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History & Culture

Lessons From History About Victory in War

Excerpts from Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History (Princeton University Press, 2010) by John David Lewis, Ph.D.

“The causes of war and peace run far deeper than the movements of armies and troops (strategy and tactics) into the reasons why armies form and move at all” writes John David Lewis. Those causes are to be found in the ideas that motivate an aggressor to attack, or a defender to rise to the defense. 

“The 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 for 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 protest. Both war and peace are the consequences of ideas—especially moral ideas—that can propel whole nations into bloody slaughter on behalf of a Führer, a tribe, or a deity, or into peaceful coexistence under governments that defend the rights and liberties of their citizens.”

To defend this claim, Professor Lewis examines seven events in history, derived from six major wars, to show how a long-term resolution to the causes of the conflict was only possible with a complete victory over an enemy’s will to fight. About the attack by Persia against the Greeks, Lewis writes:

“Xerxes began with the inherited passion for conquest that had motivated three generations of predecessors. But when his army and navy were mutilated by the Greeks and he saw his men sink beneath the waves, he confronted serious personal defeat for the first time. As his Great Pyramid collapsed, the effect on the king was immediate; he set off posthaste to secure his own retreat. His defeat was open and public, and despite his likely attempts to make it appear a victory, he knew that this could be fatal to the dynasty. His position had demanded that he demonstrate his splendor—but at the moment of defeat he reached the point of greatest danger. His task now was to reestablish his position inside his own territory—and this required a permanent change in policy. The legitimacy of his throne had to be disengaged from the conquest of the Greeks.”

 Writing of the defeat of the Spartans by the Theban leader Epaminondas—in which generations of slavery were ended in a single winter campaign directed against Sparta itself—Lewis writes that:

“such wars are powered from an ideological center, for both aggressors and defenders, which relies upon an economic and social base for its material sustenance and its affi rmation. This is the intersection of theory and practice. For the Spartans, this economic center was their hold over their Messenian helots, but when the Spartans were defeated and their helots found a political voice, more was lost than someone to do the dirty work. The Spartan ethos and its ideological center—the system of ideas that placed them at the top of a social hierarchy and that anchored their excellence in physical dominance—was discredited, its failure in action made undeniable.”

 The result? Sparta never again invaded the land of Thebes.

Sherman’s march through Georgai and the Carolinas had the same positive effect, demonstrating the hopelessness of the southern cause and undercutting their motivations to fight:

“Sherman’s tactics—like those of the cavalry commander Philip Sheridan, who was set to operate in the Shenandoah Valley—would shock southern society to its roots by the sheer force of his demonstration. This was not an unattended consequence; it was central to Sherman’s plan, and it centered on destroying property while avoiding the loss of life. An army burning its way through Georgia plantations is not a compassionate thought, but the creation of peace out of war was not a compassionate process. Sherman knew that the war could not be won as long as southern civilians thought that they were winning the war and were able to send men, arms, supplies, and psychological comfort to their army in the north.”

In defeating the Japanese will to fight in World War II, Lewis shows a specific campaign to end military indoctrination in schools, and to sever the ties between the religion of Shinto and those using it to motivate a population into suicidal war:

“State-mandated Shinto—the coercion of the Japanese people to follow this mythology and its rituals—was the cardinal means by which the Japanese government was able to motivate the population into suicidal military action.81 MacArthur’s so-called Shinto Directive left the shrines open—a very important issue to many Japanese—but it severed the connection between Shinto and the government. Shinto was reduced from a political mandate to a private matter; this was key to ending the sacrificial, nationalistic mind-set that had infected the Japanese people.”

Lewis applies the lessons derived from such events in a brief but provocative description, in the conclusion, about American involvement in Vietnam:

“The Americans had only two courses of action open to them: to accept the existence of the North Vietnamese government and therefore the fall of the South, or to destroy the government in the North as a necessary condition to an independent South. In either case, [the ancient Chinese military thinker] Sun-tzu should have been consulted, for the protracted campaign that followed was more damaging than either a fast destruction of the northern capital or the swift fall of the South without a fight would have been.”

Lest anyone think that Lewis is a warmonger, who glories in the idea of mass civilian casualties, this is what he writes of the Roman destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War:

“The Third Punic War of 149–146 BC was not a war. It was a massacre. Rome was wrong; the peace of Scipio Africanus [following the Second Punic War] was good, and the Romans could have preserved it by just mediation of the Carthaginian complaints. The Romans . . . could have ended the Numidian [North African] attacks [on Carthage]. It is to Romans’ eternal shame—there is no credit due here—that they slaughtered a former enemy that had accepted peace and was living by its word.”

Alive Even at Rest

A painting recommendation by by Lee Sandstead

Ayn Rand opened The Fountainhead with these lines: “He stood naked at the edge of a cliff…He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine…He had come here for his only relaxation, to swim, to rest, to think, to be alone and alive, whenever he could find one hour to spare.” Have you ever wanted to see this scene in paint, a portrait of a passionate valuer, alive even at rest?

Young Man Nude by Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864), shows us a man, much like Roark, who seeks the solemn and thoughtful, even at rest, and like Rand’s masterful opening to The Fountainhead, Flanderin uses an intriguing subject, beautiful imagery and simple visual devices to hold our attention.

The man serenely sits with his head upon his knees atop a granite pinnacle high above a sea. He is young, virile and full of health; he is beautiful. The man dominates the painting, and the composition is such that wherever the eye falls upon the painting, it is immediately drawn back to him; the lines of his granite seat thrust our eye upwards, only to be stopped by the angle of his arm, which connects the clouds in the upper-left to the crag in the lower right. The effect is that the composition directs our attention in a circular motion around his torso. If the primary function of painting is contemplation, then Flanderin definitely succeeds.

Flanderin asks us to think about rest as it should be — an act of thinking, an act of valuing, an act of enjoying. Notice how the man is enraptured in himself. Notice how strong he is. Notice where he is and think of what he had to do to get there. Think of the great lengths Flandrin went to focus and direct our eye on his subject. One does not normally conceive of rest in such passionate terms, but Flanderin asks us to think of rest as something other than freedom from activity. Ironically, Flandrin gave us a highly inspirational and beautiful painting — about the act of rest!

If you buy a print of this painting and hang it on your wall, as I have, then let it serve as a reminder to pursue rest with the planning and thought of a career goal or loved one. Make the act of rest highly personal, highly valued, and most of all, highly restful.

Linda Mann’s Paintings

By Lee Sandstead

Regarding art, Ayn Rand wrote that one’s psycho-epistemological sense of life is “an expression of that level of mental functioning on which the artist feels most at home.”1

Is consciousness active or passive? Is it efficacious or not? The answers to these questions are at the base of one’s psycho-epistemological sense of life and will condition what type of style an artist chooses and how the viewer responds.

To see this, look at Linda Mann’s “Vase and Stones” (1996). Dozens of rocks, a vase, and an oval container sit on a large open box in front of a wall, which is variegated by light and shadow. The clarity is brilliant, and some will grossly mistake this for a painted photograph.

In actuality, “Vase and Stones” is highly stylized in that it presents what the artist wants the viewer to see and how she wants him to see it. By sitting slightly over the edge of the box, the oval container in the lower left pulls the viewer into the composition. The composition then guides the viewer in a circular motion through the painting: from the oval container, to the bag of stones, to the glass vase, to the cache of polished stones on the right, and, finally, back to the oval container by hopping from individual stone to individual stone. The light from the lower left casts a shadow from the direction of the oval container, rolls over the valleys of the cloth bag, and passes through the glass vase to the back wall. “Vase and Stones” is the work of an artist who clearly believes that consciousness is active and efficacious.

The deliberate circular motion and controlled lighting scheme enable Miss Mann to contrast the smooth textures of the open box’s lacquered surface, polished stones, and glass vase with the rough textures of the cloth bag and unpolished stones. By doing this, she enables the viewer easily to differentiate the qualities of one object from another, thereby providing greater clarity and understanding as to the precise nature of each object.

Because of this, one can grasp a fundamental value of good still-life paintings: epistemological joy-a moment of love for consciousness’ relationship to concretes; a relationship that is highly selective, ordered, essentialized-and purposeful; a relationship full of clarity, vivid color, subtlety, and brilliant light; a relationship that can produce an intense emotional response within the viewer that says, to paraphrase Ayn Rand: “These are concretes as I see them!”

Experiencing epistemological joy when looking at art is much like experiencing metaphysical joy, but instead of being based on one’s sense of life, epistemological joy stems from one’s psycho-epistemological sense of life.

Linda Mann always selects those objects that are fine, luxurious, and tantalizing, and they are galvanized by her delight in selectivity, challenging compositions, and technical mastery. To see and order prints of her paintings for yourself, visit her website.

1 Ayn Rand, “Art and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto (New American Library, New York, 1975), p. 42.