An Interview with John David Lewis, Author of Nothing Less Than Victory

Joshua Lipana
(Dr. John David Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University, a contributing editor of The Objective Standard, and the author of the book Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History [Princeton University Press].)

Joshua Lipana: First off, what was it that made you decide to write Nothing Less Than Victory?

John David Lewis: When I began university teaching in 2001, I was looking for courses that could tie the ancient world to the modern, in order to bring out similarities and differences.  I also wanted good reason to have my students read classical texts.  A comparative course -- "Warfare Ancient and Modern" -- fit the bill.  I decided to spend time on several events in history rather than trying to do a shallow survey.  So we read Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War, Froissart on the Hundred Years War, Churchill on WWII, and the like.

The book grew out of the class.  In the wake of the 9/11 attacks I realized that the single most important factor -- the will to fight in America's enemies, and the ideology fueling it -- was precisely what was being evaded by our leaders, and in the media and the universities.  So I decided to write up several of these events, with a view to understanding why the attacks began, and how they were ended.

My original approach was strategic, thinking that I could find a pattern of attacks and responses that could explain how wars could be ended and long-term peace established.  I almost immediately realized that the real action was in the ideas -- especially moral ideas -- that fueled aggressors and defenders.  So I changed my approach to one that focused on policy and the ideas behind a nation's goals.  How to end the ideological, social, and political support for a war became the central question that a defender must answer.  Strategy and tactics must be designed to end that support.

JL: In chapter one ("To Look Without Flinching"), you describe the Persian desire to conquer the Greeks as "motivated not primarily by strategic concerns -- calculations of relative power, for instance, or the need for material resources or taxes -- but rather by the ideology of magnificent dominance, and that this ideology, not strategy, would dictate the size, organization, and use of military forces."  It's funny, because the Persians seem to be singing this tune again in Iran.  Do you see any parallels between the Iranians of today and their ancestors?

JDL: Yes.  There are deep cultural issues involved here.  Islam itself was grafted onto Persian culture, which had deep affinities for ancient Zoroastrianism.  The Persian king, for instance, saw the world as divided between the areas under his rule (the world of light, of truth, and of order) versus the world not yet under his rule (the world of darkness, lies, and war).  This is very similar to many Islamists today, who see the world of Islam in conflict with the world outside of Islam.

For other parallels, see my article "Notes on the Near Eastern Legacy of Islam" in Capitalism Magazine, June 4, 2006.

JL: In chapter three ("I Will Have My Opponent"), which is written brilliantly and is my favorite chapter, you chronicle how the Roman general Scipio defeated the brilliant Hannibal and Carthage in the Second Punic War.  You also contrast him and his style with that of another prominent Roman, Fabius, and his now-immortalized "Fabian Strategy of Delay."  What do you think is the biggest lesson from Scipio's victory that America and its allies should consider?

JDL: There may be a time to hold back from engaging with the enemy -- for instance, if one is caught unawares and must regroup and rearm -- but to end a war permanently, one must ultimately confront the political and cultural center of an aggressor.  Fabius' strategy may have saved the Republic from defeat -- by preventing massive losses in pitched battles, and thus preventing the secession of many Italian cities from alliance with Rome -- but his plan could not win the war.

JL: In the same chapter, you say, "The Romans argued about how to fight back, not whether to do so."  Although I think this spirit is still strong in America, it seems that other places are on shaky ground.  Do you think Europe and some of America's allies still have this resolve in the face of a seemingly unyielding enemy?

JDL: I don't know.  I am pessimistic overall.  I think the American people could defend themselves if, in the face of another attack, their leaders properly defined the enemy and set out a plan to actually win.  But we are in dire trouble if we sit here waiting for another horrific attack and then depend on leaders of the sort we have today to take us to war.

JL: Thanks so much for your time, Dr. Lewis.  And thank you also for writing such an excellent book.

JDL: Thank you for speaking to me, and for your interest in my book.  Never, ever surrender.  Accept nothing less than victory!

(Dr. John David Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University, a contributing editor of The Objective Standard, and the author of the book Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History [Princeton University Press].)

Joshua Lipana: First off, what was it that made you decide to write Nothing Less Than Victory?

John David Lewis: When I began university teaching in 2001, I was looking for courses that could tie the ancient world to the modern, in order to bring out similarities and differences.  I also wanted good reason to have my students read classical texts.  A comparative course -- "Warfare Ancient and Modern" -- fit the bill.  I decided to spend time on several events in history rather than trying to do a shallow survey.  So we read Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War, Froissart on the Hundred Years War, Churchill on WWII, and the like.

The book grew out of the class.  In the wake of the 9/11 attacks I realized that the single most important factor -- the will to fight in America's enemies, and the ideology fueling it -- was precisely what was being evaded by our leaders, and in the media and the universities.  So I decided to write up several of these events, with a view to understanding why the attacks began, and how they were ended.

My original approach was strategic, thinking that I could find a pattern of attacks and responses that could explain how wars could be ended and long-term peace established.  I almost immediately realized that the real action was in the ideas -- especially moral ideas -- that fueled aggressors and defenders.  So I changed my approach to one that focused on policy and the ideas behind a nation's goals.  How to end the ideological, social, and political support for a war became the central question that a defender must answer.  Strategy and tactics must be designed to end that support.

JL: In chapter one ("To Look Without Flinching"), you describe the Persian desire to conquer the Greeks as "motivated not primarily by strategic concerns -- calculations of relative power, for instance, or the need for material resources or taxes -- but rather by the ideology of magnificent dominance, and that this ideology, not strategy, would dictate the size, organization, and use of military forces."  It's funny, because the Persians seem to be singing this tune again in Iran.  Do you see any parallels between the Iranians of today and their ancestors?

JDL: Yes.  There are deep cultural issues involved here.  Islam itself was grafted onto Persian culture, which had deep affinities for ancient Zoroastrianism.  The Persian king, for instance, saw the world as divided between the areas under his rule (the world of light, of truth, and of order) versus the world not yet under his rule (the world of darkness, lies, and war).  This is very similar to many Islamists today, who see the world of Islam in conflict with the world outside of Islam.

For other parallels, see my article "Notes on the Near Eastern Legacy of Islam" in Capitalism Magazine, June 4, 2006.

JL: In chapter three ("I Will Have My Opponent"), which is written brilliantly and is my favorite chapter, you chronicle how the Roman general Scipio defeated the brilliant Hannibal and Carthage in the Second Punic War.  You also contrast him and his style with that of another prominent Roman, Fabius, and his now-immortalized "Fabian Strategy of Delay."  What do you think is the biggest lesson from Scipio's victory that America and its allies should consider?

JDL: There may be a time to hold back from engaging with the enemy -- for instance, if one is caught unawares and must regroup and rearm -- but to end a war permanently, one must ultimately confront the political and cultural center of an aggressor.  Fabius' strategy may have saved the Republic from defeat -- by preventing massive losses in pitched battles, and thus preventing the secession of many Italian cities from alliance with Rome -- but his plan could not win the war.

JL: In the same chapter, you say, "The Romans argued about how to fight back, not whether to do so."  Although I think this spirit is still strong in America, it seems that other places are on shaky ground.  Do you think Europe and some of America's allies still have this resolve in the face of a seemingly unyielding enemy?

JDL: I don't know.  I am pessimistic overall.  I think the American people could defend themselves if, in the face of another attack, their leaders properly defined the enemy and set out a plan to actually win.  But we are in dire trouble if we sit here waiting for another horrific attack and then depend on leaders of the sort we have today to take us to war.

JL: Thanks so much for your time, Dr. Lewis.  And thank you also for writing such an excellent book.

JDL: Thank you for speaking to me, and for your interest in my book.  Never, ever surrender.  Accept nothing less than victory!