Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History Review

Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History
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Publishers Weekly writes many short blurbs for Amazon. And they usually do a great job. Unfortunately, their assertion that Lewis veers close to arguing that "might makes right" is completely wrong. Consider Lewis's take on the Third Punic War--which he says was not a war at all but rather a massacre:
"Rome was wrong; the peace of Scipio Africanus was good, and the Romans could have preserved it by just mediation of the Carthaginian complaints. The Romans appointed a successor to Masinissa in 149; they could have ended the Numidian attacks. 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.
"Readers tempted to interpret the thesis of this book as the need for total destruction of an enemy's population centers should consider the decades that followed the Second Punic War, when former enemies were at peace, with the needless sacrifice of that peace in the destruction of Carthage--and the civil unrest and violence that followed in the next generation for the Romans. . . .
"The Second Punic War remains the example of a successful victory," says Lewis at chapter's end. The Third was "a needless and unforgiveable slaughter."
The idea that "might makes right" is nowhere in the above. Nor is it to be found elsewhere in the book. Lewis in fact explicitly states that the opposite is true. After showing how the "relative commitment of each side to its moral cause . . . affected the outcome of [each] conflict," Lewis says that something more than just commitment is involved. "The truth," according to Lewis, "matters"--"the strongest power belonged to those who were, in fact, right, if those who were right knew it."
"This may be unfashionable to say today--in an intellectual climate that sunders fact and value, and understands moral claims as inherently contested matters of opinion--but it remains a demonstrable fact that the Spartan and Confederate slave systems were morally debased and that the freedom upheld by the Thebans and the Union was good.
"The political autonomy upheld by the Greeks, as well as the political relationships between Rome and its Italian allies, was superior to the alternatives presented by Persia and Carthage. Certainly, the war between America and Japan in 1945 was not fought over morally equivalent options--not if peace and prosperity for millions of people are valued.
"The tragedy of Munich is in the failure of the British to recognize that their own moral norms could become weapons when manipulated by a vicious dictator. The British and the Americans--like the Greeks--became truly unbeatable when they grasped how right they really were. As the war progressed, public exposure of the enemy's actions strengthened the victor's knowledge of its own moral rectitude and discredited their former enemies' failed policies in their own eyes."
The overall lesson of Lewis's book is to take ideas seriously, especially moral ideas. Those interested in how such ideas have influenced history will enjoy this clearly-written and often-engrossing book. But they should not look forward to or reject it on the grounds that it supports a "might makes right" viewpoint. It does not. And hopefully this review--or "response" to be correct--shows that.

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