CARNAGE AND CULTURE: The Western Way of War

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Is the culture of the West—the line of cultural tradition that connects modern America and Europe with ancient Greece and Rome—particularly lethal in war? Victor Davis Hanson contends that, from the time of the Greeks on, Western culture has created the deadliest soldiers in the history of civilization. What is it about the Western tradition that has so often led to victory on the battlefield over non-Western armies? What does this tradition mean for the battles that America will face in the future?

Recorded on Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, why the west has won.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our program today: the western way of war, a conversation with historian Victor Davis Hanson. Ancient Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, the United States today all, Hanson maintains, share a single 2,500 year-old military tradition that makes western armies more lethal and successful than any others. What is it that is distinctive about the western way of war and what does the western way of war imply for the American war on terrorism today?

Victor Davis Hanson is currently visiting professor of military history at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He's also the author of, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.

Title: Carnage and Culture

Peter Robinson: Victor Davis Hanson, I quote you to yourself--"Western society at its worst has suffered from the same age-old sins of human nature prevalent everywhere and at every age. Racism, sexism, tyranny, economic exploitation and the like. But unlike the Native American, Asian, or African traditions, the west has at its core the vital salvation of self criticism." Now, military life calls to mind the need to respect authority, take orders, you're making an assertion that seems to me counter-intuitive. What role has self-criticism played in the western military tradition?

Victor Davis Hanson: Actually a very important one because the battlefield is fluid, it's changing, and anybody who's frozen in orthodoxy or hierarchy has problems. And in the west, whether it's at the field command or a strategic command or political command, there's a fluidity and an adaptation that allows people in charge to accept, modify, reject plans in the process. So I can't think of one Greek general for example, whether it's Spartan, Lysander, or Pamanondus, or Pericles, who at one time or another was not fined, exiled, or even executed. So there's a complete give and take between political and civilian and military authority that allows the western battlefield to be very fluid.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now you speak about the western way of war, this is the recurring phrase in your book, and at one point you talk about a menu of items, features, specific to or distinctive to the western way of war. Let's go through those quickly if we may before talking about specific battles. Again, I'll quote you to yourself--decisive battle--"The idea of annihilation of head to head battle that destroys the enemy seems a particularly western concept." Now maybe it's because I speak to you from within the western tradition, but it seems obvious that destroying the enemy is the whole point of war, no matter who fights it.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, it is in the broadest and most general sense, but throughout antiquity to the present, other military traditions have not had the same emphasis on shock warfare. So say a battle between the Hittites at Kaddesh and the Egyptians, the idea that people would have heavy armor and run and collide or deliberately do so and avoid stealth or wars of attrition, or ambushes, or light arm troops, or missile troops where people wouldn't close that critical distance, that's less common in the west. The west's idea was to get to the enemy and to destroy it and to get home and get back because it's not a militaristic culture.

Peter Robinson: To get it over with.

Victor Davis Hanson: Get it over with--we see that same restlessness in contemporary affairs, that's always been a critique of the west.

Peter Robinson: Weaponry, another item on the menu--"European armies have marched to war with weapons either superior or equal to those of their adversaries." What is it about the west that would give the western military a consistent edge over the centuries in weaponry?

Victor Davis Hanson: It goes back to a greater reliance on what I would call reason or rationalism, the idea that knowledge and inquiry can be divorced from philosophical or religious impediment to a greater degree. And that allows even the west to steal and borrow because there's no monopoly on human genius. So if China has gunpowder or the Persian steppe peoples have stirrups, when those get into the west, they enter that arena of give and take, people want to make money, capitalism, open markets, and you get a flurry of innovation, challenge, and response so that the Chinese will then export back their own original inventions.

Peter Robinson: But let me ask you about another couple of items on this menu--individualism--"Western militaries put a high premium on individualism." Again, that seems on the face of it counter-intuitive. Join the marines, you get a crew cut, you get a uniform that makes you look like everybody else, your individuality is subsumed in that of a unit.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, it is and all armies--they don't exist without discipline, but the difference in western armies is within that periphery, or those parameters of discipline, there is going to be this give and take among individual soldiers that results in a constant audit and self-critique. So, say at the Battle of Salamis, or the battle at Thermopolis, you're not going to have a grandee up on throne looking down at people having a list to see who has to whipped or executed. You're going to have soldiers shouting with each other. I think Herodotus calls it a "flurry of words." But that being said, there's parameters where they do accept this, we'll get to it probably, group discipline.

Peter Robinson: But within the parameters of discipline that all armies accept, you see more individualism…

Victor Davis Hanson: Absolutely. The Battle of Midway is a good example. Admiral Nimitz is in closer contact with his admirals in Hawaii than Yamamoto is out on the Pacific.

Peter Robinson: Last item here, violence--quoting you again--"The western way of war is so lethal, precisely because it is so amoral.

Victor Davis Hanson: By that I mean after the Hoplite experience in Greece, warfare enters the arena of capitalism, individualism, secular rationalism, where ideas succeed or fail on the merits of their military efficacy. So if you pick up a military manual from China in the fourth century B.C. it's wonderful-- Sun Tzu--everybody knows it, but it's embedded with the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang, it's a holistic approach. You pick up one from Greece, Aeneas Tacticus, on the defense of fortified positions. This is the first page, this is how you go through a city, over, through, or under and here's how you do it. It's absolutely amoral, it's not concerned with philosophical or religious concerns to the same degree.

Peter Robinson: Just getting the job done.

Victor Davis Hanson: If you want to be a philosopher or if you want to understand the nature between war and the self, happiness, psychology, I'd read Sun Tzu, if you want to take a city, I would read the west.

Peter Robinson: Let's look at how some of the key battles in the history of the west can help us to understand the western way of war.

Title: Gods and Generals

Peter Robinson: Gaugamela--the date is 331 B.C., Gaugamela just north of the Tigress in what is present day Iraq, the Greeks under Alexander, hundreds of miles from home encounter a vastly superior force numerically of Persians under Darius. Alexander is awakened on the morning of the battle and he says, what do I have to worry about since Darius is preparing to fight it out in open battle, he has satisfied my every wish. Tell us what happened.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, maybe as many as 200,000 Persians think that because Gaugamela is a large plain they can outflank the Macedonian Army, which is only forty to fifty thousand. Alexander is only worried that seventy year-old Old Man Parmenio can hold the left plank steady while he takes off with the right wing, breaks through, gets behind, and tries to decapitate the nerve center of the Persians, the hierarchical society, it's a multi-racial, multicultural empire cut off, Darius III, the whole thing will crumble and that's precisely what it does. It's a race between Alexander cutting them off before Parmenio is overwhelmed and he just makes sort of a big fishhook and sloughs off the enemy and then Alexander does what he always does--gets to the enemy's nerve center, cuts it off, and wins.

Peter Robinson: Now you write that Aristotle implies that Greek battles were originally fought by mounted troops, but then evolved into battles between heavily armed infantry. This precedes Alexander, but what I'm trying to get at is dig out this notion of decisive battle and where it comes from.

Victor Davis Hanson: I think it came from a very unique revolution that's co-terminus or even synonymous with the discovery of western civilization. In the inland valleys of Greece between the eight and sixth century B.C. what came out of the Dark Ages was a typical tribal aristocratic society and you had a revolution by small landowning, property-owning citizens. So the idea of citizenship, rights and responsibilities, property owning, egalitarianism, constitutional government, all that emerged in Greece during this so-called archaic period. One of the byproducts was hoplite landowners, heavy armor, vote on the conditions of their military service, seek out the enemy, get it over with, get back and farm their own property, improve it, pass it on. It's a holistic package.

Peter Robinson: And then you make the point that this tactic of shock that the Persians found so difficult to deal with--Alexander employs it, so does Rome, so does Byzantium, the knights in the Middle Ages, that was the whole point of the knight, heavy armor, heavy armored warhorse trampling down the enemy. How does this single tactic get transmitted, you can call them all western civilizations, but within the large tradition of the west, all of these cultures and civilizations were very different from one another. Is it simply because they all some how or other know, they pick it up and it proves successful, is that it? Has it been a constant experimentation?

Victor Davis Hanson: It does but there's a couple of things to remember. One is that you have an intellectual tradition where you say for example Vegetius, the Roman military author who writes in the late fifth century A.D., he's being translated throughout even the Dark Ages. And, you have an intellectual tradition of military exegesis and writing, but you also have a popular folk tradition, the fumes of Rome, that keep it alive. And then we're not talking about a pristine classical way of war that's not changed. The principles are--there's not always consensual government. You can have Roman government that's consensual, then you have it on the local level in the empire, then you lose it, but then you bring it back with the Swiss and the Italian monarch republics. So it's not the idea that this is Greece and then it just goes unchanged, but this menu of greater freedom, more tendency toward consensual government, more rational way of looking at military weapons push on their efficacy, open markets--the idea that you can make money by making better weapons than your opponent, civilian--I guess we can call it civic militarism. The idea that citizens have rights and responsibilities.

Peter Robinson: Onto the Battle of Cannae and how that battle illustrates Victor's point about civic militarism.

Title: Hannibal's Lecture

Peter Robinson: 216 B.C., Cannae, small town in southern Italy, 70,000 Romans meet perhaps half as many--am I about right on that?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, probably...

Peter Robinson: About half as many Carthaginians, Celts, Gauls, under the command of Hannibal Barka, the Carthaginian general. You described the aftermath--you're writing now three hours after the battle begins--"Three hours earlier the Roman army had marched out as a foreboding mass of iron, bronze, and wood. Rank after rank of crested helmets, huge shields, and deadly javelins, in a solemn procession of undisguised pride against Hannibal's motley and outnumbered mercenaries. Now there was little left but a heap of broken weapons, oozing bodies, severed limbs, and thousands of crawling half dead." The Roman army, which outnumbered Hannibal two to one, was completely destroyed. How?

Victor Davis Hanson: It's worse than that. That was the third great loss within twenty-four months. Not just Cannae, but at Trebia, and Lake Trasimene. How? They had a wonderful military system, but they had terrible command. And they had one of these men that we see rarely in history like Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, who was a brilliant tactician and they fought the exact wrong battle. And in the space of twenty-four months, they lost probably a hundred and twenty thousand dead and probably another hundred thousand wounded or scattered and it almost ruined Rome. But as Polybius and Livy pointed out, that it had this strange eerie ability to clone itself and unite people to go back, enlist in the army because they thought they had a stake in society. They were not mercenaries per se and that's one of the west--I use that battle as an example of western soldiers feel that because their society is more consensual and there's some degree of determination how they enlist, then they have a greater tendency of morale.

Peter Robinson: You use Cannae as a kind of counterexample--"The significance of Cannae, the worst single day defeat in the history of any western military force altered not at all the final course of the war."

Victor Davis Hanson: No, it didn't. I think one thing you got to remember, a lot of critics have said, well look we don't have a draft anymore, so we've lost that western tradition of civic militarism. Not really. A young kid that's eighteen and enlists in the navy or even in the air force or special forces, he's given a contractual obligation and he has responsibilities, he's protected legally. He has more of a sense of civic militarism than a draftee does in China. So it's not simply draft or no draft, it's the conditions of military service which preserve the idea of a free protected citizen. And once the system has that, not over the short-term, but over the long haul, they have an ability to trump the usual conditions that determine success or failure in battle, which are weather, genius like Hannibal, accidents, distance, climate, disease--all those can make you lose at Little Big Horn or make you lose at Islawanda or at Cannae. But in the long haul, the society that has a greater propensity to adopt these eight or nine characteristics, they have a resiliency…

Peter Robinson: Let's jump ahead almost two thousand years to the sea battle at Lepanto and the value of free enterprise.

Title: Death and Venice

Peter Robinson: 1571, Lepanto off the western coast of Greece--a hundred and eighty thousand men in some four hundred plus ships and galleys describe briefly what happened--a great collision between the Christians of Europe and the Muslims.

Victor Davis Hanson: It's eerie like today because you had Europe divided between Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox. Orthodox had been basically subjugated and this pathetic Christian League said let's go out and get the Turkish fleet. And they finally get together because of one man, sort of a Tony Blair, George Bush guy, Don Juan and he--he's twenty-six years old. So he gets the Christians and only three states show up--Spain, the Papal States, and Venice. And they go out and they don't want to fight until the last moment and he says that wonderful line, "The time for talking is over gentleman, the time for battle has come." And they go out and they have every element of the western way of war. They have galleasses, these big enormous galleys with sails they tow in that have more firepower than fifteen of the Turkish galleys. They have superior cannon, they have superior seamanship, they don't chain their rowers to the oars in this particular battle like the Ottomans. They're fighting--the commanders are fighting back and forth whereas the Pasha has got absolute control over his admirals. And they fight for probably most of the day and when it's over, it's one of the worst defeats in the history of Ottomanism and maybe in the history of sea power. It might have been one of the great--I think it, with Salamis, might be the greatest single naval battle in history. Probably eighty thousand Ottoman sailors died and it was a very brutal battle. The Christians had this idea that if we don't annihilate these people they're going to come back and kidnap kids off the coast of Italy like they've done, and they killed thousands in the water. Look at Venice, it only had a hundred thousand citizens and it only had an area of two hundred square miles and it was trying to defeat an empire that had thirty to forty million subjects and over a million square miles. So this idea that the Ottomans were so strong, it's just simply that the non-west was so united for a period.

Peter Robinson: And why was little Venice able to take on the big Ottoman Empire? You tie it to markets...

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, I think if we look at the arsenal at Venice, here you have an open system of building galleys and you had competitive bids, you had advanced ideas like insurance, investment, even corporations where the individuals invested in companies for, whether it's maritime loans or whether it's trade and it could turn out, if it had to, one galley per day. It even had mass production where all the pieces were numbered. There was literature written about it. If you go and look at the arsenal at Istanbul, it's copied almost piece for piece from the one at Venice, it's run by the sultan, there's not competitive bidding, all the people who build it are Italians, even the admirals at Lepanto were Italians. And then after the battle is over, the Ottomans guns, which were patterned after Italian models, are salvaged and the Venetians don't want them, they think well let's melt them down, they're not up to it. Why? Not because the Ottomans weren't smarter, it's just their system had no way of capturing individual brilliance and replicating on the mass scale and disseminating knowledge because that brought in Allah, Islamic fundamentalism, religious tradition, authoritarian political structures. You get knowledge that bumps up against that and it can't be disseminated before the greatest number of people for the greatest good.

Peter Robinson: One last battle, Midway and the value of individual initiative.

Title: My Way or the Midway

Peter Robinson: 1942, the open Pacific Ocean, two hundred miles away or so from Midway Island, smack dab in the middle of the Pacific. You write, "In less than six minutes, the pride of the Japanese carrier fleet (that is four carriers) were set aflame and the course of World War II in the Pacific radically altered." Now, this is the sentence that is so provocative and I'd like to ask you to explain it--"The Battle of Midway can be understood by two inextricably connected events. One, the destruction of an entire American air arm by Japanese fighter pilots, which, moments later, led directly to the demise of Japan's own carriers." Explain how the one led to the other.

Victor Davis Hanson: Americans, you've got to remember, all during the Thirties had really gone to sleep, they were isolationists, their carriers had not been up to the same level of construction of the Japanese who had copied their fleet almost in every detail from the British and they had been fighting since 1931. So when, that war was only six months after Pearl Harbor--we had poor planes, we had inexperienced crews, we had only four carriers in our entire fleet, and three there, and yet every time that we sent these green crews the first forty-eight hours they kept getting shot down and shot down. But there were certain, as we talked about, there were certain larger trends were going to kick in to play. One of them is individualism. The American carrier commanders were flexible about how to arm the planes, when to send them off to argue back with Nimitz. Yamamoto was up near Alaska in a battleship and gave a preset plan that said you attack carriers with torpedoes and you attack land-base Midway planes with bombs. And then when they came back they had bombs, they loaded up the planes, they were ready to go back to Midway, somebody says, uh oh, there's carriers out there now, they just discovered that. Well, an American commander wouldn't have asked anybody he would have just said clear the decks and send them all what you have. But Mr. Nagumo was worried that he would violate Japanese naval protocol by using the wrong ordinance against the wrong target. And if you add the intelligence before the battle, if you look at the type of people who were in the basement in Honolulu, they were wearing slippers, they were wearing bathrobes, they had long hair in the Forties, these naval decipher intelligence people.

Peter Robinson: So even the most disciplined arm of American society, that is to say the military, was able to be loose jointed enough to make way for the kind of eccentrics who turned out to be brilliant at cryptanalysis.

Victor Davis Hanson: I teach in the Naval Academy for a year this year and I met more eccentric people in the Naval Academy than I have in the university, absolutely. And then if you look at the repair--two carriers had been damaged in Japan at Coral Sea. They were vital-- that would have given Japan six carriers. They sat in the navel base at Curry, they weren't being worked on because they were waiting for Tokyo to send orders of maintenance. The Yorktown went in seventy-two hours at Honolulu. More damage than the Japanese carriers at the Coral Sea. Before it even got there, shopkeepers, electricians, welders, were waiting with a radio advanced warning. They got in the dry dock, they drained the water, they got the thing there, seventy-two hours it took off. They were still working on it. Nobody told them what to do, it was all decentralized individual initiative and it meant that the Americans had three carriers, the Japanese four, rather than six, two.

Peter Robinson: Our final topic, what implications does Victor's analysis of the western way of war have for the present moment?

Title: Go West, Young Man

Peter Robinson: You write, "We in the west may have to fight as non-Westerners in jungles stealthily at night, and as counter terrorists to combat enemies who dare not face us in shock battle." Now, your book, your entire career, does a very good job of demonstrating that we in the west can fight in the western way. The question is, can we adapt a non-western way of battle on this war on terrorism.

Victor Davis Hanson: That book came out a months before 9-11.

Peter Robinson: Did it?

Victor Davis Hanson: And I don't know if you remember, before October 7th when they went into Afghanistan, we were being told too cold, peaks too high, graveyard of the British, graveyard of the Russians, Ramadan, new type of warfare. And I wrote at the time that we would win within four weeks because the western way of war is not just shock battles, we've talked this last period, but it's also a variety of individuals and rationalism and there were going to be people on the ground in Afghanistan with laptop computers on horses who could channel the western way of war into a finite focus point. So, when ten Taliban tanks come over the ridge and a guys on a laptop, a plane is thirty thousand feet in the air, he can get rid of them all with an enormous level of firepower.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Well let's talk about what happens after battle. Now Lepanto, this is something you write about Lepanto--"True market economies never fully developed in the Muslim world because they were in jeopardy without freedom and antithetical to the Koran which made no distinction between political, cultural, economic, and religious life." What does that suggest about any hope of reform within the Islamic world?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, the world is shrinking. If we looked at South America, or we look at parts of Asia, the Soviet Union, or China just twenty years ago or thirty years ago and we looked at GNP, individual income, or industrialization, they were no better or no worse really than the Arab world. In fact, the economy of Egypt was comparable to South Korea. The Islamic world, especially the Middle East, is the last frontier of where these western ideas of individualism, freedom, gender equality, rationalism, capitalism, hasn't taken hold. And this is what this war is about. There's fundamentalists who see not brain surgery, contact lenses, voting, but they see Britney Spears, the lack of authority by the tribal patriarch, the mullah, the man at the dinner table tells his child when to--and that's all being assaulted by MTV, global communications, internet, enormous American military power. And I think it's going to have to reform and accept what we call the west and that's what the war is about.

Peter Robinson: Last question, can we win a war on terrorism or is it not a war? Is it simply a new condition that we must learn to live with?

Victor Davis Hanson: Oh now, we're--not only can we win, we're winning it as we speak. We've only been at it two years and the entire sanctuary of Afghanistan is gone, Iraq is gone, and Bin Laden and his lieutenants are being rounded up. I think the metaphor for the war on terrorism is Mr. Mohammed who looks so elegant and…

Peter Robinson: Recently captured associate of Bin Laden.

Victor Davis Hanson: He looked like he was from outer space and hiding in a Pakistani apartment and Mr. Bush hasn't changed, he has. No, we're going to win the war on terror just like the Great Mahdi, just like the Ghost Dancers, just like the Sakari in Jewish tradition. All of these elements of inflicting terror in the west are frightful but as long as they're met with overwhelming power and a message-- egalitarianism, freedom, security, justice--they lose.

Peter Robinson: Victor Davis Hanson, thank you very much.

Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.