Interview with John David Lewis
The Liberal Institute

JOHN DAVID LEWIS, Ph.D., is the author of several books on the classical Greeks, as well as his current book on war theory, Nothing Less Than Victory. He teaches politics, economics, and philosophy at Duke University.

Liberal Institute: In the battle of good vs. evil, and Western liberalism vs. Communism and Islam, how seriously wrong is the West when it comes to current war theory?

Professor John David Lewis: In the war theory accepted today -- meaning, the way that theory is understood today and applied to the war -- America is wrong all the way through. The first error is in failing to name the enemy as you did. Without making the name of the enemy explicit--without identifying him clearly and publicly -- it is impossible to formulate clear goals and a strategy to achieve them. Thus America bounces around between strategies, in a shifting melange of policies and targets.

In WWII, Roosevelt and other leaders made it clear that Nazism and fascism were the enemy, and that the peoples of Germany and Japan were in on a conspiracy to enslave and kill others, and that this conspiracy would be destroyed. The result has been two generations of peace.

A second error is in how this is applied to battlefield situations. I make it a policy not to prescribe tactics for military commanders and soldiers; I think that these are technical matters to be left to them as experts. Besides, it is their lives on the line on the battlefield. But for them to act efficaciously, they need to be empowered by the civilians to pursue their goals. But the Rules of Engagement today forbid them from wiping out a house from which the enemy is shooting at them. Civilians, who are in the line of sight because the enemy wants them there, are valued more than our own soldiers. This has made it impossible to actually win this war.

Note that as of this writing, the government of Afghanistan is actively courting members of the Taliban, a position some of our generals support -- while those groups who fought against the Taliban (and supported us in our initial war against the Taliban) are now being sidelined or placed in a position opposite to us. One consequence of failing to name the enemy is that we often turn against our allies. It becomes impossible for groups to support us, because they know the day will come when we abandon them.

LI: How do you respond to those who say our nuclear-armed and post-Cold War world constitutes a permanent postwar era -– and that the time for wars is past?

Prof. Lewis: This is nonsense. Wars start when people decide that organized violence is a route to glory, aggrandizement of the state, a ruler, or a deity. There will always be people who pursue this path. We must always be ready to oppose them, and to do so militarily if they pose a threat to us.

Those who do not want war should ask themselves where long-term peace has been established. They will find that governments who protect the rights of their citizens -- such as the US and Canada, the US and Mexico, France and Germany, the US and Britain, etc. -- are able to live in peace despite past enmities. The weapons these countries possess are no danger to each other, precisely because they pursue the values appropriate to a decent nation, by protecting the rights of their citizens, under a largely capitalistic social and economic system.

LI: What conclusion do you draw from the fact that wars these days just seem to peter out, rather than come to a dramatic conclusion? One thinks here of Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, south Lebanon, Gaza, etc.

Prof. Lewis: With the exception of Kuwait (assuming you mean the Iraqi occupation of it) and Vietnam, these wars did not "peter out." They are still active conflicts, in a period of armistice rather than peace, and they each threaten to break out into violence at any moment. Korea is in a state of formal armistice -- a lull in the fighting -- and there is a constant face-off between the aggressive north and the non-aggressive south. South Lebanon and Gaza are still in a state of declared war with Israel, stated in the charter of Hamas and in multiple statements from Israel's neighboring states. North Korea, the Gaza, and Islamist groups in South Lebanon still have the will to attack; all they lack is the capacity to do so. The minute they think an attack may succeed, they will attack again. They have never been solidly, and openly, defeated. The war with them has not ended; it is quiescent for the moment.

Vietnam ended with the victory of the North Vietnamese. It did peter out for the Vietnamese; the north seized power and instituted a bloodbath. The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait ended when Saddam was driven out and neutered of the capacity to attack it again. His aggressive will was powerless, and without the means to attack.

LI: How should Israel deal with Hamas-led Gaza, Hezbollah-led Lebanon, and Ayatollic Iran?

Prof. Lewis: It should defeat them. This means first of all declaring, in no uncertain terms, Israel's moral right to exist. The citizens of these areas must be told they are abetting an unjust war of aggression against a peaceful, civilized country. They must know that, if this war continues, they will get hurt by Israel's need to defeat its enemies.

Iran is a case in which Israel needs help -- at least overflight permissions -- if it is to end Iranian nuclear ambitions. Israel has an advantage here -- everyone knows that the Iranian pursuit of a bomb must not be allowed to succeed. Note that Israel's possession nuclear weapons has not led to an arms race in the Middle East. This is because everyone knows that Israel is not aggressive, and will use its weapons only in defense. But numerous countries have said they will start their own nuclear programs if Iran succeeds. Iran's will to gain global dominance by force is clear, and everyone knows it. Israel -- and the U S-- can, and must, end Iran's pursuit of the bomb now. 

LI: How would you have handled the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and occupations differently?

Prof. Lewis: I would not have invaded them at all. Iraq was a secular dictator who was preventing the rise of Iranian power to its east. Afghanistan was literally a place for a few impotent jihadists to hide. I would have directed American energy towards ending Iran's rise, putting the Saudis on notice that they must stop the spread of Wahhabism, and on ending the madrassas in Pakistan, which continue to spew out generations of jihadists. These two wars have been a digression, and a distraction, from the true enemies of the US and the west.

LI: What problems were engendered by the fact that when America backed South Korea in the 1950s, and South Vietnam in the 1960s, both nations had hated, corrupt, dreadful, military dictatorships?

Prof. Lewis: This shows why the US should be very careful to understand its allies and enemies, and to establish clear goals, before getting involved in such wars. But there is a difference in degree here. The corruption in the south was nothing like the killing of 7500 local and regional officials by the Viet Cong from 1960 to 1965. The corruption in south Korea was -- and is -- nothing like the inhuman slaughterhouse that the north was and still is.

In each case, if the US was going to get involved, the goal had to be to destroy the regime in the north. If we were not willing to do that, then we should have stayed out of it. See the conclusion of my book for this point about Vietnam.

LI: Can the West "prevail" in Iraq and Afghanistan so long as dictators like Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai rule?

Prof. Lewis: Prevail at what? At ending 5000 years of tribal violence in Afghanistan? At ending the factors that led to the democratic election of Maliki? These "nations" have never known anything except dictatorship -- and that they choose it is their fault, not ours. Democracy, instituted in either place, would result in the election of Islamists (as it did in Egypt and the Gaza), who would bring even greater destruction to their own people and their neighbors. A benevolent dictator is the best to be expected here, until the underlying philosophy changes.

LI: What should the West do about nuclear bomb-hungry, "axis of evil" countries like Iran and North Korea?

Prof. Lewis: Destroy the regimes, preferably by enforced blockade of all goods coming in, or by military force if necessary. Wars start when a state or political group has both the will to attack, and the capacity (the means) to do so. Today the Islamists have the will to attack; they lack only the means. America has the means to end these wars, but lacks the will. The West should examine its own premises and those of their enemies, and decide whether it is morally equal to such regimes. If western nations recognize that they are morally superior to such regimes, it should exercise its power to end them.

LI: You discuss the American Civil War at length in your current book, Nothing Less Than Victory, but what do you say to those who argue Lincoln was fundamentally a dictator, and the North was essentially fighting a war of aggression and conquest against a peaceable neighbor (albeit one with the horrific institution of slavery)?

Prof. Lewis: I dedicate a chapter to Sherman's march through the south, and the background to this. The "peaceful neighbor" in the south was neither peaceful nor a neighbor. It held human beings in institutionalized chattel slavery; this is not peace. And, it was part of the US, not its neighbor. Lincoln is "guilty" of ending slavery and re-uniting the Union.

It was the responsibility of the courts and other branches of government to stop the statist trend that began two decades after the Civil War. They failed to do so. This is not Lincoln's fault.

LI: Should America have attacked the Soviets in 1949, the Chinese in 1964, and the Pakistanis in 1998, when these three tyrannical enemy states acquired nuclear weapons? Is it right for the relatively liberal, relatively civilized West to live in a kind of nuclear terror with only MAD [a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction and balance of terror] to rely upon?

Prof. Lewis: No, it is not right for the people of a rights-protecting neighbor to live in terror. But I do not think that an attack on the Soviets or Chinese would have been necessary or wise. The Soviets should have been stopped in 1942, when the US should not have sent them aid, but rather allowed them to fight to the death against the Nazis. The Chinese should have been opposed morally, by open proclamation of the slaughter they had instigated against their own people, and by the commitment to defend Taiwan against them. Neither nation should have been granted the sanction of UN membership. These policies would have made it unnecessary to attack either nation.

As to Pakistan, this was the result of the jihadi philosophy, connected to nationalism. Without naming and opposing this philosophy, the US could not formulate a proper policy towards this nation, and stop its development of nuclear weapons.

LI: Considering how defenseless America is today against nuclear weapons, and perhaps other WMDs, how should we approach our superpower enemies Russia and China?

Prof. Lewis: We are not defenseless -- we are self-crippled by a lack of will to defend ourselves. Had we, for instance, answered the act of war launched against us by the Iranians in 1979 (the attack on the US embassy), other nations would respect us, and would be far less likely to attack. But today we go to extravagant lengths to demonstrate our weakness -- a policy that increases the possibility of war. No action by the US is taken in a vacuum; for instance, a strong and unapologetic response to Iran would be noted by the North Koreans and every other dictator on the globe, and would strengthen the peace globally.

LI: Although Just War Theory -- in some form -- has evidently been around since the ancient Greeks, it seems to have become much more influential since the 1960s. In what way is Just War Theory unjust; and in what ways does it interfere with decisive victories by freedom-loving good guys over tyranny-supporting bad guys?

Prof. Lewis: Just War Theory has a long history, and many different manifestations. I will consider here the modern version of just war theory, which is profoundly influenced by leftist philosophy, and grew out of opposition to the Vietnam War.

Note that by naming "good guys" and "bad guys" you are already opposed to this theory. Just war theorist Michael Walzer is clear that soldiers on the battlefield are "moral equals." The Viet Cong, he said, had legitimacy through popular support -- even though, Walzer stresses, they killed thousands of people to gain their position. But when we fight them, we are equal on the battlefield. In my view, Walzer should speak for himself, and not our soldiers.

LI: Which is more important, justice or peace?

Prof. Lewis: Justice, because without it there will be no peace.

LI: How can we rid the world of war once and for all?

Prof. Lewis: We cannot, and we should not approach the problem that way. There will always be people with some grievance, or a desire for loot, status or power, who will want to use force to attain it. There will always be states in which such a man can gain widespread popular support, form an army, and use his industries towards military attack. The problem is how to control war -- and that I maintain requires a strong moral stance in favor of individual rights and freedom, and the defeat of aggressors and the philosophies they rally under.