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Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of Victory

Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of Victory by John Davis Lewis. Princeton University Press, 2010, 354 pp.

In Nothing Less than Victory, John Davis Lewis analyses six conflicts to prove his belief that war is primarily “a clash of moral purposes” (p. 3). Currently a Duke visiting professor in philosophy, politics, and economics, Lewis questions the currently accepted view that by pursuing victory we will “create new grievances and guarantee an even more destructive conflict in the future” (p. 2). Rather than accept this argument, Lewis presents six major wars where a “clear-cut victory” was achieved and the foundation of a long-lasting peace was created between “former enemies” (ibid.). To prove his point, he discusses the Greco-Persian wars (547–446 BC), the Theban war (382–362 BC), the Second Punic war (218–201 BC), the campaigns of Aurelian (AD 270–275), Sherman’s march to the sea (1864–65), British appeasement and the prelude to World War II (1919–39) and the American victory over Japan (1945).

Each of these wars was punctuated with a period of stagnation that ended in a major counteroffensive achieving a victory deeply rooted in the moral purposes of the war. According to Lewis, war is more than armies, strategies, and tactics. War is a uniquely human affair based on “goals and values with an organized commitment” where a military commander uses physical force to cause an enemy to “change his mind or reverse his decision and commitment to fight” (p. 2, 5). In the six examples, the counteroffensives worked not only because of the physical success, but because the enemy was forced to recognize the futility of their further resistance. They were forced to surrender the “pretenses, misunderstandings, and delusions that had fueled the war” (p. 6). As an example of this concept, Lewis analyzed General Sherman’s march to the sea during the American Civil War. In his analysis, he demonstrated that a significant percentage of Southerners did not fully support the Confederacy’s cause of preserving slavery. When the Georgia population was faced with the choice of remaining fast and fighting to the death as their aristocratic (and retreating) Southern leaders wanted or giving up the cause and not resisting Sherman’s advance, the Georgia population chose the latter. As a result, Sherman’s march to the sea was punctuated with very low casualty rates.

Recognizing that readers may not be familiar with the earlier wars, Lewis provides a detailed description of each to provide a solid foundation for understanding the conflict. In the case of the ancient wars, both a map and a timeline are provided to aid the reader. After providing an understanding of the war and the counteroffensive that brought it to an end, Lewis provides a well reasoned analysis to explain how the losing force came to giving up their pretenses for starting the war. With his analysis, a second or sub-theme is apparent. When forced to fight for a dictator or an occupying army, an enemy often fails in battle against the army that is motivated by freedom. One such example Lewis uses to illustrate this point is the Spartan (influenced primarily by a culture of force and violence) defeat at the hands of the Thebes, Tegea, Boiotia, and helots (influenced by the desire for autonomy and the helot desire to be free of Spartan enslavement). Repeatedly what emerges from the text is the argument that the desire for freedom is stronger than the motivation created by fear, enslavement, and domination.

Through his treatment of these six wars, Lewis sends a message to today’s civilian and military leaders. Simply articulated, war is a moral issue involving human beings where only humans are capable of creating freedom and peace. Armed with the moral high ground, a nation should not back down from a conflict in fear of creating a greater problem; rather it should pursue victory. Lewis argues that nation’s, by their actions, should not provide legitimacy to the illegitimate actions of their enemies as the United States did with North Vietnam and the British did with Hitler.

Nothing Less than Victory is well written. The arguments and positions are well supported and easily followed. Lewis effectively weaves his thesis throughout the chapters and links the various wars by highlighting their contextual similarities. This book is a solid scholarly work that merits reading by all military leaders. War should absolutely never be entered into lightly; but once entered, wars must be won. Decisive victory is not to be shunned in fear of creating a future conflict. Decisive victory can lead to a lasting peace. John David Lewis effectively proved his point in Nothing Less than Victory.

Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF, Retired

Ruston, LA

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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