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We Win Because You Didn't
It's the American way!

"If I'm not dead, I win."
Vince McMahon, ESPN E:60, "Lord of the Ring"

The trope of We Win Because You Didn't, or the "Antietam Defense" or the "Thermopylae Strategy", occurs in a situation where the objective is not to win outright, but rather to deny victory to the opposing party.

A rebel faction and an imperial faction face off over a particular resource. It does not matter who is attacking or defending, but the end result is that the rebel faction destroys the resource, denying it to the imperials/others. Thus, even though the rebels do not have it either, they can claim victory because the imperials did not obtain the resource, regardless of losses suffered by the rebels (similarly, the imperials might be able to claim victory since, while they're powerful enough to ignore the loss of the resource, the rebels are put at a disadvantage by failing to capture it).

Another version of this trope would be where one side holds the field despite superior losses, and can then gain something by this act, or where another side loses the field, but causes superior losses and gains, say, time by this act. This does not apply if one team leaves with fewer losses, but gains nothing by the battle.

When claiming victory in this manner, a faction must be looking at long-term objectives. Since in the short term the conflict was a stalemate, the participants instead must look ahead and figure out what they can or can't do as a result of the lack of progress.

In the end, this trope is primarily a mentality, because both sides of a conflict can view this as true for their side. For instance, the imperials in the above example can also use this trope because they forced the rebels to deny themselves the resource, all losses ignored, which drastically harms rebel efforts from the imperial perspective.

Compare Pyrrhic Victory, and Pyrrhic Villainy. When applied to video games, this is Spiteful A.I. or Hold the Line when the victory occurs for the computer or the human respectively. May overlap with No MacGuffin, No Winner in some circumstances. Compare Xanatos Gambit for setups where either outcome is favorable. See also Disqualification-Induced Victory.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime And Manga 
  • The point of Negi and Rakan's fight in Mahou Sensei Negima! wasn't really to actually win, since Rakan isn't a bad guy. The point was to go be able to go all out and truly measure himself. The battle itself is a tie and only that because Rakan held back a little in the beginning to give him time to start testing his new moves. But the point was made that he's a match for Fate or even better now plus his enslaved students were freed.
    • Also pertinent to the trope is that Rakan was impressed enough with Negi's performance that he claimed a loss after the fact and gave him the other half of the prize money.
  • There's an inverted example in Bleach where both Kenpachi and Ichigo believe themselves to have lost the fight after what is essentially a double knockout. However, you can consider Ichigo the winner because the end result allowed Ichigo to continue pursuing the goal of saving Rukia and Kenpachi is sort of on his side from this point since he wants Ichigo to live so he can be fought again later.
  • Inverted in Initial D when Takumi ties with Kyouichi on Kyouichi's home turf. Kyouichi responds by calling it a victory for Takumi, stating that anyone who can tie his team on his home course is a Worthy Opponent.

    Comic Books 

    Film 
  • Demonstrated on a small scale in Thank You For Smoking when the protagonist demonstrates this as a debate strategy to his son, using a comparison of icecream flavours as an example.
    Joey: But you didn't prove that vanilla was the best.
    Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right.
    Joey: But you still didn't convince me.
    Nick: I'm not after you. I'm after them. [points at passers by]
  • Applies to any character who has survived a fight with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and other slasher movie mass murderers. Since the killers in such movies are typically unstoppable monsters and permanently destroying them is nearly impossible, the real victory for the Final Girl is the mere fact that she's still alive at the end despite all of the villain's efforts to strangle, crush, stab, impale, club, axe, drown, defenestrate, and/or decapitate her. Ultimately averted in cases where the Final Girl later falls victim to Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome.
  • In For Your Eyes Only, Bond destroys the MacGuffin that he and the Russians were competing for. His mission wasn't to claim it, but to deny it to the Russians.

    Literature 
  • This was a repeated strategy of Zandramas in The Malloreon. The theory was: before the Choice could be made, certain conditions had to be fulfilled by both sides. If Zandramas killed someone on the good side who hadn't fulfilled their condition, she'd probably win by default. The same was true for the other side; Poledra points out that if the Child of Light gets to the Place That Is No More and found no Child of Dark waiting for him, he'd probably win by default.
  • This is mentioned by Luck, er, The Lady, during her game against Fate in the Discworld novel Interesting Times. It makes sense because Fate is pursuing a specific outcome while Luck just wants to mess things up so there are a lot more ways for her to win.
    • In Going Postal, Moist's Post Office "wins" the race against the clacks company not by actually sending their message faster, but by changing the clacks message so that the clacks owner comes under suspicion and the race is called off.
  • This is how the diamond in Charles Benoit's Relative Danger is finally disposed of, with a slight twist—none of the people trying to get it actually have the right to it, and the main character knows he's outclassed, so he publicly reveals its existence and location, letting the antagonist take credit for discovering it, but denying him the ability to legally claim it. (It winds up in a museum.)

    Live Action TV 
  • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Peak Performance" introduces Kolrami, a grand master of the game of Strategema. In the match after it's established that he's able to beat Data, Data plays for a draw, causing Kolrami to Rage Quit. At first Data insists that he did not technically defeat Kolrami, but bows to his fellow crewmembers' insistence that he "busted him up."
    • A bit of Fridge Brilliance may apply here. In most games, quitting in the middle constitutes a forfeit, so it's possible that Data did effectively win. He may not have had the capability to win directly, but he had the capacity to play indefinitely, without ever getting tired, distracted or frustrated. Essentially, he used his particular skills to win in an unconventional way.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also had a few instances of this, especially during the Dominion War arc. The first major example was when Starfleet mined the entrance to the wormhole so no new enemy ships could come through, then left the station undefended when the Dominion/Cardasian alliance came to take it over (in order to facilitate taking down said minefield). The reason? Starfleet sent a massive strike force to take advantage of a weakness this created in the Dominion's lines to destroy several ship yards, preventing them from making any new ships.
    • And the Dominion themselves are big fans of this philosophy. They once tried to negotiate a new border that would leave them with several less systems, but give them one they didn't have. That system would have allowed them to make more Ketracel White (the substance that the Jem ha'Dar soldiers need to survive). When this was discovered, Starfleet rejected the plan outright.
  • Red Dwarf has an example in an early season episode: Rimmer is playing checkers against a skutter (a small service robot), and has been backed into a position in which he has only one possible move, and then the skutter takes his last piece and wins. Rimmer, however, confidently expects victory, because the skutter is due to leave for its shift fairly soon, thus forfeiting the game, provided Rimmer stretches out his turn long enough.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The "disqualification rule", which specifies that a champion can only lose his title by pinfall or submission, often turns into a form of this trope. A champion will "defend" his title by walking away from the ring (taking a loss by countout) or by intentionally forcing a disqualification (for example, by attacking a referee or using an illegal weapon) — and thus losing the match but keeping the title, as he wasn't pinned or forced to submit. One loss is, of course, considered less important than the storyline glory of being a champion. However, a booker who has a champion do this too often risks having the public turn on the champion, which costs everyone money in the long run.
  • Beat the Clock challenges, when the fastest win gets a title shot, with either everyone in the match taking part or just one participant, fall under this - if a match goes long enough with a time to beat already set, it'll end when the match can no longer beat the set time; in the later type of tournament, the non-participating competitor picking up a win qualifies as a win for the standing time, regardless of the speed of the match.
  • The WCW Television Championship had an element of this. The belt had to be won on tv and within a certain time limit. Heel champions would often use this as a way to hold onto the title by holding out long enough not to lose the belt.

    Sports 
  • This is common in association football where a weaker team going against a much stronger team will usually play more defensively and will aim for a draw instead of trying to win.
    • As well, especially later in the league seasons where points become precious, a draw can be a season-changer. Liverpool suffered this in 2013/14, where they could have won the title, if they hadn't drawn Manchester City in their fixture only days before.
      • The Arsenal fan take this one step further than anyone else, as they have their own celebration whenever the day comes that they are mathematically guaranteed to finish ahead of hated rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the table, no matter where in the table that might be.
  • Also common in Test cricket, where a team that is sufficiently behind in the match will give up all attempts at winning and just play for time, hoping to deny the other team the victory. Given the nature of the sport, this can mean surviving for one or more days.
  • On a smaller scale; this is a very common strategy in roller derby. If a lead jammer finds herself being outperformed, or is more concerned with preserving a lead than with taking more points, she will often simply call the jam before her opponent hits the pack. She doesn't score any points, but more importantly, neither does her opponent.
  • Whenever a team loses (specially in either final matches and/or humiliating defeats) the rival team's fandom will celebrate copiously because their hated rival lost, even if the fans' own team wasn't even in the match.
  • Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
  • This is true of Boxing, similar to Professional Wresting above. The Challenger has to actually beat the Champion- a draw or any other outcome causes the Champion to retain the belt. This is why Rocky ends with Stallone losing- both men are down for the count but Creed is the Champion.
  • In timed sporting events, a team with a large enough lead does not need to score again, but rather merely prevent the other team from scoring and run out the clock. With a large enough lead, you don't even need to stop the opposing team from scoring; you just need to slow them down so that they run out of time.
  • The infamous Formula One's rivalry between Aryton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989-1990 seasons ends with the trope and endless controversies. In 1989 Suzuka, Prost and Senna collided, deliberately giving Prost a world title. In 1990 at the very same curcuit, Senna crashed out Prost, handing Senna a world title.
  • It's not unknown for teams in various sports, who are certainly not going to make the playoffs, to play very defensively for the tie (and the lesser points thus awarded) when facing a team who needs all the points they can to make the playoffs, especially if that team is a longtime rival, just to spite them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • One of a number of ways you can earn a punch in the face when playing Warhammer 40k is to rig your army so that you can deny your opponent every objective on the board in one (i.e. the last) turn. It's a bit of a crapshoot, considering that objectives only constitute victory in 2/3 of games, and the game has an equal chance of ending on turns 5, 6, or 7, but when the dice are going your way (or your opponent's way) this can be a very cheap way to secure a draw. In a tournament setting, this can knock you straight out of any kind of running, as tournaments tend to reward not only victory, but utter annihilation of your opponent. Getting even one draw will likely cost you the whole thing.
    • Some of the older armies, such as the Eldar, practically live off stunts like this, and would not survive the codex creep were it not for their ability to pull it off on command.
    • Because of how objectives work in 5th edition note , many objective-based games can end in draws. The "Capture and Control" mission of 5th edition is especially egregious for this because there are a total of two objectives on the table which must be placed one in each player's deployment zone, but without any other restrictions (so long as both objectives are 18" away from each other). It took power gamers all of about two seconds to realize they could park their objective on their board edge. Five to seven turns later, barring utter annihilation of one player, these games just about always end in draws.
    • This is all far less of a problem for Warhammer Fantasy because Fantasy uses a Victory Points system for everything, whereas 40k almost never does.
  • Two factions can do this in the Dune board game (inspired from Frank Herbert's eponymous novels) : the Fremen and the Guild. The Fremen, being the native inhabitants of Arrakis, win the game by default if no one else does since it means they have successfully defended their homeworld and their culture from external threats. The Guild wins if no one else wins and if a set of additional conditions (meaning that no major faction is in position to control the Spice market) are fulfilled.
  • It's very possible to do this in 7 Wonders, which requires that you build up victory points that are only calculated at the end of the game. At the end of each "play", you pass your cards to another player, so that everyone, in theory, gets a more or less equal chance to play every card. But if you see one of your opponents working on a specific strategy, you can play a card that gives you little to no benefit, simply to deny them the ability to profit off their strategy. It's risky (you're essentially screwing up your own strategy to mess with theirs), but it can pay off.
  • In most rules for casino-level Blackjack, the house has a few edges to ensure more wins. If the player busts (exceeds 21), regardless of the House's hand, the House wins. This compensates for the increased payout for a player's 2-card 21 and various other moves the player can do (such as double down, split, and stand on hands less than 17).
    • Standard Blackjack returns the wager to the player in a "push", or a hand where the player's total equals the dealer's total and neither has busted. Some variants of Blackjack give other advantages to the player but compensate by awarding pushes to the house.
  • In Chess, if one side only has a king, there are quite a few combinations of pieces that can force checkmate. However, if they don't have enough pieces, or if they just make a mistake, the losing side can sometimes maneuver into a stalemate. Like other draws, a stalemate is counted as half a win, and drawing a much stronger opponent is considered a great accomplishment.
  • In the BattleTech universe, the overuse of these tactics by the Great Houses led directly to a precipitous technological decline during the Succession Wars. "If I can't have technology X or weapon Y, then no one can!" Cue factory after factory being destroyed, damaged, or sabotaged, and the few scientists who could've understood the blueprints to rebuild them being ruthlessly assassinated. Though in hindsight, much of the usage of these tactics was secretly encouraged by the Church Militant Comstar, in order to deliberately starve the Houses of the technology they needed to wage war.

    Video Games 
  • Many multiplayer online games include an "attack/defend" mode where one team tries to break into/capture/destroy the enemy base somehow, and if they can't before time runs out the defenders win. An example would be Payload from Team Fortress 2.
  • One where is isn't a Spiteful AI is the AGD remake of King's Quest III. Quite by accident, Alexander obtains a relic of Daventry's first king, something the Big Bad has been seeking for ages. In the ending cutscene, Graham takes it and smashes it. The curse is still on the family, and the Black Cloak still active, but at least the Big Bad has been deprived of further leverage.
  • In Halo: Reach, the primary objective of the initial Covenant strike force apparently was to secure a forerunner artifact before it falls into human hands. At which they fail and the UNSC learns about the location of the first Halo. However, the main invasion fleet arrives a few days later and successfully wipes out the largest center of human population outside of Earth, single handedly scoring the most important victory of the entire war.
  • In a certain puzzle in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (spoilered since the very fact that this trope applies spoils its solution, but it's also quite plot-relevant) Dimitri Allen challenges Layton to a "puzzle battle". They each have five armies of varying strengths, and Layton has to arrange his so he avoids defeat. But at first glance this seems impossible, the armies you're given are vastly weaker than his. (His go up to strength 5 and the best you have is a 4) But if you do things right, you can arrange it so both sides win 2 battles, lose 2 and draw 1, thereby tying. The rules never stated Layton had to ''win'', he just needed to "avoid defeat."
  • Mass Effect 3 introduces multiplayer where several objectives have to be met. Generally they are manageable, Hold the Line, Escort Mission, giving a generous time limit. Then there's... sigh... the dreaded target elimination missions. The game has Spiteful A.I. and the tough enemy you have to eliminate is an utter coward, sheltering on the other end of the map behind Elite Mooks and running like a rabbit every chance it gets. You have less than a minute to kill it and if you fail you lose the whole match.
    • Target Eliminations can usually be beaten with a Rocket at an opportune moment. Escort missions that go through terrible parts of the map or hold the line ones that pop in a terrible location... not so much.
  • In many RPG games, being defeated outside of a Scripted Event spells a Game Over for you. Even if the enemy side is defeated via double KO, you still lose.
  • In the Mario Party series, a player who winning by a wide margin may purposely work against his partner(s) in a 2 vs 2 or 3 vs 1 mini-game because if he is winning already, he can still win the whole game by making sure the other players don't win, even if he technically lost the mini-game.
  • In both The Legend of Zelda Oracle games, sometimes Maple runs into Link causing them to both drop several items and a mini-game where they race to collect the items. If the screen they ran into each other on had a lot of deep water that the items fall into it and disappear, even if the total value of the items Link collect is better than that Maple collects, Maple still counts the items that disappeared as if she collected them.
  • In DOTA, League of Legends , Heroes of Newerth and similar multiplayer games, both sides will often consider the outcome of a battle a "victory." For example, a lone Blue team player taking out two enemies is a victory for them, whereas Red Team's duo could consider it a victory just for taking a dangerous opponent out of play for a minute or two. Even a Total Party Wipe can be considered a victory in some cases, if it denies enemies a crucial objective or has some other benefits.
  • In the Battle Frontier and similar areas in the Pokémon games, any scenario in which one trainer's last Pokémon uses a Suicide Attack to knock out their opponent's last Pokémon will result in the computer winning (because the player cannot be on the overworld with their whole team knocked out, and the game can't force the player to the Pokémon Center without a loss). In player vs player matches, the one who declares the Suicide Attack loses.
  • Many games such as Gears of War have multiplayer modes without infinite respawns where the objective is to kill everyone on the opposing team. It's common for the last player left alive on a team to run and hide in order to wait out the clock and force a draw, rather than risk the chance of the other team winning. Some games have tried to combat this by awarding victory to the team with more players left alive after the clock runs out.
  • PlanetSide 2's Alert system creates server-wide missions to take over as much territory on a continent as possible. However, if one (of three) factions is overpopulated, they'll often end up owning the vast majority of the territory by simply overrunning defenders with sheer numbers; particularly common with the Vanu Sovereignty on the Emerald server, where the Terran Republic and New Conglomerate will occasionally purposely abandon bases to each other in order to force a tie in order to deny the VS a victory.
  • In competitive World of Tanks league play, a standard tactic in the last minute or so of a round when one team has only one or two tanks left, is outnumbered (or if the other team significantly outweighs the survivors in terms of tank size), and the team that's stronger doesn't have enough time left to capture the base, is for the weaker team to run. If there's even one of their tanks left alive when time runs out, they've forced a draw. For this reason, the tiebreaker match in championships is a king-of-the-hill style match which forces a winner: if the attacking team (usually the one that has the least amount of points in the match) can't either destroy all the enemy tanks or capture the base before time runs out, the defenders win.

    Western Animation 
  • The Robot Chicken Second Star Wars Special discusses this trope for the Star Wars series. In the final sketch, one of the Imperial Officers argues that the destruction of the second Death Star doesn't change the fact that the Empire still controls a massive fleet, even pointing out that the Empire survived the destruction of the first Death Star. The other officer says that this time it counts because they also killed the Emperor.
    • The Expanded Universe figured that one out a long time ago and ran with it. In the EU timeline, the war doesn't end for another twenty years or so, and when it does it's with a peace treaty rather than a surrender. Albeit a peace treaty between The Imperial Remnant and The New Galactic Republic, initiated by the former because they were very clearly on the ropes and wanted to preempt the possibility of the New Republic using a final destruction of the Empire as a distraction from their internal divisions. And the New Republic took advantage of the divisive Imperials infighting to seize most of their territory early on.
  • In Dinobot's final episode in Beast Wars, he destroys Megatron's golden disk, thus denying its secrets to the Maximals but also preventing the Predacons from exploiting it.
  • Used in Xiaolin Showdown where Master Fung teaches the warriors that they can't get the jade elephant from him if it's no longer an elephant, but a pile of jade dust instead. Omi puts this lesson to use by sending a teleporting Shen-Gong-Wu to the earth's core rather than let any of the villains have it.
    Master Fung: "Your goal was to win. Mine was merely not to lose."
  • In Hey Arnold! Grampa was able to win a Chinese checkers game in a tie, though he won it because he went home with the trophy.

    Real Life (Wars) 
  • As mentioned above, the battle of Thermopylae during the Greco-Persian wars: It (and its sister sea battle at Artemisium) were intended to be holding operations to stall the much larger Persian army and fleet until the Greek city-states could raise their levies and prepare for a counter-attack. Both were technically Greek defeats both tactically and strategically (they only succeeded at stalling the Persians for less than a week and Athens fell as a result), although the over-extension of the Persian fleet in trying to hunt down the Greek one ultimately led to the battle of Salamis, which turned the face of the war.
  • The Alamo: A small group of Texans hold out in an old mission, stalling the Mexicans long enough for the rest of the Texans to gather and strike.
  • The War of 1812: Even though the USA failed to conquer British America, US nationalists maintain that their country "won" because it didn't lose any territory ("We got respect from Britain and eventually repelled their raiding parties") - ignoring of course the huge (and rather pointless, as indeed the whole war was) hit to the country's economy what with all long-distance and coastal/local trade being shut down by the Royal Navy's blockade. While Canada takes the same opinion for themselves ("We repulsed multiple American campaigns using inferior numbers even though the Brits did the majority of the actual fighting"). The Brits, on the other hand, have no idea the war was even a thing.
    • A few last minute victories, like the incredibly lopsided Battle of New Orleans, certainly helped Americans believe they "won" the war, despite the fact the war was technically already over at that point. Of course, had America lost New Orleans there was a good chance that the existing treaty (signed December 1814) would have simply been ignored.
    • The attack on Baltimore would also count. It's considered an American victory due to the British Fleet's inability to take Fort McHenry and advance into Baltimore harbor.
    • When Britain was no longer busy fighting France and all her continental allies, the USA gave up in short order. They knew they couldn't win a drawn-out war against a first-rate power like Britain, and their economy had already suffered enough already.
  • Antietam: The Union held the field at the end of this bloody battle, but suffered greater losses than the Confederacy. Despite this, by claiming the battle as a victory, Lincoln was able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the whole character of the war in the Union's favor.
    • On the immediate strategic level, Antietam was a victory because it stopped the Southern invasion of the North, forcing the invaders to retreat and preventing them from taking Washington. In that respect it is very much comparable to the Peninsular Campaign and Seven Days Battles before Richmond earlier in 1862 and to the Gettysburg campaign of 1863. In both cases the defending forces forced a retreat on the attackers while sustaining greater losses themselves. Had the Army of Northern Virginia succeeded in taking Washington in the Antietam campaign, that would have made it much more likely that France and Britain would have recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation.
      • Gettysburg also can be seen as a good example of this trope, even though the South's chance of victory were smaller in 1863 than in 1862. The Southern invasion of Pennsylvania was beaten back, but the Army of the Potomac sustained the heavier losses and Meade did not dare to attack the Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated south. However, at the same time Vicksburg fell and the Confederacy was cut in two as the Union forces brought the entire length of the Mississipi under its control. During the entire war there was a certain pattern that while the CSA was quite successful in Northeastern Virginia - even making a few attempts to take Washington, D. C. - this was more than offset by Union victories in the other war theaters. A big problem both with the way Jefferson Davis and Lee planned the war and with many accounts of the war after it was over was that too much importance was attached to the war in Virginia and not enough to the Western fronts.
    • This trope was the win condition of the South - whilst the North had to actively defeat them, the South only had to hold out long enough for the North to sue for peace due to war weariness, or to be recognised as an independent nation by Britain and France (the superpowers of the age). Both of these came close to happening at different times during the war.
      • Also essentially the win condition for the North - While the Army of Northern Virginia had repeatedly defeated the Union Army of the Potomac by inflicting greater losses and stalling their advances, once Grant took command he simply accepted the losses and advanced anyhow, eventually bringing Lee's army to bay.
      • The latter condition is why the Emancipation Proclamation did so much damage - suddenly, if Britain or France recognized the Confederacy, they'd be supporting slavery, something neither nation was ever going to do. Now the South had to force the North to give up without any hope of outside assistance, a much chancier proposition.
      • The American Revolution was fought with much the same in mind, only it worked that time. Almost certainly where the rebs got the idea.
  • This is the way French citizens see the Second World War and the Resistance: there was the defeat in the battle of France, and Hitler going to Paris, and the Vichy Regime, but there were French who never surrendered between '40 and '45, who hurt the Nazi war machine, saved the lives of three-fourths of the French Jews, and fought alongside the Allies until the victory.
    • Didn't hurt the Nazi war machine much, though. Vichy France was a huge provider of war materiel for the Axis cause, and their government collaborated more enthusiastically than the Germans had even asked for in a failed effort to gain German respect (with the sole exception of the Vichy navy, which eventually scuttled itself rather than hand over their ships for German use). And while many French Jews were merely persecuted rather than executed, German Jews who'd fled to France for sanctuary were put into internment camps by the old Republican government, and cheerfully sent to the death camps by the succeeding Vichy government. The Free French forces do get some credit here, but they had nothing to do with the plight of the Jews of France.
      • That being said, once the Free French started taking over they saw a Phoenix-like rebirth of the French military, to the point where there were nearly as many French divisions by the end of the war as there were Americans (at least in the Rhine) and they played a key role in hammering the final nails in Hitler's coffin.
  • Finland in WWII. While both Winter War and Continuation War were technically "losing draws", Finland managed to preserve her independence, freedom and Western lifestyle and not succumb to USSR and Communism. Finland was never conquered and never occupied, and her economy quickly revived after the disaster of the war.
    • There is even a specific word, torjuntavoitto in Finnish language for this trope, roughly translating "victory by making the aggressor to fail".
  • Unternehmen Zitadelle, or 'The Battle of Kursk' (July 1943), has been portrayed as one by German generals in their post-war memoirs. They prefer to think of it as a mere failure to succeed in encircling the well-prepared Soviet force in the Kursk salient, rather than the first in a series of non-stop defeats that followed from the capture of the Germans' Vyazma salient in the north (while they were still busy down south with Zitadelle) and ended with the Germans' panzer forces utterly annihilated after six months of non-stop campaigning. note 
  • The Korean War: The Chinese and North Koreans didn't succeed in uniting Korea. The United Nations (mostly Americans, with about twelve percent being from other allied nations like France, Australia, and Turkey) and South Korea only "won" because they stopped the advance of communism and inflicted incredibly high casualties against the enemy, but in reality at the end of the war everything was pretty much status quo.
    • Except for the 2.8 million people killed due to North Korean aggression.
    • Technically the war is still on going as no peace treaty was ever signed between North and South Korea, and China and the United Nations never declared war on each other. Nor did the United States actually declare war on North Korea, or China on South Korea.
    • It should be noted though that conquering North Korea was only a secondary goal for America and her allies- the primary goal was to save South Korea, which they succeeded at. In fact, by advancing as far as the Yalu, and threatening to cross over into China, MacArthur far exceeded his actual mandate. China's goal also wasn't conquest of South Korea, but rather keeping North Korea as a buffer zone, which they also succeeded at, albeit at a huge cost to human life. The real losers here were the North Koreans.
    • Basically everyone other than North Korea won because North Korea didn't.
  • The Battle of Jutland in World War One. The British lost more ships, but "won" because the German High Seas Fleet never left its territorial waters again.
    • The British fleet was the last line, the Germans would have decisively won the entire war shortly after if they hadn't been stopped there.
      • A decisive German victory was never really in the cards considering the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy, and that is without taking into account the navies of the other Allied nations and the United States, which would join the Alliance in 1917. However, the High Seas Fleet did leave German territorial waters on a few occasions after Jutland (which the Germans consider(ed) a victory) and was e. g. able to mount amphibious operations on the Baltic coast against Russia, contributing to Russia losing its Baltic provinces and Finland.
    • Similar example (again from the American Civil War): The Battle of the Wilderness. The Confederates were able to inflict horrendous casualties and stall the Union advance; General Grant responded by simply going around Lee's army, reasoning that he could take the losses and Lee couldn't.
  • In the Battle of Waterloo, the Prussian forces arrived on Napoleon's right flank, after he'd already been fighting for hours against Wellington and the other allies. He'd actually already defeated them at Ligny, but failed to destroy enough of them to take them out of the equation.
  • While Operation Barbarossa in WW2 is often held to be this, with the claim that the Russians only “won” by burning everything in the Germans' path, just like they did against Napoleon, it did achieve two very important things that are often overlooked by the stereotype: (1) Attrition is a valid strategy, and the massive losses incurred by the Germans was simply something their logistics (already stretched at that point) could not keep up with; and (2) their own warmaking capability was still largely intact, making them much more capable of continuing to fight the war than the Germans.
  • The Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese failed to outright defeat the American forces. They never won any single battle in the field and suffered far more casualties than their American counterpart, but the war slowly deteriorated in terms of public support back in the States and the US withdrew all their forces from Vietnam. However, this trope is averted when North Vietnam went against South Vietnam where the South was steamrolled by the North.
    • At a conference after the war, an American officer insisted that the NVA and VC had never won on the battlefield. His Vietnamese counterpart replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant." Simply put, there were limits to how much America was willing to sacrifice to achieve victory. The same was not true of the North Vietnamese.
  • Every war where both sides claim victory. There is quite a few, actually.
  • Pretty much how most victorious insurgencies manage to pull aforementioned victories off against foreign occupiers. Either the occupiers eventually get fed up and leave while the insurgency is still going or a conventional army from elsewhere drives the invaders off. As one military historian put it: "So long as an insurgency exists, it is winning."
    • It wasn't always that way. For much of history every Empire had what amounted to a permanent counterinsurgency in its frontier regions and just accepted it as part of ruling the way modern people accept strife between police and criminals. In many ways the change came with increased information technology which spread news around; Ancient Rome could fight whole wars with no one knowing except the legions assigned, their enemies and the local civilians knowing about it if the government found it convenient. In fact it is arguable that the most reliable counterinsurgency technique in history was to not try to suppress it but to try to corral it. The problem is the largest modern states are more vulnerable to the whims of PR.
      • A good rule of thumb is that 1) a secession wins by not losing, not so much an attempt to overthrow the government, and 2) a rebellion can only qualify for this advantage if it cannot plausibly be ignored, at least by those not specifically assigned to it's repression. That is if Chief Whatsthattribe or Baron Makemayhem declares himself the rightful ruler and the only one who bothers about it are the local governor-general and the troops assigned to him and the rest of The Empire can ignore it, it does not qualify for the We Win Because You Didn't advantage.
      • Suppressing rebellions is also subject to a cost-benefit analysis on the part of The Empire. When the Romans tried to outlaw circumcision, a rebellion broke out among the Jews. Militarily, the Romans won the war, but doing so was so much trouble that they decided to let the Jews practice their religion freely anyway.
      • The same thing happened in the Canadian Rebellions of 1837 in which the demand for responsible government was a primary cause. Both insurrections were crushed military by the British colonial forces, but when Lord Durham was sent to investigate the causes of the trouble, he recommended that the colonies be given responsible government so as to avoid future trouble, which was eventually carried out.


Weather DissonanceUniversal TropesThe World Ends Tomorrow
Victory Through IntimidationVictory and DefeatA Winner Is You
Western AnimationImageSource/OtherWhat Do You Mean, It's Not Political?

alternative title(s): ptitle0f69ympl9sae; We Win Because You Didnt
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