Grant W. Jones
Review of John
David Lewis, Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and
the Lessons of History. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
2010. Pp. x, 354. ISBN 978-0-691-13518-2.
Russell F. Weigley concluded his most important work by claiming
that "the history of usable combat may at last be reaching its end."
He was writing in a time dominated by the superpowers' nuclear
standoff and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Fourteen years later,
he further judged that during the "age of battles" prior to Waterloo
"war never possessed a satisfactory power of decision" based on the
standard of prompt decision at an acceptable cost.
end of the Cold War has not dispelled such doubts about the
efficacy of war. After the first Gulf War, John Keegan
argued for abandoning the lesson--allegedly learned from
Clausewitz—that decisive victory was possible via "violence pushed
to its utmost bounds."
Victor Davis Hanson has identified the quest for decisive battle as
a defining attribute of the "Western way of war, " but contends that
Western militaries have become "so lethal that we have reached an
West's adversaries now simply refuse to fight a conventional war.
Some claim that hostile forces—for example, in Iraq and
Afghanistan—have transitioned to "Fourth Generation Warfare," based
in part on guerrilla tactics, which avoids short, decisive
Finally, an extremely influential political philosophy,
neoconservatism or "hard Wilsonianism," has endorsed perpetual war
to facilitate nation building as a key element of America's mission
as a world power.
David Lewis (Duke University), in Nothing Less Than Victory,
rejects the conventional wisdom on both the possibility and
the desirability of decisive victory through warfare.
This book presents six major wars in which a clear-cut victory did
not lead to longer and bloodier war, but rather established the
foundations of a long-tem peace between former enemies. Each of
these conflicts began with an act of military aggression. Each
stagnated during years of carnage that ended when a powerful
counteroffensive and an unambiguous victory reached deeply into the
moral purposes behind the war, and forced one side to give up its
cause and renounce the fight…. How and why these successes were
achieved is the subject of this book (2).
Since Lewis has dealt with aspects of classical Greek political
development and thought in two previous books, it is not surprising
that four of the case studies in the present volume treat
Greco-Roman warfare--choices he justifies by claiming the
ancients provide critical lessons on "the basic issues behind every
war" (8). He also provides a single negative example to illustrate
what can happen when basic issues are ignored. The six wars that
illustrate his central points are the Greco-Persian Wars, the Theban
war against Sparta, the Second Punic War, Aurelian's campaigns to
prevent the break-up on the Roman Empire, Sherman's Civil War
campaigns, and the American defeat of Japan. The negative example is
Britain's appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Lewis concedes that his decisive victories "are in a certain sense
anomalous in history" (8). He argues that three fundamental and
interrelated factors brought them about. First and foremost, these wars were fought over
profound moral issues at the core of their participants'
societies. They were, in short, the result of a deeper ideological
struggle: "Both war and peace are the consequences of
ideas—especially moral ideas—that can propel whole nations into
bloody slaughter on behalf of a Führer, a tribe, or a deity,
or into peaceful coexistence under governments that defend the
rights and liberties of their citizens. The greatest value of the
examples in this book is to show the importance of ideas—especially
moral ideas—in matters of war and peace" (2-3). Lewis makes no bones
about adjudicating the sharp moral differences between the opposing
forces. One side in each case possesses the moral high ground and
uses its advantage both to mobilize its own society and to
demoralize the enemy.
second requirement for decisive victory is to implement a strategic
offensive based on an understanding of the moral issues at stake and
the nature of both the enemy's culture and one's own. In discussing
Scipio's offensive against the Carthaginians, Lewis stresses his
wise rejection of the Fabian strategy of delay and attrition in
favor of targeting not the enemy's
military but his very will to wage war. Once Scipio brought the
war to the Carthaginians' doorstep, their determination to continue
the struggle evaporated: "The collapse of Carthage into fear was the
climax of the war; the decision to sue for peace was the admission
of helplessness" (101). Lewis notes that Carthage never again broke
the peace or reneged on its treaty obligations.
third prerequisite for decisive victory is keeping ends and means
connected. The essential criterion in assessing the moral status of
combatants—especially on the battlefield—is their respective goals:
"It is vital to evaluate the purposes of a war when evaluating both
the means by which that purpose is being pursued, and the social
support for those directing the war" (3). If a nation's civil and
military leaders lack an accurate vision of the ends they seek,
then the appropriate strategy for decisive victory will elude even
the party on the moral high ground.
illustrate this point, Lewis compares George McClellan with William
T. Sherman. He refers to McClellan as the Union's Cunctator
(Delayer), whose Fabian strategy led to bloody stalemate. Although an
excellent organizer and, on rare occasions, a skilled battlefield
tactician, McClellan lacked sufficient moral confidence in his cause
to define and carry out a strategy that would yield final Union
victory. He not only despised his commander-in-chief, but also
harbored a low regard for the men he was leading and, by extension,
Lewis cites McClellan's equal hostility to "ultra and mischievous"
Massachusetts and South Carolina: "A general who thinks that his own
people are as bad as the enemy is in no position to put forth the
demanding effort, in the face of indescribable slaughter, needed to
force a victory" (147). McClellan's lack of moral clarity undermined
Lewis shows that Sherman was cut from different cloth, not by
focusing on his famous Marches, but by examining the moral force
behind his ruthless strategy to destroy the Southern planter class.
In looking at Sherman's correspondence with John Bell Hood, Lewis
discerns the elements that together made Sherman's strategy so
effective: properly assigning war guilt, developing an understanding
of both one's own society and the enemy's, identifying the enemy's
vital center, and defining victory. Lewis sums up Sherman's famous
"War is cruelty" response to Confederate entreaties that he moderate
his policies: "These familiar passages cut to the heart of Sherman's
attitude toward an enemy that had started a war that his command now
charged him to end: he accepted no guilt for a war that was not of
his making. This sense of rightness allowed him to prosecute the war
to its conclusion quickly, with his force directed at the true
source of southern power rather than merely at military positions
dependent upon that power" (175).
Sherman's aim in his march across Georgia and the Carolinas was to
humiliate the planter class and destroy its property, thus
extinguishing the aristocracy's moral authority over southern
society and reestablishing the national government's legitimacy.
After his army marched south from Atlanta, it did not fight another
battle until the war's very end in April 1865. His Western army's
reputation, determination, and ability deterred the Confederates
from trying to stop him.
his chapter on the Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-75), Lewis finds,
even in a time of confusion and tumult, a perceived need for
political legitimacy based on moral justification. Upon becoming
emperor, Aurelian, facing a divided empire teetering on the edge,
embarked on a series of whirlwind campaigns that brought stability within five years. Lewis asserts that a decline of reason led
to theocracy: "For Aurelian, political authority, divine sanction,
personal deification, and military victory were all perspectives on
the same imperial project: the victory of a unified imperial power
over the empire" (135). While Aurelian's victories based on the
strategic offensive and the moral sanction of a syncretic religion
could not stave off long-term Roman decline, he did end a period of
anarchy and give Rome a new lease on life: "The collapse of the
ideas needed to maintain a rational system of government was
complete—all that was left was the force of an emperor-god" (136).
Lewis makes a complex moral argument for the need of the strategic
offensive in order to achieve definitive, permanent victory. Each of his
historical examples centers on weighty moral issues. In most cases,
when the side of the just cause stopped short of the strategic
offensive, a prolonged, sanguinary standoff resulted.
Drawing on both his positive examples and the negative one of the
Armistice and British appeasement, Lewis argues that the vanquished
must openly acknowledge defeat and repudiate the ideology of
aggression, while the victors must clearly establish and publically
articulate their goals. He successfully shows that the decisive
struggles examined in Nothing Less than Victory are
exceptions in the long history of warfare that repay careful
analysis and relate to our own time of seemingly endless war.
Kansas State University
 The American Way of War: A History of
United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington:
Indiana U Pr, 1977) 477.
 The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive
Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington: Indiana U
Pr, 1991) xii-xiii. He cites approvingly the similar conclusions
of Walter Millis on the effects of the Napoleonic Wars: "War was
beginning to lose its one virtue—its power of decision"--see
Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History (1956;
rpt. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Pr, 1984) 78.
 A History of Warfare (NY: Vintage, 1994) 385.
 Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in
the Rise of Western Power (NY: Anchor, 2002) 98.
 See, e.g., Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and
the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (St. Paul, MN: Zenith, 2004).
 See C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook,
Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea (Boulder, CO:
Paradigm, 2010) 171-96.
 Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation
Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (NY: Simon &
Schuster, 2004) 182-87.