Interview with John David Lewis

The goal of a war is to defeat an enemy’s will to fight. So argues the author of Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History (Princeton University Press, 2010), who makes the case that a strong military offense can win a war and establish lasting peace while playing defense often leads to destruction. This study of six major wars, from the Second Punic War to World War 2, by historian John David Lewis, contrasts the use of overwhelming force, such as the Greek victory over Xerxes’ army and navy, with a lack of reason, purpose, and commitment to fight. On the eve of the 10th year since the worst attack in American history, I turned to my friend John Lewis, a visiting associate professor of philosophy, politics, and economics at Duke University and teacher at Objectivist Conferences (OCON), to discuss today’s war from a historical perspective. Dr. Lewis is the author of Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens and Early Greek Lawgivers.

Scott Holleran: What is the theme of Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History?

John David Lewis: That wars are driven and caused by people’s decisions to fight and that those decisions are based on the ideas they hold. This has enormous implications for what victory means, because it means discrediting the ideas we’re trying to defeat. For example, one could never explain Germany’s massive attacks [against other countries] or Japan’s massive attack on America, in which they launched into intercontinental warfare, without understanding the ideals that they held. The theme of Nothing Less Than Victory is that one must defeat the enemy by discrediting his ideas.

Scott Holleran: How was Nothing Less Than Victory suggested by your students?

John David Lewis: I was teaching a class on ancient and modern warfare and it became clear that a comparative history would be useful. My students posed good questions.

Scott Holleran: While writing about the rise of the Nazis, did The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America by Leonard Peikoff help your understanding?

John David Lewis: Yes, because it’s the only book I know of that places philosophical ideas as the lesson of history. It’s not only an explanation of Nazi Germany in terms of ideas but, much more deeply and widely, it demonstrates how ideas move history.

Scott Holleran: The current administration supports military involvements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as other underreported incursions in nations such as Yemen and Pakistan, with something other than, or less than, a purpose let alone a victory. The Oxford English Dictionary defines warmonger as “a person who seeks to bring about or promote war.” As a commander-in-chief who supports and initiates militarism with no purpose or end, is President Obama a warmonger?

John David Lewis: I think he’s incompetent but I don’t think Obama is a warmonger. He inherited those wars but he’s simply unable to bring those wars to a decisive end. His main goal is to bring about a fundamental restructuring of the relationship of every American to the government, which is why ObamaCare was among his top three initiatives, because there’s no better way to define that relationship than through health care. So, his major initiative is to change us from the inside out and I think foreign policy is a distraction to him. It’s a symptom of his incompetence, not warmongering. One other aspect of this is that, unlike Bush, with regard to rules of engagement, he generally lets the generals do as they want but this slight improvement [over Bush] is not because Obama is driven to victory.

Scott Holleran: Are the U.S. military interventions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan properly described as wars?

John David Lewis: When you have combatants you have a war. As Ayn Rand said about the Vietnam War, and I’m paraphrasing, when foreign soldiers are killing Americans, it’s a war and nothing but a war. Certainly, these are wars, but they’re wars in which one side knows it’s fighting a war and the other side is desperately avoiding using that term.

Scott Holleran: You have publicly discussed your cancer diagnosis with regard to domestic health policy and compared your battle against cancer with the themes in Nothing Less Than Victory. Has your condition affected your thoughts on war?

John David Lewis: It has sharpened something—that my battle against cancer is a metaphor, not a war. There’s intelligence gathering in the first stage, nuclear warfare—chemicals and radiation—in the second stage and then we send in the Marines—with doctors and nurses. In a war, you’re dealing with other human beings, who have free will. With cancer, the disease does not have a mind of its own; beating it is a matter of biological causality.

Scott Holleran: Are you primarily a teacher, a writer or an historian?

John David Lewis: It depends on what day it is. Tomorrow, I start teaching two courses at Duke, so tomorrow I’m a teacher. I don’t see any kind of exclusivity—I think they’re mutually supportive. I would not want to be only a historian or writer, because I need the stimulation of teaching.

Scott Holleran: If the U.S. continues to deteriorate, with, for example, an economic collapse or major Islamic terrorist attack, historically speaking, which is more likely: anarchy, civil war, or religious dictatorship?

John David Lewis: Probably some form of religious dictatorship. The two events you name, economic collapse from inside and an attack from outside, are very different. In the case of an attack, I think the American people would look for a leader to unite them and the chances are much greater that they’ll look to a religious leader and we’ll end up with a fascist dictatorship. It depends on the attack, too; obviously, if there are 20 nuclear bombs detonated at once, we may lose our infrastructure and descend into some form of anarchy, but I think we’re more likely to have a single nuclear attack. With an economic collapse, the public would [be more likely to] look for a leader who would seek centralization of power. The infrastructure—the command structure—the equipment—for a police state is already in place at our airports with the TSA. The American people are already habituated to accept it.

Scott Holleran: What is your most controversial point in Nothing Less Than Victory?

John David Lewis: That ideas drive history. Two things are necessary in war; the capacity to fight and the will to fight. During the so-called Cold War, the two great powers were the Soviet Union and the United States, but a third power with capacity was England—and no one went after them because they posed no threat. So, in fact, the most controversial idea is the most obvious; that ideas are the drivers of history. Among readers, the most controversial idea is my point that it was moral to drop the atom bomb on Japan.

Scott Holleran: We now know that the Soviets had infiltrated the United States government and U.S. industries, including motion pictures, and society. Is jihadist Moslem infiltration—including takeover—of the U.S. government possible?

John David Lewis: I don’t think takeover was the kind of thing the Communists were after. What they were going to do is [try to] elect people who would be sympathetic to the Soviet cause. I think that, in a certain sense, there’s a strong parallel, because those who want a radical Islamic war culminating in a one-world government are just as overt in pursuing their goals as were the Communists. But the Soviets were less interested in a one-world government [than jihadists]. The Iranians may be less focused on one-world government than the Saudis. The Iranians act more like the Soviets—they want to have nukes to play like the big boys, whereas the Saudis are more like the Trotskyites. They want this worldwide evolution [toward Islamic statism] and are more patient about infiltrating [Western civilization]. The Saudis have built thousands of mosques and [radical Islamic group] CAIR has directly said that Sharia law imposed over the United States will come. To actually take over the U.S. government in the sense that they impose Sharia law? We’re a long way from that. But if you mean creating sympathies and bringing about a radical Islamic-influenced government…

Scott Holleran: Certain presidential candidates have recently been linked to campaign donors who may be connected, directly or indirectly, to groups that support Islamic jihadist aims. Are you concerned that the enemy could shape and influence American government through a Manchurian candidate?

John David Lewis: Yes. It’s part of the insidiousness of these groups. Today, any candidate knows that accepting money from jihadist groups for influence would kill the campaign—you can’t keep that kind of thing a secret. So that would be less likely than the threat of covert multiculturalist ideas being spread and accepted throughout the culture.

Scott Holleran: What is the central lesson of each war discussed in Nothing Less Than Victory as it relates to today’s war?

John David Lewis: The need to name the enemy, identify him as an enemy and develop a strategy that defeats him at his center—an elusive concept—or close to a center of gravity of economic, social, political support for the [jihadist] war [against the West]. [Carl von] Clausewitz writes about this—that Americans have a strong moral center, so that, by attacking our moral center, the enemy imposes guilt. We saw this in the Vietnam War when we were criticized for distinguishing between [Communist] North and [non-Communist] South Vietnam. After the war ended, one of our generals went to a former North Vietnamese military general and said, “you never defeated us in the battlefield.” And his North Vietnamese counterpart said that was irrelevant. You need to be right in what you’re doing and you need to know that you’re right in what you’re doing.

Scott Holleran: You write about the citizens of ancient Carthage and those in South Carolina and Georgia during the Civil War not facing the consequences of war. Are today’s Americans disconnected from war?

John David Lewis: Yes. In a certain sense, they’re very disconnected from the war because they’re not facing an attack on their soil right now, so I don’t think they know what’s going on. When I talk to soldiers, I get a very different sense about what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan than what I see in the media. But, in another sense, we are more connected because we live in the age of technology, and people can get news from the battlefield. What would Americans at home have said had images from Iwo Jima been sent back home?

Scott Holleran: You write about Union General Sherman’s remarkably low casualties during the Civil War. Why is that fact not widely taught or known?

John David Lewis: Because people today are caught up in the myth of Sherman as the Attila from the North. Southerners created that myth.

Scott Holleran: How did the myth become so widely accepted in the North?

John David Lewis: That’s a good question. The intellectuals, historians and the press are all complicit in this—it strikes their morality that Sherman specifically targeted civilians—and once they accept that that’s what Sherman did, they move on rather than examine the facts of what happened. Why are Hiroshima and Nagasaki held up as moral evils while failing to consider what alternatives the United States had? Facts are forgotten and subordinated for moral reasons.

Scott Holleran: You also write about Confederates hiding behind civilians like today’s Moslem jihadists. Are there other examples in history of using civilians as covers for combatants during war?

John David Lewis: That happens all the time in war. Any time an army backs up into a city and defends against its walls, the civilians are being held hostage in some way. So there’s certainly a precedent in history. I don’t think the Confederates were necessarily worse even than the Union. Palestinian snipers look for Israeli troops where they are facing civilians and what they want is to get the Israelis to return gunfire against civilians to get publicity—they want the enemy to kill civilians as a pretext. That’s worse.

Scott Holleran: Is the mass death of freed slaves at Ebeneezer Creek in any way indicative that the Union army was racist, too, and does the tragedy diminish the moral righteousness of the Union cause?

John David Lewis: Racist? Of course. Everyone was a racist back then. Does it diminish the moral status of the Union’s cause? Absolutely not! Many freed slaves wanted to be with Sherman’s army. As Union armies were moving ahead under Union General Jefferson C. Davis’s command, freed slaves followed. Coming to the creek, with Confederates behind them, Davis ordered pontoons brought up, leaving the freed slaves behind, and then they were attacked by Southern armies. Davis may have been racist but who caused the dangers to the freed slaves? It was the Southern army. Davis is given moral criticism for failing to rescue blacks from Southerners. But it’s the Southerners that were to blame. They were the ones attacking. They were ones who’d enslaved them.

Scott Holleran: Coming to the 20th century wars, you write that President Woodrow Wilson sought “peace without victors.” Who is the last president who didn’t?

John David Lewis: Franklin Roosevelt.

Scott Holleran: You trace President Wilson’s ideals to philosopher Thomas Hobbes and, centrally, to philosopher Immanuel Kant. Is Wilson America’s first Kantian president?

John David Lewis: I don’t know enough about the intellectual history of American presidents to say whether he’s the first but he’s heavily influenced by Kant because the basis of his education was German. It’s Kant’s 1795 essay on Perpetual Peace that calls for the establishment of a worldwide state. Kant calls for “a league of nations”. Kant directly influenced the League of Nations. People forget that Kant said that all nations of the world should be republics and he rejected democracy—but he blanked out the fact that all nations in the world are not republics. The influence of Kant in education that was German-based clearly influenced Woodrow Wilson.

Scott Holleran: Why do liberals condemn Nazi Germany but drop the context of the Nazis’ government-controlled economics?

John David Lewis: I don’t know. I think the inference takes them down a road that they don’t want to go. They don’t want to face the fact that being an advocate of a government-controlled economy makes them tyrannical. It’s forgotten that these fascist states were woefully inefficient. I have evidence that Mussolini did not make the trains run on time, yet this notion that fascism is efficient persists. Last night, I saw a Star Trek episode in which Spock tells Kirk that Nazi Germany was the world’s most efficient society. That’s not true.

Scott Holleran: You report that the media aided and abetted the rise of the Nazis. Is today’s press complicit in aiding the rise of fascism, too?

John David Lewis: Oh, sure, though they wouldn’t say it that way. The press itself is almost always solidly on the side of greater and bigger government programs, except for the Wall Street Journal and some conservative outlets. They don’t want to call themselves fascists but in effect that is what they are supporting.

Scott Holleran: Did the West drive Italian dictator Benito Mussolini into an alliance with Nazi Germany?

John David Lewis: I don’t know—I don’t have a good answer for that. If it’s true that Mussolini was afraid of Nazi Germany, there certainly were times, especially when the Germans moved into the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia, when all offers and opportunities might have stopped the Nazi flood. I think the West was instrumental—and complicit—in driving Mussolini into an alliance with Nazi Germany in the same way we did with [Cuban dictator] Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union, but I would never place primary blame or cause on the West because both probably would have happened anyway. They shared a basic philosophy.

Scott Holleran: Was Imperial Japan as racist as Nazi Germany?

John David Lewis: In its own way, yes. The more I read about Japan, the more I realize what a truly foreign nation it is—in their morals, in their writing, you see now that, when something goes wrong in a company, the executives have to bow down and apologize. Japan was as racist as Germany in the sense that they saw themselves as racially superior and destined to rule Asia.

Scott Holleran: Is General Douglas MacArthur underestimated as leader and thinker in occupied Japan?

John David Lewis: Yes. In terms of the occupation of Japan, which MacArthur was put in charge of, it resulted in zero deaths and there were no insurrections. What he did was a monumental task and it went as benevolently and well as any occupation in history. He is greatly underestimated.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible for the U.S. public to come to worship a leader, such as Texas Governor Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann, or President Obama, as a deity as people did in Japan?

John David Lewis: We’re a long way from that, especially the way it was done in Japan. But the way people treat Barack Obama—as if he’s the divine one, his word is oracle and he can do everything—has parallels.

Scott Holleran: There are a number of war movies in recent years, from 300 and The Alamo remake to recent war-themed pictures such as Stop-Loss, Jarhead and The Lucky Ones—even The King’s Speech hinges upon an understanding of what’s at stake in war. Do you recommend any movies as effective dramatizations of war and/or a proper historical perspective?

John David Lewis: I don’t have a recommendation. I did see one war movie recently—Escape from Sobibor [British made for television, which aired on CBS in 1987] with Alan Arkin. It’s about a German concentration camp—a death camp—in Poland. Like all these camps, there were some prisoners who were not killed; they were out in barracks. Sobibor was where the only full-scale revolt by camp prisoners took place. They ran into the woods and escaped—it’s the one case where everyone, especially the Jews but also the Poles, fought back. They killed the Germans, and then they rushed the main gate and hundreds escaped. That’s worth seeing. I stopped seeing a lot of modern war movies. I have not seen 300. I’ve got the graphic novel and it looks awful. A much better movie about the historic battle is The 300 Spartans [starring Richard Egan, 1962].

Scott Holleran: Any other classic movie recommendations?

John David Lewis: I still like to see Battle of the Bulge [starring Robert Shaw, 1965], which is about reversing the wills to fight. In the beginning, the Americans are demoralized and the Germans are motivated. In the end it’s the opposite. There are some good classic war movies set in World War 2. Even a movie like A Bridge Too Far [1977] has a certain point to it.

Scott Holleran: You write that President Franklin Roosevelt wrote about “the destruction of a philosophy” in achieving victory in World War 2. Does the planned construction of an Islamic mosque near where the Twin Towers once stood—before Islamic jihadists destroyed them on 9/11—represent a victory to the enemy?

John David Lewis: I think it does. It’s not because the people who want to build the mosque are on the side of those who want to destroy the U.S. but they chose to build it near the World Trade Center site for sympathetic reasons and those reasons—for building a $100 million cultural center—are the same reasons that make me want to oppose it. In the plans, there are separate places for men and women, so it’s clearly a place to enforce certain political ideas, which are not consistent with the ideals of the United States. That they choose to build it there is why I oppose building it there.

Scott Holleran: You contrast the Japanese with the Americans in terms of motive, demonstrating that the Japanese, like today’s jihadists, were motivated by death while the Americans fighting in World War 2 were motivated by life. We have been fighting and appeasing jihadists for over 10 years with thousands of U.S. casualties and no progress toward victory. Are Americans losing the will to live?

John David Lewis: That’s a difficult question. If one sees an enemy as out to destroy you and does not act against him, and instead builds bridges to him, then certainly Americans are losing the will to live. Certainly, if we don’t demand a nation that defends itself, that’s true.

Scott Holleran: You write about dropping napalm and atom bombs, not food, on civilians during war. What is the primary reason why we drop food packages not bombs on our enemy?

John David Lewis: On one level, we don’t want to destroy and kill people that way—Americans are very benevolent—and we fail to make the connection between dropping bombs and saving our lives. American intelligence in Japan looked at what was happening inside the country of Japan—inside the houses. When they found out that civilians were being trained to kill Americans, they realized that within those houses were weapons and that civilians were an active part of the war effort and an American intelligence officer made a direct connection; he reported there were no civilians in Japan as far as the war effort was concerned. Recently, we saw a Navy SEAL team come across a group of shepherds that were hostile to the U.S.—and they let them go, knowing the shepherds would turn them over to the enemy if given a chance. It goes back to your question about the will to live, and, in that sense, it’s gone.

Scott Holleran: Which is the greater threat to the United States—Iran, which openly declares its intent to destroy America—or Saudi Arabia, which sponsors Islamic jihadism while claiming to do otherwise?

John David Lewis: They’re both threats. I can’t elevate one above the other.

Scott Holleran: The Nazis were appeased by the West and swept into power, exterminating millions of Jews. The Soviets were allied with and appeased by the West and subsequently conquered much of the civilized world, exterminating millions of people, enslaving tens of millions and fighting a proxy war with the U.S. that funded the forces that created jihadist Islam. Islamic jihadists, too, were allied with and appeased by the West and are fighting a proxy war with the U.S. through subversive terrorism. What horror awaits civilization should jihadists prevail?

John David Lewis: The first thing we would see is the entire Middle East given to Islamic government and all-out war—we would see Islamic rule in the south of France, Spain, and Indonesia, and the predominantly Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union. I do not think that we would see a single caliphate against the United States. I think we would see Iran and Syria against Saudi Arabia and Egypt and whatever would come out of that would push out against the West. European nations are already failing by internal rot. But how far are we from France becoming an Islamic state? Probably far off. The war would spread like a plague through Africa and South America, where they would come to regret the alliance that [Venezuelan dictator] Hugo Chavez made with Iran. And if Iran gets nuclear weapons—and then the Saudis do, too—that would be very bad for the rest of the world.

Scott Holleran: Is America’s current predicament with regard to the unacknowledged war with jihadist Islam fundamentally comparable to either the 300 Spartans or the Alamo?

John David Lewis: [Pauses] No. I don’t think so. In neither Greece nor the Alamo was it denied that there was a problem. Today, we are evading the fact that there’s a problem—that this politicized Islam [jihad, which means holy war] is what motivates the enemy. In that sense, it’s not comparable. The Greeks made a stand against the Persians and it became a rallying cry—the men at the Alamo made a stand against the Mexicans and it became a rallying cry—but when the passengers of United [Air Lines flight] 93 made a stand against the radical Moslems, there should have been a rallying cry, and there wasn’t. Throughout history, we’ve heard “Remember the 300 [Spartans]!” “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember the Maine!” No one cries “Let’s Roll” to remember United 93.

Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite war memorial?

John David Lewis: It makes me sad to think of that. [Pauses] There is one that comes to mind, though I haven’t been there—the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The [sunken] ship [destroyed with her 1,777 crewmen by the Japanese] was left there and a memorial was built over it. Some of the Confederate war memorials, such as the memorial at Shiloh, are very moving. But the one that seems most moving to me is the Arizona memorial. [Pauses] I do not think it’s time to build a memorial to the victims of 9/11. There’s a line about building a war memorial during a war that may be attributable to, of all people, Eleanor Roosevelt: We’ll win the war—then we’ll have a memorial.

Scott Holleran: What one idea, more than any other idea, must be accepted in our culture for the West to achieve victory over jihadist Islam?

John David Lewis: Knowledge of our own good. Most of all, we must realize that we stand for the values of freedom, the sanctity of the individual, and reason.

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