Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, by John David Lewis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. 368 pp. $29.95 (hardcover).

Americans today have been told to expect years of military action overseas. Yet they are also being told that they should not expect victory; that a “definitive end to the conflict” is not possible; and that success will mean a level of violence that “does not define our daily lives.” (p. 1)


John David Lewis holds that this defeatist attitude is completely at odds with the lessons of history. In Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, Lewis shows how nations in the past that faced far greater threats and more formidable foes than America does now went on to defeat their enemies and win lasting peace.

Lewis examines six major wars, devoting one chapter each to the Greco-Persian wars, the Theban wars, the Second Punic War, the campaigns of the Roman emperor Aurelian, the American Civil War, and two chapters to World War II. He shows how the Greeks defeated the mighty Persian empire, how the Thebans shattered the mirage of Spartan invulnerability, how the Romans swiftly ended a long war by attacking the enemy’s home front, how Aurelian battled enemies on many fronts to reunite Rome, how William Tecumseh Sherman marched through the American South and destroyed the Confederate will to fight, and how America achieved a permanent victory over Japan. While recounting the key events of each conflict, Lewis draws several important, universally applicable lessons.

One such lesson pertains to the fundamental cause of wars. Although the wars examined in Nothing Less than Victory differ substantially in terms of specifics, Lewis points out that each “exhibited a certain underlying cause that led to the initial attacks” (p. 286). This cause, he says, is invariably ideas.

[T]he wellspring of every war is that which makes us human; our capacity to think abstractly, to conceive, and to create. It is our conceptual capacity that allows us to choose a nation’s policy goals; to identify a moral purpose for good or ill; to select allies and enemies; to make a political decision to fight; to manufacture the weapons, technologies, strategies, and tactics needed to sustain the decision over time; and to motivate whole populations into killing—or dissidents into protests. Both war and peace are the consequences of ideas—especially moral ideas—that can propel whole nations into bloody slaughter on behalf of a Fuhrer, a tribe, a deity, or into peaceful coexistence under governments that defend the rights and liberties of their citizens.” (p. 2)

Lewis concretizes this point with respect to each war he examines. He shows, for instance, that what motivated the Persian king Xerxes to invade Greece was an ideology that “conjoined claims to divine protection with displays of magnificence, demands for submission, and continuous expansion of [the king’s] rule across the entire world” (p. 15). Likewise, he shows that what motivated the Japanese to expand their empire by conquest was an ideology holding sacrifice for the “greater glory” of the emperor as the highest moral ideal (pp. 241–42). And Lewis shows that in order for a victim nation to defend itself and achieve victory over its aggressor, it must quash the ideology driving the aggressor nation. In the case of Imperial Japan’s war against America, for instance, victory for America meant “the permanent reversal of the Japanese decision and commitment to fight, demonstrated in action by their leadership, army, and population at large, and the repudiation of the ideology behind the war” (p. 248).

Another lesson pertains to the identification and elimination of the enemy’s key geographical stronghold. Lewis notes that the victorious commanders in each war “struck to the center of their enemy’s strength, and achieved a physical victory that extinguished the moral and ideological fire behind the fight” (p. 286). In the Second Punic War, for instance, the Romans fought the Carthaginian general Hannibal for eighteen long, bloody years on Italian soil before Publius Cornelius Scipio ended it by acting on an important fact: While Hannibal destroyed the Italian countryside, the carnage mounting with no clear end in sight, “Carthage itself—the center of Carthaginian political, religious, and social power—was unthreatened by any Roman soldier” (p. 82). Scipio’s identification of the fact that the Carthaginians would continue to wage war as long as Carthage itself remained intact—along with his success in attacking this source of the enemy’s strength—enabled him to achieve a relatively quick victory and lasting peace for Rome.

Another lesson induced in Nothing Less than Victory is the crucial importance of a nation’s moral confidence in its position.

An aggressive nation can be empowered far beyond its physical strength by a conclusion that its opponent does not have the will to fight. . . . a powerful nation may give up if its people come to think that a war is unjust, their nation’s position is morally untenable, or its goal unclear or simply not worth it. (p. 10)

According to Lewis, the strength of a nation’s commitment to its position, right or wrong, can be decisive in war. This, he says, is what Neville Chamberlain discovered at Munich and what the world would later discover after seeing how Britain’s moral cowardice emboldened Adolph Hitler. But, says Lewis, the greatest spiritual advantage a nation can have is to know that it is morally in the right.

On a deeper level, the examples in this book . . . show that the strongest power belonged to those who were, in fact, right, if those who were right knew it. This may be unfashionable to say today—in an intellectual climate that sunders fact and value, and understands moral claims as inherently contested matters of opinion—but it remains a demonstrable fact that the Spartan and Confederate slave systems were morally debased and that the freedom upheld by the Thebans and the Union was good. The political autonomy upheld by the Greeks, as well as the political relationships between Rome and its Italian allies, was superior to the alternatives presented by Persia and Carthage. Certainly, the war between America and Japan in 1945 was not fought over morally equivalent options—not if peace and prosperity for millions of people are valued. . . . The British and the Americans—like the Greeks—became truly unbeatable when they grasped how right they really were. (pp. 288–89)

Although at the outset of the book Lewis tantalizingly mentions America’s current foreign policy woes, he does not, after his illustrative march through history, return to current events and apply the lessons induced in the book. But readers should have little trouble applying the lessons themselves. Nothing Less than Victory arms the reader with crucial, universally applicable principles of warfare—principles proven in conflicts across history—and thus with powerful arguments against those who suggest that America should ever accept anything less than victory.

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