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Book Review

John David Lewis, Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2010). 354 pp.. $29.95 (hardcover)

     Napoleon once said that in war the moral is to the physical as three to one. John David Lewis agrees, and has written Nothing Less than Victory to prove that war is not only about armies and weapons, but also ideas and morals; thus, the only way to win a war is to defeat those ideas and morals. Modern wars, according to Lewis, have lost sight of this principle, and thus become drawn-out conflicts that cost more lives than necessary and never really end. Lewis examines six wars, ranging from ancient Greece through World War II, that were won through an aggressive campaign aimed at the enemy ideology, rather than it's armies.

     Lewis first examines the Greco-Persian Wars. The Persians made a habit of invading the Greek city-states and, despite being repeatedly beaten back, continued to invade for four generations, often using the previous defeat as the pretext for a new offensive, but after the battle at Mycalae, the invasions ended. The change, Lewis argues, rested on the difference in government systems. Persia had a god-king, whose legitimacy rested on pomp and show, obedience, and wars of conquest. The Greeks, on the other hand, were autonomous, democratic city-states that squabbled and warred with each other as much as with Persia. At Mycalae, Greeks went on the offensive and trod on Persian soil, disrupting the reverence and awe with which the Persians viewed their king. After being defeated by tiny, squabbling Greek city-states, Darius had to turn inward, focusing on maintaining control within his borders. It his here that Lewis introduces the major sub-theme that runs through his book: authoritarianism and statism tend to lose to democracy and individualism. Greeks believed that they fought for their freedom and independence, Persians fought out of awe and reverence, or fear of punishment. Thus the autonomous Greeks had more motivation and their will to fight was much harder to break.

     Chapter two examines the Theban Wars which pitted authoritarian, statist Sparta against democratic Thebes. The Spartan nation was an armed camp supported by slaves and had a reputation for invincibility on the battlefield; however, at Leuctra, Epaminondas shattered the myth of Spartan invincibility. The ultimate blow came with Epaminondas's invasion of Laconia, not to sack Sparta, but to free the Helots. The combination of these events robbed the Spartans of their slave class, and made it impossible to re-enslave them, for Epaminondas had shown how an army of farmers could beat the Spartan infantry, which he did it right in front of the Spartan people. The key, Lewis argues, is found in Epaminondas's upbringing and education in an autonomous, democratic state—one that encouraged him to try different things, like fortifying his left wing and not laying siege to Sparta. Sparta, by contrast, was too steeped in tradition and superstition and therefore unable to adapt. As a minor critique for this chapter, when discussing Spartan statism, Lewis cites Ayn Rand for his definition of a statist system. Not only does this choice show a clear political bias, but surely there are better sources available.

     Lewis turns next to the Punic Wars, where the key lay again in the socio-political realm; republican Rome defeated dynastic Carthage. Like Persia, Carthage held together its empire through oaths, bonds, personal ties, and appeals to the gods of the ruling dynasty. Rome, on the other hand, cohered through fides—loyalty to a system of government and law. Hannibal's invasion led to his stunning victory at Cannae, but failed to break the empire because Roman citizens had nothing to gain by forsaking their citizenship and joining Hannibal. When Scipio invaded Africa he not only fractured the fragile Carthage alliances, but he also brought the war home to the Carthaginians and eroded public support. For years Carthage knew the war as something "over there," but had never experienced the war at home. The only solution was to recall Hannibal and send him at Scipio, leading to Hannibal's defeat at Zama; the great Hannibal, defeated in his homeland, removed the last beam supporting Carthage's will to fight. While this is an intriguing argument there is a problem: in both previous chapters, Lewis praises democracy's petty squabbles and debates for allowing innovation and experience to rise over tradition and status, yet in this chapter he shows quite clearly that those very squabbles led to years of war with Hannibal tromping through Italy, and only ended when a strong figure acted without political concern. This paradox should have been addressed.

     After Scipio, Lewis examines the campaigns of Roman emperor Aurelian, who brought order to the empire after the Pax Romana ended in 192 CE. To do so, Aurelian reestablished fides, the glue that previously held the empire together. After subduing the Goths, Aurelian established order throughout the rest of the empire with almost no military action. This is Lewis's weakest chapter for several reasons. First, Lewis focused on the wrong place. A small portion of the chapter addresses Aurelian's victory over the Goths, which Lewis states was a moral and social victory that led to 125 years of peace, but he does not give sufficient details and moves quickly to Aurelian's consolidation of power. This chapter should have been about that campaign instead of internal consolidation that fell apart immediately upon Aurelian's death. Second, the previous chapters feature wars between states of different morals, whereas this is an examination of internal strife and political consolidation among people with the same morals. Third, revisiting the democratic-authoritarian theme, Lewis proves in this chapter how Aurelian reinvented the emperor of Rome as a demi-god, maintaining rule through personal veneration, divine sanction, and military success—the very things Lewis had pointed to as the ultimate weaknesses of Persia and Carthage.

     Lewis's fourth case study is Sherman's infamous March to the Sea. It is one of the longest chapters in the book, but is also one of the most compelling and clearly written. He argues that Sherman did more to end the war in five months of non-combat operations than the armies of the North and South accomplished after four years of the bloodiest battles in American history. Like Scipio, Sherman brought the war to the people of the South rather than to its armies, eroding their will to fight and sapping their confidence in the social system of the Old South. To Lewis, this is yet another example of statism and authoritarianism vs. individualism. The South, with its planter class and slaves, was akin to Sparta, and the fact that most southerners did not own slaves yet fought for the "southern way of life" is further evidence of its brand of statism. Lewis accuses southern newspapers, politicians, and public figures of essentially brainwashing, making the interests of the planters the interests of the masses. To win, Sherman thus made war on planter culture and the Confederate economy, and focused less on the Confederate army. By living off the land on his march, Sherman negated the need for a supply line, brought the "hard hand of war" to the South, and demonstrated the Union's ability to storm through the South unopposed. Southern governors and prominent planters ordered the population to fight to the last man while they themselves fled. Seeing those who perpetuated the system refusing to defend it, rank-and-file Southerners gave up as well. In an interesting interpretation of the southern vilification of Sherman, Lewis claims that those generals who led the slaughter of tens of thousands were considered "noble," while Sherman, who avoided battle and destroyed mostly property, were demonized. In other words, Sherman refused to fight the Confederacy on its terms or within its moral framework, instead attacking the Confederacy at its true base the same way Epaminondas did with Sparta. Southern planters sacrificing soldiers, but losing property and honor was abhorrent.

     Lewis then moves on to a very different case study: British appeasement and the road to WWII. Rather than address how a war ended by destroying the enemy's will to fight, this chapter examines how the lack of will to fight started a conflict. However, the chapter starts with a few problems that must be addressed first. Lewis argues that Germans did not become Nazis due to "economic stagnation, political dissatisfaction or bad feelings about [World War I]," but became Nazis due to nationalism and statism (184). His reasoning is that other countries had stagnation, dissatisfaction, and bitterness over World War I but did not become aggressive states. Lewis is correct in pointing to statism and nationalism, but incorrect in rejecting other factors. The second problem comes when Lewis refers to Germans as "Hitler's willing executioners," taking the phrase from Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book about German "exterminationist anti-Semitism." Goldhagen's thesis has been generally rejected by Holocaust scholars, and therefore ought not to be used in the manner Lewis uses it.

     At the end of WWI, Woodrow Wilson called for a "peace without victory," which Lewis identifies as the first time the United States rejected victory as the object of a war. Yet despite the rhetoric, the Treaty of Versailles certainly treated Germany like a defeated nation, creating anger and bitterness, but it left the authoritarian, militaristic German ideology intact. The tension begun by the treaty was exacerbated by the collective security dream of the League of Nations, where peace was to be maintained through consensus rather than power. Collective security, however, was incompatible with Wilson's other major foreign policy goal of national self-determination. The culmination of these contradictions set the stage for another war. Germany felt insulted and Britain sympathized, turning the aggressor into the victim and the victor into the bully, which Lewis terms as "meacuplism." The tension only ended with war and "unconditional surrender" in 1945. Germany has not been a threat since because its people finally recognized that they were in the wrong and have officially repudiated the ideas that led them to war in 1914 and 1939.

     Lewis's last case study examines statism and authoritarianism in twentieth-century Japan. By World War II, the greatest honor for a Japanese soldier was to die for their god-emperor, as demonstrated by kamikaze pilots and banzai charges. There were relatively few individual rights or limits on government power. In contrast, American society grew out of individual rights and freedoms. Japanese soldiers sought glory or death, while Americans fought to go home alive to a land of liberty. By 1945, Japan was beaten, but not defeated. Americans thoroughly bombarded its cities, but the Japanese Diet rejected surrender and hoped for a land invasion to make the United States pay dearly for its victory. Japan adopted a policy of no surrender; the United States, a policy of unconditional surrender. One of them was going to have to give. Only the dropping of atomic bombs, a decision Lewis goes to great lengths to support, convinced Japan of the futility of continued resistance by demonstrating the United States had the power to destroy Japan while denying its people the chance to die honorably in battle. The occupation that followed the war then completed the picture by making Japan feel the hard hand of war, pressing home to the Japanese that they started this war and now must suffer the consequences. Lewis states that under occupation the Japanese replaced unquestioned obedience with critical thinking, and statism with individual rights. Since then, Japan has never posed a significant military threat to any nation.

     While Lewis's arguments about the benefits of individualism over statism are well argued in this chapter, in one instance he does go too far. In writing about war production, Lewis points to the stunning production achievements of the US as evidence of the capabilities of free enterprise over the cartel system practiced in Japan. What he does not point out, however, is the tremendous difference in natural resources available to each nation. Britain was a capitalist nation, yet it suffered from the same supply problems as Japan.

     In the final chapter Lewis revisits his thesis in the context of his six case studies; he re-states that ideas matter, and it has been the destruction of ideas, not armies, that ends wars and establishes lasting peace. To achieve such victories, one belligerent had to recognize the source of the enemy's moral support and defeat it openly and visibly, so that the enemy society could see the breakdown of their ideology or moral system. Failure to do only ensured another war.

     Lewis's book, though fascinating, is not without serious shortcomings, the most important coming from what was left out. In his acknowledgements Lewis states that the idea for this work came from his class "Warfare: Ancient and Modern," and that is exactly what the book covers. Of his six case studies, half come from antiquity and the rest from the modern era. There is nothing on the medieval era, Napoleon, or the European wars of empire. In the introduction, Lewis defends his choice of case studies by pointing out that it is not possible to include every battle, leaving it to future scholars to examine other wars as affirmation or refutation of his thesis. Perhaps, but the uneven spread of choices for evidence to support a thesis that purports to span all of history severely diminishes the argument. The most disappointing omission is the Vietnam War, which Lewis explores briefly in his conclusion, but a more thorough exploration of the conflict could have challenged one of the pillars of his argument. The fact that the "conclusion" is actually a brief seventh case study on Vietnam proves this. The author should have removed the chapter on Aurelian and replaced it with a fuller treatment of Vietnam.

     Another problem is the complete emphasis on the West. Every war examined involves a Western nation, and always ends with a Western victory. Again, for a thesis that is supposed to transcend national borders the evidence needs to include more than the times when Europe dominated the globe. This is another reason why Vietnam deserved more than just a few pages in the conclusion. A statist nation in Asia defeated a Western liberal-democracy, and the US and Vietnam have never gone to war since. By including only wars involving victorious Western nations, Lewis reveals a bias (intentional or not) in favor of Western civilization, giving the book a decidedly Eurocentric approach similar to Victor Davis Hansen's The Western Way of War. If that was Lewis's intention, his thesis should have been altered to clarify that it applies to Western nations rather than the whole earth.

     This ethnocentricity leads to another deficiency in Lewis's thesis on the superiority of individualism over statism. His case studies indeed support this thesis, but what then can be said of wars involving two statist nations (Germany and the USSR in WWII or the Russo-Japanese War), or two non-statist nations (American Revolution or the War of 1812)? With his repeated emphasis on the value of democracy, Lewis has narrowed the applicability of his argument to western war rather than global conflict. Overall, Lewis has written a book that, though skewed, presents food for thought. It does not belong in a survey or lower-division class, but would be a useful tool in upper-division courses or graduate seminars, either through the use of individual chapters or the entire book. Despite the Eurocentric focus, the book still could be used in world history courses for class discussion or assignments that analyze Lewis's argument in non-European contexts.

Chris Thomas is an adjunct instructor at Blinn College. His research focuses on modern history as well as war and society. He can be reached at

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