How do you measure progress in war?
January 13, 2008 3:19 PM   Subscribe

What are some objective criteria/metrics by which to measure progress towards success or failure in a war or other extended conflict?

While my question is a general one, it is obviously applicable to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, so if your answers are specific to those two conflicts, then they're welcome. But I'm interested in general answers as well, and also answers that may be specific to other conflicts, either in the past or future. I'm also interested in any objective sources for obtaining the metrics used to judge progress. What I'm NOT looking for are "answers" saying "we're winning/losing and here's why." I would imagine historians and/or students of the military have some sort of answer to these questions.

Also, as a subset question, what objective criteria/metrics are used to determine whether a war or other conflict is ended? For example, was the conflict between France and Germany in World War II over once Germany conquered France and Vichy France was created or did it continue due to resistance by French Nationals? Another example of a potentially tricky situation is whether the conflict between the U.S.A. and Japan during World War II ended once the Japanese government surrendered or whether the conflict continued due to the Japanese holdouts on various Pacific islands who continued to fight despite hearing of the surrender. Or for yet another example, did the War of 1812 end when the treaty was signed or when it was ratified (in-between which a major conflict occurred).

Thanks in advance for any insights.
posted by EatenByAGrue to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What you need to do is to read Clausewitz. What you'll learn from doing so is that there are no general metrics applicable to every case. His key insight was that context was everything.

To evaluate who is "winning", you have to understand the political situations of all those involved in the conflict, what they're trying to accomplish, and the extent to which those goals are mutually exclusive. The political contexts will also tell you what kinds of things each combatant is and is not willing to do, how much they're willing to sacrifice, what kind of dedication they will have to a long struggle, which of their objectives are vital and which are negotiable, the extent to which they're willing to settle for partial victory, and a lot else.

By its nature this kind of analysis cannot be objective, for the ones doing the evaluation are the leaders of the different combatant groups and the general populations thereof -- and their evaluation is subjective. The problem is further complicated by agitprop, since their evaluation is based on their perception of what's happening, not by what is actually happening.

Determining whether a war has ended can also be difficult. Some wars have definite ends: the Punic wars ended when the Romans killed all the Carthaginians and sacked Carthage. But many wars don't have clear ends. That's particularly the case for some kinds of insurgencies. If the insurgencies lose, often their activities just kind of trickle off rather than having any kind of abrupt and easily recognizable finish. (Often they gradually convert into bandits or criminal organizations.)

There's also the problem of de facto end versus de jure end. Technically speaking, the Korean war never ended. There was a cease fire, but there was never a peace treaty or any kind of formal end to the war.

And "cease fire" in that case doesn't mean all the weapons firing ceased. It doesn't get covered in the news, but for the last fifty years there have been occasional exchanges of fire across the DMZ, rarely becoming very fierce and almost never resulting in any casualties.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: a war is "won" if the people of one side think they won it. A war is "over" when the combatants on one side give up -- or are all dead. Death is objective, but "we won" and "we give up" are fundamentally subjective evaluations by the people involved.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:40 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Something from the left field: you might like to consider the impact on resources. If your country has been drained so much that you need to start melting down pots & pans in order to build fighters, you're probably not doing so well. Similarly, if ordinary household supplies like butter & sugar are hard to come by, it means that your supply lines or production have been severely affected. These could be symptoms of failure (eg naval blockade means that resource X cannot reach the country) or causes of failure (eg Germany in WW2 found itself increasingly unable to maintain sufficient supplies of oil and - I think - rubber).

Also maybe left-field: the hearts & minds of your own civilians. Again, maybe both a symptom & a cause of failure. You could perhaps argue that Vietnam was effectively lost when the anti-war movement back home reached some sort of critical mass. How you would objectively determine that critical mass might be a bit difficult, though.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:44 PM on January 13, 2008

Response by poster: I understand that what one side or the other thinks is success or failure can be subjective. However, I'm interested in what objective criteria can be used once the subjective goals are established. Sometimes that's clear. For example, if you start a war to gain resources (land, minerals, people, etc.), the amount of resources you are able to recover would be a good objective criteria to use. Of course, a lot of times it's not clear. So I'm not looking only for a generic answer, I'm looking for specific examples, either in history, current situation, or hypothetical future events, in which subjective objectives were established and by which objective criteria had been or could have been used to measure progress, for any side.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 3:49 PM on January 13, 2008

In the cases of the Iraq and Afghanistan, the obvious metric would be the stated aims of the invasions. As in, the US Government said: "We will invade CountryX to do Y and Z" and so we now ask have Y and Z come to pass, has progress been made towards achieving Y and Z, and so on. I don't think it is particularly useful to ask about success or failure in a war because war is (generally) a means to an end, not an end in itself. In other words, evaluate progress towards the ends of a war, not the progress of the war itself. Of course, it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that the stated aims of these specific wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) are not the only aims of the wars and that there are other aims that one could evaluate progress towards as well.
posted by ssg at 3:52 PM on January 13, 2008

There are different but overlapping and inter-related societal components to consider here when analyzing enemy resistance.

First. a) there's the People.
b), there's their Government.
c), there's the Military, itself broken into several quasi-independent communities.
d) there's the Individual Fighter, the only guy in this system who you need to neutralize.

WW2 featured the US beating down c), then a) to get b) to order c) to have its d) to lay down their arms, but in the European theatre this required the Soviets to physically send their d)s into the German b)'s underground command bunkers. Given the cohesiveness of German society and the utter lack of any alternatives than surrender, and the rather complete discrediting of the Nazi Party as a viable future b), d)s returned to a)s in short order for us.

Vietnam featured the US assembling an alternative b) that drafted the a) into the c) to take on the communist d)s that were organized, supplied, and eventually replaced by Communist North regulars. Complicating matters is that plenty of people in the South regarded the US as taking over the French colonization role and didn't see that much wrong in allowing the Viet Minh back into the control over their area they had prior to the 1954 partition.

There's a lot of messy mass psycho sociology involved in understanding how the People get into and out of war-fighting mood. In the end it's a matter of alternatives. Chief Seattle's "it's easier to pick up a rifle than putting it down" is in play too. Humans aren't good about rationally measuring sunk costs and fear of future uncertainties vs. remaining with the status quo of resistance.

Plus different conflicts have different actors involved. In Iraq, Moqtada Sadr came out of left field for us, but his d)s form military force that results in political power.

WW2 didn't end for the French in June 1940 since the English were ready and willing to aid any and all resistance movements. It would have ended when the German occupation left and the Vichy regime was allowed back into Paris.

As far as history goes, the CIA initiated the answer to your question with its Hamlet Evaluation Survey effort. Alas, the first page of google results don't look that promising, but this involved actually quantifying various "Good Government" indicators like opinion surveys, how often government agents could operate effectively (eg. 24/7 or only during the day), etc.

The War of 1812 ended when the treaty was signed, though the Battle of NO was an unfortunate addendum given the technology of the times.

As to when war ends in general, in ends when "enemy" a)s no longer become "enemy" d)s.
posted by panamax at 3:56 PM on January 13, 2008

UbuRoivas, those are issues of logistics. There are five major parts to war: objectives, strategy, tactics, logistics, morale. All else (e.g. intelligence) support these five. Victory and defeat are a function of the extent to which the objectives are achieved. Logistics and morale support strategy and tactics in trying to achieve objectives.

The extent to which the civilian population of a nation is willing to suffer privation is partly morale and partly a function of objectives. History is full of nations whose populations have been willing to live with privation for years, or even decades, without giving up wars.

Clausewitz's key insight, quite revolutionary, was that objectives were primary and nothing else in a war could be understood except in light of the objectives of all of the combatants. In some conflicts even a slight decline in citizen comfort will be enough to cause them to give up. In other conflicts they may be willing to sustain truly horrific casualties and terrible privation.

Study the Soviet Union during WWII for an example of that. Leningrad is a particularly good example: during the siege conditions inside Leningrad were hellish. In the first two months of 1942 a quarter of a million people in Leningrad died, mostly from starvation and freezing to death. Total civilian deaths over the whole siege were well in excess of a million. Yet Leningrad never surrendered even though the siege lasted years.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:01 PM on January 13, 2008

SSG, you're confusing justification with purpose. Another feature of this kind of analysis is that the reasons for war that a government uses to motivate its people may not be the same as the reasons why the leaders want to fight a war. That kind of differentiation is quite common in history, but it's particularly common in monarchies and dictatorships.

But it's pretty rare for them to be identical. WWII Britain is one of the notable exceptional cases of that: the justification, and the purpose, was for Britain to survive as an independent nation.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:09 PM on January 13, 2008

EatenByAGrue: I don't think one can separate objective and subjective criteria quite as easily as you would.

For example, if you start a war to gain resources (land, minerals, people, etc.), the amount of resources you are able to recover would be a good objective criteria to use.

This isn't really an objective criteria, it is just the aim of the war for one side. One can measure objectively the resources lost or gained, but it is still the subjective aim of the war for one side. Of course, it could be the aim for both sides, in which case evaluate who is winning is easy, but it doesn't have to be so.
posted by ssg at 4:10 PM on January 13, 2008

In mordern conflicts such as the ones in Vietnam and Iraq It's my impression that body counts are a big metric used for measuring progress. All you hear is talk like "We had 20% less casualties this month and we see that as a marker towards ending the blah blah blah..."
posted by uandt at 4:19 PM on January 13, 2008

One of the best recent examples of a case where justification and purpose bore little similarity was the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands. The public justification was "Kicking the damned imperialistic Brits out of our precious sovereign territory, the Malvinas Islands."

The purpose was twofold. First, the territorial waters around the Falkland islands contain rich fishing grounds. Second and much more important, there was rising unrest inside Argentina against the ruling military junta. Picking a fight with a foreign power is a classic way for tinpot dictators to still internal dissension.

Of course, in the long run for it to really work you have to win the fight you pick, and the Argentineans didn't.

Part of why the differentiation between justification and purpose is important is that the public justification for the war can shift, especially between the beginning of the war and the end. Since ultimately it is the citizens collectively who decide whether their side won or lost, it is in the interest of their leaders to convince them that they won -- and the justifications they used at the beginning to convince the people to fight may change entirely by the end as their leaders frantically try to prove to their people that their efforts were not wasted. (Arafat was a master of this kind of thing.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:30 PM on January 13, 2008

SCDB, if you read my comment you'll note that I specifically note that the stated aims of a war are not the only aims and that one can evaluate progress towards unstated aims as well.
posted by ssg at 4:35 PM on January 13, 2008

SCDB, Clausewitz seems to be spot on. I was just trying to come up with some ideas for objective measures that might reflect on your progress - reading the (first part of the) question as mainly being "how do you measure whether you're on the path to victory or defeat?", and expecting a lot of the answers to relate to military & materiel losses.

Melting down saucepans was intended as an ironic example, as it helped the brits win the battle of Britain, which in turn helped the allies win the war.

posted by UbuRoivas at 5:21 PM on January 13, 2008

I understand that what one side or the other thinks is success or failure can be subjective. However, I'm interested in what objective criteria can be used once the subjective goals are established. Sometimes that's clear.

Yeah, it is. The purpose of most of the Roman conquest was to eliminate enemies, gain subject populations to tax, and to loot the areas for wealth and resources. We can tell that they succeeded in places like Greece and Egypt because they got all the things they wanted and there were no real revolts in those regions for hundreds of years.

That was also pretty much the objective of the Mongol conquests. Those were less successful, since the Mongol empire fell apart in less than a hundred years.

But that's not the rule. Usually it isn't clear at all, especially since the objectives can shift as the war continues (particularly for long wars). Plus the confusion of justification and purpose, and the fact that in coalitions different members can have different purposes (and even conflicting purposes), makes it so that in most wars it is rather difficult to do what you want. It's impossible without examining the detailed political context of the specific war you're trying to analyze.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:53 PM on January 13, 2008

SCDB has an excellent point, but as right as Clausewicz was, it hasn't stopped both politicians and generals from finding metrics and attempting to "objectively" quantify battlefield progress.

The most traditional metric of war would seem to be geographic distance: how much territory you 'control' at a particular time, based on where the actual front lines are. Gaining territory equals progress. An alternative might be to measure only the progress forwards, in [unit of distance]/[unit time]. A lot of history books talk about progress in World War Two in these terms, particularly the Allied invasion of Italy (generally in terms of 'x yards per day' or 'miles per day'). I've never heard anything as to whether this was actually used as part of military planning, though. I suspect that the actual 'metrics' used were the control of certain key points at various times.

In Vietnam, there was a conscious change away from territory-based metrics, in keeping with the different kind of war. Enemy killed, enemy weapons captured, and kill ratios (friendly:hostile casualties) seem to have all played a part. Here's a chart from a 1965 briefing which includes 'Viet Cong Killed' and 'Viet Cong Weapons Captured' on a table alongside the number of patrols completed. (Related commentary.) I'm unsure and curious whether that sort of accounting lasted towards the end of the war.

In Iraq, the main metrics seem to be 'incidents' and casualties. Incidents would be the number of IEDs in an area/time, number of suicide bombings, hostile-fire encounters, mortar attacks, etc. When the military talks about 'progress,' it almost always seems to be a decrease in these figures that are at the core. I would argue though that the dominant metric that's factored into military planning recently, and the one that has the greatest impact on the U.S. political system driving the war, is friendly casualties.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:58 PM on January 13, 2008

Clicked submit a bit too soon...

You might also want to have a look at this article, from the journal Parameters, which looks directly at the issue of military "measures of effectiveness": A Will to Measure - measures of effectiveness in military decision-making. It's free/full-text and mostly covers Vietnam through the present day, but it really gets into the issue of how you create useful metrics and how you define victory/progress conditions. I found it pretty fascinating.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:23 PM on January 13, 2008

Thinking about this for a couple more days, there does turn out to be one pretty important metric that applies to most wars which can usually be gauged.

In WWII it was referred to as the "Home Front". It refers to the extent to which citizens of a country or group continue to support the prosecution of the war. That's because one way to lose the war is to lose heart and give up. If you do that, nothing else matters.

A lot of people know this, too, and it's the reason why anti-war activists in the US have hammered on issues like American atrocities, dead babies, "grim milestones", and suchlike. Since their goal was for America to lose, the best way for them to make that happen was to convince their fellow citizens that the country was losing and that further efforts were simply good money/blood after bad.

In WWII in the US and Britain, there were significant efforts by the governments of those two countries to convince their people to be committed to the war, to believe they were part of it, and to be willing to make sacrifices for it. Given that Britain was fighting for its life as an independent nation, that wasn't a very hard sell. In the US it was more difficult, but they did a good job of it anyway.

The single most important failure of the Bush administration in the current war has been to neglect this kind of activity, and it damned near did lose us this war. It's a major blunder, a blind spot of titanic proportions.

As with everything else, this is a matter of context. In monarchies and police states, citizen support and commitment are much less important. That kind of antiwar activists tend to get locked up or shot. It's mainly an issue in democracies and republics who have a tradition of free expression and protected dissent. And what's interesting about it is that often the situation on the "home front" has little or nothing to do with the reality on the battlefield. Citizen perception of the state of the war often has little to do with the true state of the war.

The Tet Offensive is the best example of that I know of. Tactically it was a fiasco for the North Vietnamese. All the gains they made were lost again within a few weeks. Casualties were terrible. The Viet Cong was eliminated as an effective fighting force. (The remainder of the war in the South was fought primarily by North Vietnamese regular Army units.) Any rational appraisal of the Tet Offensive in military terms has to come to the conclusion that it was a terrible defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, a major victory for South Viet Nam and the US.

But strategically and in terms of affecting American citizen commitment it was a master stroke. It was the turning point in the war. It made LBJ give up on running for reelection. After Tet American news reports about the war turned relentlessly negative. (One government official later said, "When we lost Walter Cronkite, I knew we had lost the war.") After the 1968 election, America switched from an administration which wanted to win to an administration which had run on a platform of "peace with honor", which, eventually, meant making a face-saving deal with NV that NV had no intention of honoring, and then using that as an excuse to cut-and-run.

So in wars which involved democracies and republics which don't face existential threats, then citizen commitment to the war is something that can be measured and which does indicate whether the nation is winning or losing. Because if the citizens give up, it doesn't matter in the slightest what the soldiers have accomplished.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:19 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

It turns out it was LBJ who said, "if we've lost Walter Cronkite, we've lost the country."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:44 PM on January 15, 2008

What are some objective criteria/metrics by which to measure progress towards success or failure in a war or other extended conflict?

1. Territory.

You can follow the progress of most historical wars by looking at maps showing the territory controlled by each side. Here's a simple animated map showing the Korean War, for example. A more detailed animation for the First World War.

It's true that objectives may vary, but I can't think of any cases of someone going to war for the purpose of giving up territory.

2. Security.

When you're fighting an insurgency, having nominal control of territory doesn't help if you can't provide security to the population.

Henry Kissinger, American Foreign Policy (1974), on guerrilla warfare in Vietnam:
A guerrilla war differs from traditional military operation because its key prize is not control of territory but control of the population. This depends, in part, on psychological criteria, especially a sense of security. No positive program can succeed unless the population feels safe from terror or reprisal. Guerrillas rarely seek to hold real estate; their tactic is to use terror and intimidation to discourage cooperation with constituted authority. ...

To be effective, the government had to demonstrate a very great capacity to provide protection, probably well over ninety percent. The guerrillas' aim was largely negative: to prevent the consolidation of governmental authority. They did not need to destroy all governmental programs--indeed in some areas they made no effort to interfere with them. They did have to demonstrate a capability to punish individuals who threw in their lot with Saigon. An occasional assassination or raid served to shake confidence for months afterward.
In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, civilian deaths are an important measure of (lack of) security. It'd be interesting to combine this with maps to show which areas are secure and which are not. Here's a map showing coalition casualties in Iraq, by province.
posted by russilwvong at 5:09 PM on January 21, 2008

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