Defining Victory

To a man without a map all paths look the same.

Loose translation of an African proverb

A recent column in my local newspaper really resonated with me. The author discussed several lessons from the Viet Nam War. Since my service there, I have thought much on what we should have learned from that experience. Thus, I was disappointed that the writer didn’t cite what I believe was the war’s most important lesson: you need a clear picture of what Victory looks like. Without that anchor, policies are like a boat beating on a dock, doing little good and damaging both the dock and the boat. In Viet Nam, this resulted in way too many “We have to destroy this village in order to save it”s in a war that ultimately ended in failure.

One of my Beloved’s favorite jabs at the Bush Administration is that they didn’t have an exit strategy for Iraq – and she’s right. What started out as taking down Saddam Hussein (and looking for weapons of mass destruction we never could find!) evolved into a complicated mess involving nation-building and terrorist-hunting. In other words, we never seemed to have a clear picture of what we were trying to achieve, so we never got out until we just basically said, “To Hell with it! We’re leaving.”

In my User’s Guide to Expert Advice, I pointed out that clearly describing Victory is a prerequisite for success for community leaders. In one of my examples, I contrasted the US and Swedish approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The US approach to the pandemic has been to “flatten the curve,” i.e., victory was [sort of] defined as no Covid-19 deaths due to lack of appropriate medical care. The Swedish approach has been much more “Whole of Society” – balancing protection of the most vulnerable with maintaining an acceptable quality of life. We had the same dichotomy of approach among the US states. In general, the red states strove to limit the impacts of the virus on everyday life, while protecting the most vulnerable. Conversely, the blue states imposed strict lockdown and masking measures for much longer to prevent the spread of the disease (In fact, cities in some blue states are actually re-imposing masking requirements.).

In today’s inbox I received the results of a study (by the National Bureau of Economic Research) looking at each state’s overall performance during the pandemic. The authors looked at each state’s excess mortality, economic performance, and educational impacts. The states that took draconian actions to prevent infections did somewhat better in fighting the pandemic’s infectiousness than the others. On the other hand, those states’ economies took bigger hits and have taken longer to recover – some still have not. The biggest difference was in educational performance – kids in states that kept them out of school longer fell further behind academically and had more negative mental health incidents (and more suicides!) than their peers in more open states.

This echoes the results of international studies with similar findings. We now have a lot of data indicating that defining victory holistically leads to better overall outcomes than a single focus on just one aspect of life.

Going to the community level, several major US cities defined victory as defunding the police. They succeeded. But what did they achieve? Spikes in crime, officers’ resignations, loss of economic activity. In this case, “Victory” [=defunding the police] was easy to achieve but the cost to these cities is already outrageously high and getting worse. For example, just today it was reported that Seattle is not able to investigate sexual assaults because there are not enough police officers to do so. Rapes can be reported via an automated messaging system, but nothing happens with these reports. Experience indicates that single women and families will begin to flee the city in increasing numbers, further hollowing out its economy and making it less and less attractive for tourists.

To me, defining victory can be a cornerstone of community resilience, if done properly. We unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to it – it’s that “vision thing” we tend to ignore. So let me offer a few simple guidelines for community leaders.

• While Victory may not be measurable, it has to be clearly defined. Not only you as community leaders must understand what victory looks like, but its description has to be clear and understandable for everyone who cares about the community. Otherwise, it is unlikely that any progress toward it can be sustained.

• Victory has to enhance the quality of life in the community – for everybody. Doing something to help one group at the expense of another will ultimately help neither (see Seattle’s example). This implies that Victory needs to be thought of in a “Whole of Community” manner. Community leaders should ask, “Will the entire community be better off if we reach this destination?” If the answer is no, the community leaders need to regroup.

• Since Victory is a destination – an endstate – there needs to be a realistic path to get there. A rural community generally doesn’t have the resources to implement “big city” programs for health or economic development. So setting up the goals of those programs as the target for community policies simply isn’t realistic. In other words, no path = no victory.

• Although it’s not a formal part of their qualifications, the community expects its leaders to implicitly obey the first tenet of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. If Victory entails great sacrifices or harm greater than its benefits, or is perceived as such, then community leaders need to go back to the drawing board.

Above all, community leaders need to recognize that defining Victory in essence draws a roadmap for the community to follow toward its Future. It points to a destination and sets a path toward it. Thus, the brief guidelines I’ve drawn above can be summarized as:

  • If you can’t clearly describe the end-state you’re aiming for, don’t start down the path until you’re sure you’ll know it when you get there.
  • If the end-state isn’t good for the entire community, you need to rethink it.
  • If reaching Victory means needless suffering, then you need to rethink the path – and maybe the endstate.
  • And, finally, be damned sure to do no harm to any member of the community.

Without that roadmap, all paths will look the same, and almost all will lead nowhere.