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. . . .

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