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If you're losing a war, you can surrender to end the war. In an armistice, neither side surrenders, but both agree to end the war. Is there a term for a side that is winning that has a change of heart and ends the war unilaterally?

A ceasefire or truce both appear to be cessations of hostility that are somehow less than an armistice. Neither appear to be unilateral.

I understand that it probably doesn't happen much, so there may not be a word for it.

As to why such a thing might occur, besides just thinking better of it or having an election that leads to a new direction from leadership, I could also see enough Pyrrhic victories leading the aggressor to give up on the war, but certainly not surrender or even enter into an agreement of any kind.

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    A side cannot end a war unilaterally, whether it is winning or not. It can cease hostilities. It can say that it has ceased hostilities. It can do both. But the other side has to comply (or be wiped out) for the war to be over. Aug 20, 2014 at 19:26
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    @EdwinAshworth, if "cease hostilities" is what you believe is the best answer, go ahead with an answer. I'm not sure I buy into the compliance part. If the aggressor withdraws and the resistance has no means to pursue, the resistance isn't really complying, but the invader has indeed ended the war.
    – Dane
    Aug 20, 2014 at 19:31
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    Korea has been under a ceasefire since 1953.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 20, 2014 at 19:38
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    Your quote 'failing to end the war because no peace treaty was signed' indicates that at least modern wars have an international legal aspect. If a peace treaty has to be signed to 'end the war' (not necessarily end fighting, which might have already ceased, or continue beyond the 'end'), unilateral ending of a war is impossible (unless there is nobody left to sign on one side). Your query does not cover a possible scenario. Aug 20, 2014 at 19:53
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    I think surrender could be the answer to the original question. Either side of a conflict can give up and allow the other side to win. It's just that it's usually the side that's losing that does it, so surrendering often has that implication.
    – Barmar
    Aug 20, 2014 at 20:07

3 Answers 3

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I would say the winning force "withdrew" from the conflict, or one of its many synonyms: it "bowed out of", "exited", or "abandoned" the conflict, "discontinued" hostilities, "disengaged" from battle, "abjured" the war, "retreated" and therefore "foreswore" or "relinquished" its formal victory, and so on and so forth.

None of these words have a particularly martial connotation (I don't think there exists a martial term which means "forfeit, but not lose") but that's easily addressed through context, as in the examples above.

Or, you could describe it the way my father did the first time I went to Atlantic City: Quit while you're ahead.

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  • Withdrew is an excellent thought, Dan! Good one
    – Fattie
    Aug 21, 2014 at 10:21
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To echo what @Edwin Ashworth said; you cannot end a war without either:

  1. Killing everyone who you were at war with (e.g. genocide).
  2. Agreeing to end the war with the other side(s).

The closest I can think of is that one side "having achieved its objectives, no longer prosecuted the war".

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  • #2 is called capitulation. Why that word isn't on this page I don't know... because it's the word for "calling off a war" (full stop; doesn't matter who's winning - everyone has to agree or it isn't over).
    – Mazura
    Dec 6, 2017 at 23:51
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There is a saying, it's time to declare victory and bring the troops home, attributed to George Aiken, former US Senator and Governor of Vermont. The sentence is actually a distillation of a longer statement made in 1966, relatively early in the Vietnam War.

"The United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam," and that such a declaration "would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam." He added: "It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked."

[Wikipedia]

If the withdrawal of the winning side results in significant negative outcomes, you could say snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which is an ironic reversal of snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The inverted phrase means

To suddenly lose a contest one seemed very likely to win, especially through mistakes or bad judgment.

[Wiktionary]

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  • nice point about the political phrase "declare victory"
    – Fattie
    Aug 21, 2014 at 10:21
  • There's another Gorge with a similar quote... and a similar 'victory'.
    – Mazura
    Dec 6, 2017 at 23:57

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