This bears emphasis:
As usual with McCain’s statements in his alleged area of expertise, the claim [that winners don't offer cease-fires] is factually dubious. More importantly, the implicit analysis here, and in nearly all pro-war thinking is that of a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gains equal the other side’s losses. The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms. In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought. With nearly equal certainty, anyone who passes up an opportunity for an early ceasefire will regret it in the end.
The negative sum nature of war is most obvious when, as predictably happened in Basra, the stage of bloody stalemate is reached. At this point, both sides typically want to come out of the fight with some gains to show for the exercise. Fighting on, they sometimes achieve this and sometimes do not. But the losses incurred in the process ensure that both sides are worse than they would have been with an immediate ceasefire.
Indeed; this is so simple that it doesn’t seem worth repeating, yet for some reason it needs to be repeated. Unless you assign a positive value to fighting war (and such is rejected in modern conceptions of war, and also pretty clearly rejected within the Christian conception of Just War), then war always incurs substantial costs. Even taking provinces or destroying fleets is cheaper to do by threat of force than by actual force; both sides are better off if no fighting occurs. As we know from our Fearon wars still happen even though they’re negative sum; opponents have incentive to conceal information about their capabilities, some goods may be indivisible, and some agreements may be unenforceable.
The typical right wing critique of this argument doesn’t actually challenge the notion that war is negative sum, although it pretends to do so. The Ledeen Doctrine, for example, asserts that there is a positive value to demonstrating that we are willing to incur serious costs by actually going to war, instead of simply threatening to go to war. By indicating to third parties that we are willing to incur the cost of deposing Saddam Hussein, we derive benefit beyond the actual deposition. Similarly, by demonstrating our willingness to incur costs in a losing war (when someone wants Florida, or something, and we know we can’t keep it but decide to fight anyway) we communicate to third parties our irrationality, thus forcing them to treat us with respect. But even these arguments are really dependent on the idea that war is negative sum; otherwise we aren’t really demonstrating any will to incur costs.
The conservative case for irrational war is pretty weak, in my view; it depends on a set of implausible assumptions about human behavior and about how humans react to information. It turns out, of course, that reputations don’t really form in the way they would need to for this kind of argument to work, and especially that the kind of signalling that war of this sort attempts is invariably indeterminate; we think we’re sending a clear message by invading random countries, but others don’t appreciate that clarity. It also seems to me that killing lots and lots and lots of people for what might amount to a “message” is inherently evil, but whatever. In any case, it’s not even clear that McCain’s understanding of war rises to the level of this conservative critique; McCain seems to understand war as bound up in a set of beliefs about national honor and manliness, which has the perverse effect of making the fighting of war a net positive.
Quiggin includes several of the many cases in which the winner of a conflict has offered a truce; McCain’s idiotic statements reveal that he doesn’t really understand that war, after all, has at its heart a political purpose. As such, he’s apparently rather less capable than Moqtada Al-Sadr, who appears to have understood that a) continuing the fight would have incurred further costs to both sides, and b) reaching a settlement without incurring those costs would pay political dividends in the medium and long term. I, for one, would prefer to have a President who’s less, rather than more, likely to get outsmarted by the Mook.
Also see Yglesias.