. In these myths, Athena seems like the embodiment of the just war tradition, in the sense that she stands for the possibility that war can be ordered and harnessed so that it serves justice and political order. It can be appropriated by the state for the purposes of ordering civil life. Athena, however is one war god. But there is another war out there of course, and that is Ares. And Ares is a much blunter character, he’s wild, he’s untamable. He’s entirely idiotic. He runs into gates, he always ends up losing, he trips over his own feet. He’s just brutishly violent and he doesn’t care who he’s fighting for or what ends it’s serving so long as he’s fighting.

Viewing today’s approach to war through this lens, one temptation is to ask, well, which of the two is it and who usurped who and do they exist in some kind of dialectical relation? Or does Athena transcend Ares? I think that when you go back to the Greek way of viewing things, they always necessarily existed together alongside one another, each balancing the other. So the impulse towards ordering war must also account for the fact that war is in some residual way fundamentally un-orderable. Ares will always come with Athena. Ares will always beget Athena. You can’t pull them apart. So that’s what I was trying to get at with my insistence on tragedy.

As for what kind of lesson you take from this, the main thing I was hoping to achieve was to remind just war theorists to be reflective about the limits of their perspective and the problematic nature of their perspective. There’s a certain natural seductiveness or pomposity about just war language—and there has to be. If you are seeking to convince people that it’s right and proper to send young men and women to kill and be killed and to kill people and destroy things, you have to have a good reason for doing this, you have to be able to promise that this is going to be worth their while, that the sacrifice will yield benefits that are worth the pain. And the language of justice can sometimes be blown up, as it were, to vindicate or validate that effort, and in such cases it fulfills a psychological need.

It’s easy then, when you play that game, to lose sight of the fact that war usually delivers modest, limited goals. Yes, it can apply a bomb to some of the problems of the world, but it’s not a solution to them. It never resolves issues, it contains them and minimizes them perhaps, or delays or defers them. Or it doesn’t resolve them. My point is that the language of tragedy is a useful reminder there, in that fight.

I’ll conclude now with a brief remark about the IDF strategy of ‘mowing the lawn.’ Instead of referencing something like Woodrow Wilson’s ‘war to end all wars’ or a ‘war to make the world safe for democracy,’ the IDF is very clear with the Israeli population that when they go into Gaza, it is to minimize or contain a problem for a year or two or three. And they are fully aware that they will have to go back in and again and again and again, and that anything that they do in that space is only ever going to be provisional, piecemeal, partial, and wholly dissatisfactory. And I have my problems with that point of view and with that way of talking about war, especially with the dehumanizing character of it—the notion of ‘mowing the lawn’ seems hugely callous and worrying to me. But what I do appreciate about it, in a backward kind of way, is how honest it is about what war can deliver. There is a kind of a sober realism there, which leaves no space for the illusion that just war can deliver milk and honey forever. And I think there’s something in that that we can actually take away.

About the Contributors

Cian O’Driscoll is Associate Professor in International Relations, Australian National University. He is the author of two monographs: Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War (Oxford University Press, 2019) and The Renegotiation of the Just War Tradition (Palgrave, 2008).

Faye Donnelly is a Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of Securitization and the Iraq War: The Rules of Engagement in World Politics (Routledge, 2013).

Neil Renic is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. His latest book is titled Asymmetric Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War, and the Warrior Ethos (Oxford University Press, 2020).


[1] See Larry May, After War Ends: A Philosophical Perspective (Cambridge 2012: Cambridge University Press).

[2] See Ken Booth, ‘Ten Flaws of Just Wars,’ International Journal of Human Rights 4, no. 3–4 (2000): 316–17.

[3] See Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Cambridge, MA 2006: Harvard University Press).

[4] See Luke Campbell & Brent J. Steele, ‘The Scars of Victory: The Implied “Finality” of Success in War,’ in: A.R. Hom, C. O’Driscoll & K. Mills (eds.), Moral Victories: The Ethics of Winning Wars (Oxford 2017: Oxford University Press).