A fool’s paradise. Bag and baggage. A drop in the bucket. All such phrases and idioms are a part and parcel of our daily language. A rare but significant phrase is a Pyrrhic victory. To learn more about this phrase, scroll below.
Ad victorem spolias. Latin for “to the victor belong the spoils”. And justly so. Victory is traditionally associated with triumph, happiness, success over an opponent, the day is seized, the battle is won and such thoughts. But there is a price to pay for everything and some victories once attained, can leave a very bitter taste in the mouth. Such victories make one wonder whether there is any difference between winning and losing.
The Meaning Behind A Pyrrhic Victory
When victory is attained at a very high cost, or is actually not much of a victory due to innumerable and devastating losses, such a victory is termed as a Pyrrhic victory. This sort of victory is extremely bittersweet for the victor. He could be a winner in name only, actually he might have lost a lot more than his defeated opponent. Take the example of Pyrrhus, a Greek king who ruled over the kingdoms of Epirus and Macedon. In 280 BC, Pyrrhus’s armies were valiantly fighting the Roman horde, in an effort to conquer Italy. The war had been long and arduous, and in the Battle of Asculum, the Roman side had been defeated and Pyrrhus’s forces were victorious. But at what cost?
The Roman army, though defeated, had enough manpower to replenish their fallen comrades and fight again another day. But the army of Pyrrhus was heavily depleted, too many lives had been lost, including most of Pyrrhus’s trusted friends and generals. In the strange land of Italy, Pyrrhus could not even recruit new soldiers. Faced with such a dismal situation, Pyrrhus’s outlook was bleak. When a soldier congratulated him on the victory, he lamented: “One more such victory will undo me!” Other variations of this statement include:”Another such victory and I come back to Epirus alone“, and, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined“. This situation and Pyrrhus’s striking statement is the origin for this phrase, which is also known as a cadmean victory.
Examples of Pyrrhic Victories
This phrase is mostly used in the context of battles or wars to represent a sort of crippling victory, where the benefits of triumph have cost the victor a lot. But it is also used in certain social, political and economic situations. A few examples to illustrate the use of this phrase:
The invasion of Normandy is a one ill-noticed example of this phrase. In June 1944, the Allied forces landed on Normandy, France, in an effort to fight the Nazi Germany troops to win back France. Landing on the shores of the Normandy beach, even with air and naval cover, was a very difficult task, as the Germans had fortified that area well. A large amount of the Allied armed forces were lost in struggling to reach and conquer the shore. Though the battle was won, in terms of manpower and resources, it was a Pyrrhic victory during the early days.
In the arena of entertainment, a few instances are:
An amusing example is in Friends, Season 8, episode “The One Where Joey Dates Rachel”. Chandler and Monica get a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game, as a wedding gift from Phoebe. Chandler goes on a playing spree, determined to prove he is a champ at such games. But even though he won a lot games and filled the high-scores chart, his hand spasmed into a “claw” and then he couldn’t play anymore. An apt Pyrrhic moment with complimenting dialog: “I got the highest score, but at a price.”
The Denzel Washington post apocalypse world flick, The Book of Eli, showcases such a victory. The villain Carnegie (Gary Oldman) finally gets the book he desires but realizes it is useless since it is in Braille and he cannot read it. He has also lost nearly his entire gang and is slowly dying because of his infected leg. He needed the book to control the town but ends up losing everything, even after obtaining it.
The Dark Knight, the latest entry in the Batman film saga, has a bittersweet ending. Batman is the real hero but in an effort to preserve the public’s faith in the law, hides the true reason for Harvey Dent’s death. Though the Joker has been vanquished, a good man’s life was lost and Batman must now turn fugitive to keep the peace.
In the corporate world, one such victory could be a company spending millions and laying all its assets on the line, just to acquire another company. But the resulting merger could destroy the company, if its assets drops too low due to unforeseen circumstances. One key case of such a disastrous merger is AOL (America Online) and Time Warner in 2000. At that time, the companies merged in order to create the world’s largest media power-house.
With AOL’s massive online infrastructure for Internet services and Time Warner’s cable and media features, this merger was one of the biggest deals of the decade. The battle was won at first, with stock prices of both companies rising at an alarming rate. But due to the economic recession of 2001 and the burst of the dot-com bubble, the merged company lost a lot of money and stock prices began to fall drastically. In 2002, the price of AOL stock dived from $226 billion to about $20 billion.
A social example can be made with the practice of gossiping. Say in a social circle, member A wants member B out of the gang for good. So he/she starts on a malicious campaign of gossiping, lying and rumor spreading, just to tarnish B’s reputation. For a while the plan succeeds, slowly but steadily B becomes a social outcast and is left out of the friends circle. A has won and savors the victory of being so vicious. But in time, the group realizes the hidden evil in A and soon begins to boycott A as well. They realized they had made a mistake believing in such a person. Ultimately, A is kicked out of the circle and now has difficulty in making new friends, due to the social circle warning others about A’s antics.
In summation, this phrase has come into the spotlight as it applies to a recent war of our time. Operation Iraqi Freedom or the war in Iraq of 2003, was a long and arduous campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But fighting the war abroad, took a toll of the nation’s armed forces, the economy and the moral of the people.
In the end, though a dictator was removed and the people of Iraq liberated, the United States lost a lot in the 8 years and counting conflict. Just like Pyrrhus, one must ask, “Does the victory justify the effort?” A thought to ponder on.