Not once since the end of World War II has the United States of America—having the most powerful military in human history—won what Professor John David Lewis in Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History calls an “unambiguous military victory?” We did not win it in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq—and have not against our recent terrorist enemies.
Positing what should be but isn’t generally understood, Lewis holds that “[b]oth war and peace are the consequences of ideas—especially moral ideas—that can propel whole nations into bloody slaughter on behalf of a Fuhrer, a tribe, or a deity, or into peaceful coexistence under governments that defend the rights and liberties of their citizens.” (Holzer emphasis.)
Professor Lewis quotes Lt. Gen. Harold L. George:
[T]he object of war is now and always has been, the overcoming of the hostile will to resist. The defeat of the enemy’s armed forces is not the object of war; the occupation of his territory is not the object of war. Each of these is merely a means to an end; and the end is overcoming his will to resist. When that will is broken, when that will disintegrates, then capitulation follows.
Consider the Korean War (about which I will presently have an announcement). To say the least, President Harry Truman and his political and military cronies had an agenda that was not the defeat of either the North Korean invaders or the Chinese intervenors. Far from it. Truman and company may have wanted a war, but they did not want to overcome the Communists’ will to resist. Tens of thousands of U.N., South Korean, and American troops, not to mention literally countless civilians, fell victim to their Cold War Machiavellian calculations.
Consider the Vietnam War. The United States could have crushed the North Vietnamese will to resist by using air power to destroy Hanoi, much as American bombers ultimately leveled much of Germany and Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Instead, in Vietnam (just as in Korea) we countenanced enemy sanctuaries in China and ruled civilian and other targets off limits. Far from overcoming the Communists’ will to resist, we fought a defensive, not offensive, war.
Consider Afghanistan, where after supposedly eliminating al Qaeda, we took on the Taliban with rules of engagement that not only did not overcome their will to resist, but actually encouraged a guerrilla war with, again, sanctuaries where their fighters would be reasonably safe. This time in Pakistan/Waziristan.
Consider Iraq. Even though the United States succeeded in removing Saddam and al Qaeda, whatever will to resist possessed by their successors and freelance sectarian fighters we managed to suppress, our complete removal of troops stoked the embers of their will, and the situation in Iraq today is predictably worse than when America pulled out.
Professor Lewis make the perceptive point that:
An aggressive nation can be empowered far beyond its physical strength by a conclusion that its opponent does not have the will to fight . . . and then be demoralized and beaten by an offense that exposes the physical and moral bankruptcy of its position. Conversely, a powerful nation may give up if its people come to think that a war is unjust, their nation’s position is morally untenable, or its goal unclear or simply not worth it.
The “aggressive nations” of North Korea, China, and North Vietnam knew that the United States lacked the will for a sustained fight, and the Communists acted accordingly—achieving far more than their physical strength should have allowed. So, too, the irregulars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sadly, none of them has been “demoralized and beaten by an offense that exposes the physical and moral bankruptcy of its position.”
Of whom might Professor Lewis be speaking when he observes that “a powerful nation may give up if its people come to think that a war is unjust, their nation’s position is morally untenable, or its goal unclear or simply not worth it.”
Could it be the United States in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq?
These few remarks cannot begin to do justice to John David Lewis’s important and enlightening book. To prove his thesis, he presents examples from the ancient world, and then moves to modern times with extensive discussions of Sherman’s march through the South in 1864-65 (Chapter 5), British appeasement and the prelude to World War II from 1919 through 1939 (Chapter 6), and American victory over Japan 1945 (Chapter 7). These chapters, alone, are worth the reader’s attention.
The author’s conclusion—entitled “The lesson of the victories”—sums up his thesis that indispensable to victory in war is a clearly understood moral base that propels the fighting not to armistices, deadlocks, cease fires, and other inconclusive ends, but rather to clear-cut victory born of annihilation of the enemy’s will to resist.
One looks with difficulty for that moral base in America’s post-World War II conflicts, and with futility in today’s so-called War on Terrorism.