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Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History

A study of conflicts, morality and the benefits of hindsight doesn't go deep enough for Philip Sabin

This is another US neoconservative polemic about the enduring "lessons" of ancient and modern warfare, as with Donald Kagan's On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (1995) and Victor Davis Hanson's The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (1999) and The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern (2010). It may seem comforting that even classical antiquity can thus be made to serve the "impact" agenda, but the rather Procrustean methods involved cast doubt on the work's value as a balanced and objective analysis.

John David Lewis' subject is an important one - what makes certain wars "decisive" and a foundation for a lasting peace? He argues that the key lies in the moral dimension, and in the need to "bring war home" to malefactors through a victorious offensive, so as to convince them of the error of their ways. His liberating heroes are Themistocles, Epaminondas, Scipio, Aurelian and William Sherman and Douglas MacArthur, whose stern but fair actions resolved conflicts and ended the threat from previously intransigent opponents. By contrast, Lewis sees liberals and appeasers as responsible for failing to ram home German defeat after the First World War, thereby sowing the seeds of an even more devastating second global conflict.

Unfortunately, history is rather more complex than this morality tale of resolute defenders of freedom triumphing over misguided tyrannies. While dwelling on the iniquities of Persia, Sparta and Carthage, Lewis skates over uncomfortable realities such as the equally aggressive imperialism of the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic. Epaminondas died at Mantinea fighting Athenians and many other Greeks besides Spartans, and his "victory" served merely to maintain disunity and so expose Greece to Macedonian conquest (and Thebes to destruction). When Rome in turn conquered the Hellenistic and Celtic peoples, its victory was more lasting, but hardly a triumph for freedom.

European wars of the 19th century were likewise much more equivocal in their "lessons" than the lasting unification and emancipation that President Abraham Lincoln's democratic war effort produced in the US. Even in the 20th century, things were not as simple as Lewis' focus on the defeat of Axis militarism may suggest. Communism was just as challenging a threat, and it took careful and judicious policies for democratic leaders to succeed in defusing both these threats between 1917 and 1991. Things may certainly have gone better, but they could also have gone spectacularly worse, especially with the advent of nuclear weapons. Lewis bemoans the indecisiveness of American wars since 1945, and argues that North Vietnam should have been defeated in the 1960s as unequivocally as imperial Japan had been, but he conveniently fails to discuss the traumatic Western occupation of North Korea and North Vietnam a decade earlier, or of Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan in more recent years.

He is quite right to highlight the importance of moral ideas and legitimacy in warfare, but his advocacy of unyielding offensive action is as simplistic as US historian Edward Luttwak's opposite counsel that superior forces should always hold back so as to avoid passing Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz's "culminating point of victory". Each conflict is complex and unique, and must be analysed in its own terms to determine exactly where the balance should be struck at any given time.

Does this mean that history, especially ancient history, is irrelevant to modern policy debates? Certainly works such as Lewis' that leap selectively across the millennia in search of enduring lessons are highly problematic. However, history and hindsight do have the great benefit that we can see the range of outcomes that past policy decisions produced. Even the distant and ill-documented history of antiquity can help, as long as we see its very remoteness from modern values as a useful corrective to the notion that other peoples are just like ourselves.

Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History

By John David Lewis

Princeton University Press

368pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780691135182

Published 31 March 2010

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