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.”