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

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

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

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


The goal of war is to defeat the enemy's will to fight. But how this can be accomplished is a thorny issue. Nothing Less than Victory provocatively shows that aggressive, strategic military offenses can win wars and establish lasting peace, while defensive maneuvers have often led to prolonged carnage, indecision, and stalemate. Taking an ambitious and sweeping look at six major wars, from antiquity to World War II, John David Lewis shows how victorious military commanders have achieved long-term peace by identifying the core of the enemy's ideological, political, and social support for a war, fiercely striking at this objective, and demanding that the enemy acknowledges its defeat.

Lewis examines the Greco-Persian and Theban wars, the Second Punic War, Aurelian's wars to reunify Rome, the American Civil War, and the Second World War. He considers successful examples of overwhelming force, such as the Greek mutilation of Xerxes' army and navy, the Theban-led invasion of the Spartan homeland, and Hannibal's attack against Italy--as well as failed tactics of defense, including Fabius's policy of delay, McClellan's retreat from Richmond, and Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. Lewis shows that a war's endurance rests in each side's reasoning, moral purpose, and commitment to fight, and why an effectively aimed, well-planned, and quickly executed offense can end a conflict and create the conditions needed for long-term peace.

Recognizing the human motivations behind military conflicts, Nothing Less than Victory makes a powerful case for offensive actions in pursuit of peace.


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.” A new administration is now bringing more troops into Afghanistan—where American troops have been operating for eight years—but without defining the terms of victory. The change in American military doctrine behind these developments occurred with astonishing speed; in 1939 American military planners still chose their objectives on the basis of the following understanding: “Decisive defeat in battle breaks the enemy's will to war and forces him to sue for peace which is the national aim.” But U.S. military doctrine since World War II has progressively devalued victory as the object of war. “Victory alone as an aim of war cannot be justified, since in itself victory does not always assure the realization of national objectives,” is the claim in a Korean War–era manual. The practical result has followed pitilessly: despite some hundred thousand dead, the United States has not achieved an unambiguous military victory since 1945.

Historically, however, this debasement of victory in military planning is radical. Aristotle knew that “victory is the end of generalship,” and no Roman army fought for anything less. The change in doctrine is not due primarily to the horrific destructiveness of modern war, for American leaders have adopted such aims even for conflicts that do not threaten to “go nuclear.” We inhabit a moral climate in which any attempt by victors to impose cultural values onto others is . . .

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