I'm reading a very good book (will write a review about it later) these days. Its author (Jim Storr) made an interesting claim (and repeated it often):
"Armies do not get paid to come second [...]"
This is obviously wrong on a superficial level - defeated armies usually keep some budget and its soldiers get their pay.
The real point is of course another one; he insists that there's no win-win possible in war.
Well, I hate to disagree on this, but I disagree.
First let me refer to my previous text "A decision model for justified war and a definition of victory" as necessary background:
The purpose of war is to achieve a better situation for a defined group of people [...] in comparison to all other options. [...]
Finally: What's a successful, a "victorious" war?
A war was is in my opinion a success (victorious) if it served its legitimate purpose.
A war was successful (no army comes can "come second" by waging a successful war!) if it's better than to cave in without a fight. <- my opinion
Well, how could both belligerents "succeed"?
An aggressor may invade and gain enough territory to be remembered as victor in history books. Meanwhile, the defender may have prevented total annexation by waging the war, thus being quite successful in its defence, too.
The Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939/40 was such an example.
Sure, both countries (especially so Finland) did most likely suffer more than they had if no war had taken place and status quo ante been preserved. That wasn't an available option for Finland once Stalin had ordered the invasion, though.
In the end, Finland waged a legitimate defensive war and thwarted total annexation and fifty years of foreign and socialist dictatorship rule - clearly a success.
The Soviet Union gained some territory and extremely important lessons and is often considered to have "won", albeit the human sacrifice and foreign political damage question this interpretation.
Now which army didn't get paid for coming second? I think both got paid, and both had earned that pay with much sacrifice.
My argument has a flaw. I applied the common idea of victory on the aggressor (for an aggressor cannot meet the "legitimate purpose" condition, see my older post for this detail) and my idea of victory on the defender. This may be considered an illegitimate trick, of course.
This doesn't change the fundamental problem with the initial quote: Sometimes armies do their job - and do so well - despite losing (in the conventional sense).
There are different degrees even of "defeat". I consider some of these (conventional definition:) "defeats" to be successes (because the military effort was still net beneficial to the country) and some (conventional definition:) "victories" to be unsuccessful because warfare had hurt the country more than an available peaceful alternative would have.
Some defeats are "good" enough to warrant to "pay the army for coming second".
In fact, that's about the second best some armies can hope for (second only to preventing war altogether). Theorists from major powers are probably not inclined to think much about it, but the theory of war is (for small powers) often more about damage minimization than about gaining net advantages and glory. Small powers do rarely produce war(fare) theorists, though. The great and medium powers write most if not all military theory.
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The idea of a bilateral war with only winners and no losers is terrible for someone who loathes war, but it's a possible explanation for the existence of thousands if not millions of wars in mankind's history.
No war is truly a "win-win" unless the preferences involved are really weird. On the other hand, it's quite plausible that we know of so many wars because defending yourself makes sense even if defeat is likely or even certain. No future war promises a win-win, but the instant of the war's beginning changes this. The continuation of peace falls out of the list of options, and suddenly warfare can become the least terrible - and thus right - decision.
That's probably why there were so many wars.