The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Review: Nothing Less Than Victory

The last engaging book I read on the means and ends of warfare before John Lewis’s was a 2009 abridged version of Winston Churchill’s The River War, originally published in 1899. Its original, full title included An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan. The term “reconquest” was misleading, because the Sudan had never before been “conquered” by the British, but was under the jurisdiction of Egypt, then a protectorate of Britain. Egypt was unable to deal militarily with the Dervish forces that meant to conquer it. It fell to Britain extinguish the Mahdist or Islamic threat, which, unchecked, could well have spread from Egypt to the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.

General Herbert Kitchener was tasked with that formidable project. Churchill describes the meticulous and determined campaign he waged, which was not just a matter of sending an army into the desert wastes to fight fanatical tribesmen. It meant reforming the corrupt and ineffectual Egyptian government, rebuilding the Egyptian army and its Sudanese levies, building a railroad into enemy territory, and mastering the stupendous logistics of supplies and men. The stated objective was to erase the Mahdist regime as a military and political threat in the whole region. The climax of the campaign was the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, in which the Dervish army was utterly decimated and routed.

In the end, over a year later, the successor of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmed, Abdallah ibn Muhammad, was killed and the remnants of his forces routed at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat.

The Sudan Campaign had clear military and political objectives. The British government then had the will to take the necessary actions to destroy an enemy and discredit the ideology that moved it.

Churchill noted in The River War that, ” The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.”

In short, Islam, like the Nazi, Fascist, and Shinto ideologies which compelled Germany, Italy, and Japan to invade other countries, must be repudiated by the aggressor and cease to be regarded by its adherents and converts as a feasible and desired ideology that fosters “peace.”

This comports with the main theme of John David Lewis’s seminal work on the efficacious “warfighting” policies of the past, Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History (Princeton University Press, 2010). That “great power” comes in many disguises. Lewis tackles some of them.

Lewis, however, does not immediately discuss 20th century conflicts, but wars of antiquity, using them as overtures to his discussions of the Civil War and World Wars One and Two, underscoring the need, in warfare, of a government to have the will to identify an enemy and his morality or ideology, and then the will to fight the war on its own terms, and not those of the enemy. What is more, the attacked nation must be willing to eviscerate the enemy’s will to fight on to foreshorten the conflict and possibly establish a peace beneficial to the former opponents.

In each of the conflicts that he illustrates, Lewis economically dwells on military strategies of opponents, but places far more importance on the moral force, or lack of it, that guides one side to victory and the other to defeat. In his Introduction to Nothing Less Than Victory, Lewis states:

Those who wage war to enslave a continent – or to impose their dictatorships over a neighboring state – are seeking an end that is deeply immoral and must not be judged morally equal to those defending against such attacks.

Further on he notes:

Certainly the tactics of Roman foot soldiers cannot be applied to tank divisions today, but the Romans might be able to tell us something about the motivations of a stateless enemy that is subverting a world power….The goal of war is the subjugation of the hostile will, which echoes Carl von Clausewitz’s identification that war is ‘an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.’

This is Lewis’s only indirect reference to Islamic jihad. Today, Islam is the “stateless enemy” subverting a world power (the U.S.), but the U.S. lacks to will to identify that enemy and take the necessary steps to vanquish it. (Lewis does not discuss the Islamic jihad, but all the points he makes about other wars may be applied to that species of aggression.) There is an eerie parallel between the current situation and Lewis’s Chapter Six, “The Balm of a Guilty Conscience,” which details the evasions, fallacious soul-searching, and moral disintegration of British diplomacy in the face of the evolving and maturing nemesis of Nazi Germany before the onset of World War Two. As Lewis demonstrates in that chapter, British and Allied concessions to Hitler abetted the maturation of Hitler’s régime to the point that Hitler could confidently plan and embark on his conquests. Lewis demonstrates novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand’s observation that

Do not confuse appeasement with tactfulness or generosity. Appeasement is not consideration for the feelings of others, it is consideration for and compliance with the unjust, irrational and evil feelings of others. It is a policy of exempting the emotions of others from moral judgment, and of willingness to sacrifice innocent, virtuous victims to the evil malice of such emotions.

In a brilliant dissection of the causes of the rise of Nazism, Lewis pinpoints those “feelings” stemming from the Versailles Treaty of 1919, in which the victors laid blame for World War One squarely on Germany’s aggressions, but which German politicians and moralists interpreted as an unjust victimization of Germany. It is in this chapter that Lewis best explicates the differences between an aggressor nation’s surrender and its defeat.

Germany, he writes, surrendered without admitting defeat. Over time, British and Allied governments were persuaded – or persuaded themselves – that German feelings and assertions of victimization and humiliation were justified, and incrementally, in a succession of concessions, allowed Hitler to cement his power over Germany, and later waived all moral judgment for his takeovers of Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia, not to mention his determined rearmament in violation of the Treaty’s terms.

Craven British diplomatic maneuvering and peace-hankering newspapers pressured France into making conciliations. France, devastated by the German invasion and depredations in the first war, and which stood the most to lose if Germany rearmed, initially took steps to enforce the Treaty’s terms, but was browbeaten into submission by “public opinion” and the Allies virtual abandonment of the Treaty. After the invasions of Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, France was the next country targeted by the wrath of Germany’s vengeful feelings.

I guarantee that anyone who reads Chapter Six will emerge with an enriched and refocused understanding of the causes of World War Two. Complementing that chapter is “Gifts from Heaven,” in which he discusses how and why the Shinto/Bushido culture of Imperial Japan had to be gutted from top to bottom, beginning with the Emperor clear down through Japanese politics to the schoolroom, as an integral element of the American defeat of Japan to ensure that it would never again formulate a design for conquest. It was necessary for Japan not only to surrender, but to admit to the world and to its citizens the ignominious defeat of its philosophy of existence, which was essentially a philosophy of death.

Grant Jones, in his 2010 review of Lewis’s book in Michigan War Studies Review, reprises Lewis’s comparison of the strategies adopted by Civil War Generals George McClellan and William T. Sherman in Chapter Five, “The Hard Hand of War.” McClellan, notes Lewis, was a superb administrator but a poor strategist, hamstrung by an ambivalent attitude towards his own troops and absent a clear goal.

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.

Lewis briefly discusses the failed war policy of Vietnam, and further rebuts the many and varied arguments that the U.S. should not have used atomic bombs on Japan. He concludes his rebuttals with:

All weapons – from bowie knives to hydrogen bombs – are designed to kill, and there is a scale of destructiveness on which they fall….To break the Japanese leadership out of their ideological blunders and end the war, American leaders needed to kill a lot of Japanese in a visibly shocking way. The resulting shock led to an immediate end to the war.

The alternative, as described in detail by Lewis, was a massive invasion of Japan whose population was being exhorted to fight the Americans to the death with sticks and stones, thus prolonging the war and resulting in incalculable American casualties.

Compare America’s warfighting philosophy then with that which has governed our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, governed by “just war theory” which deliberately, at the cost of American lives and treasure, spares enemy populations of the consequences of their active or passive support of their masters.

Lewis’s book is not a cobbled-together collection of arbitrary, hindsight anecdotes, but one that takes the rare examples of proper warfighting policy adopted by aggressed-upon nations, and drives home the principles behind his thesis. The logical progression of his examples is enlightening and indisputable.

Lewis, a classical studies scholar, is the author of two previous books on the politics and judicial thought of antiquity, Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens (Duckworth Publishers, 2008), and Early Greek Lawgivers (Duckworth Publishers, 2007). So it is not coincidence that he chose to illustrate his thesis in the first four chapters of Nothing Less Than Victory, covering the Greco-Persian Wars, the Theban war against Sparta, the Second Punic War, and Roman Emperor Aurelian’s campaigns to prevent the disintegration of the Roman Empire. In each of these chapters he illustrates the efficacy of the policy of taking the war to the aggressor enemy’s land for the sole purpose of deflating the aggressor’s moral motivation.

Lewis concludes his nonpareil survey with this advisement:

Sic vis pacem, para bellum. Or – If you want peace, prepare for war.


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  1. Slade Calhoun

    I have read the book–one should think it would be required reading by any commander-in-chief, if we had one.

  2. Anonymous

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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