Winning the War to Secure the Peace

John David Lewis discusses Nothing Less Than Victory

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Weapons, troops, strategy, and tactics have always been key elements of military conflict, yet according to historian John David Lewis, analyzing these things can go only so far in understanding war's real nature. In his latest book, Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, Lewis looks at major conflicts from the Greco-Persian Wars to World War II to discern the roots of lasting peace. Lewis, a visiting associate professor of philosophy, politics, and economics at Duke University and research scholar at Bowling Green State University, recently chatted with U.S. News about the importance of knowing the moral motivations behind why leaders and nations go to war. Excerpts: 

Why should nations go to war?

The actual goal of war, what we want, what we're after when we fight, shouldn't be the destruction of the hostile world. The reason we're fighting . . . is because another side has decided to attack. The purpose of a war is to reverse that hostile decision. What we were after in Japan in 1945—and in Germany, for that matter—was to end those countries' drives for aggressive military dominance. 

What was the most decisive war in history?

World War II would have to rank among the most decisive wars. The defeat of Germany and the defeat of Japan were both so total and overwhelming that based on all of our evidence right now, any will or any desire of either of those countries to return to war is gone. The proper victory is not just the total and all-out destruction of the enemy. That could perhaps lay the seeds for another bad war. That might not constitute a victory at all. 

What is an example of a poorly executed war?

The Vietnam War. In the United States versus Vietnam, I know that we wanted to prevent Vietnam from falling to the Communists. But our basis for that kept changing so much that in the end we really had to say we had no clear-cut goals in Vietnam. You never fight a war if you don't know what you're fighting for. 

What surprised you most in your research?

The real issue at stake is: What is the moral basis of the war? What moral ideas are driving one or both sides forward? What surprised me was how important these moral ideas are. As we see terrorist attacks happening overseas now, the question that comes to mind is: Why are they so heavily motivated as they are to attack? Why is it that [Osama bin Laden] just won't give up? And then, what is the nature of the response of the West? Are we as motivated to defend ourselves as he is to attack? And how do these motivations play out in the way events proceeded? That was the real surprise to me. 

Why is your book relevant now?

Most American people don't have any experience with war because we're in this impregnable citadel here in the United States. So the book is relevant in that I think Americans need to know more about history, about how wars are actually fought. 

What historical lessons can we apply to Iraq and Afghanistan?

The big lesson is this: A military commander and political leader must understand his own goals, his own moral ideas, his own moral position, what it is he's after, and what he's willing to do to win. And he must understand solidly what it is that the other side is after. We have deluded ourselves in some ways. [For example, many people claim] that the reason we're being attacked today is because poor people overseas are desperately poor and see no way out except to lash out and to attack. This just flies in the face of the evidence. Even prior to World War II, the poorer nations did not become aggressors. China was poorer than Japan, so why didn't China attack Japan instead of the other way around? Austria was poorer than Germany, so why didn't Austria attack Germany instead of the other way around? And the same with today: The Afghans and Iraqis and the insurgent campaigns being mounted there are generally being led by middle-class people who are educated, who are not deeply poor. They are being pushed forth by ideologies that are not being driven by poverty.