The Merciless Teacher

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bill Steigerwald: What’s the greatest book on war ever written?

Victor Davis Hanson: I think Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War is the most astute. It’s the second-earliest history of war; not only is it a testament to the use of source material and the ability to provide a coherent narrative, but it’s analytical and it becomes almost philosophical in its dissection of human nature.

Steigerwald: Has everyone else been trying to rise to those standards ever since?

Hanson: Yes, I think so. The adjective Thucydidean is pretty much a standard brand now that people understand that ideally a historian would have three components in a successful history: one, he would use source materials in an analytic rather than prejudicial manner; two, he would be able to draw together a lot of sources and provide an engaging narrative; and three, his history would speak to readers in terms of philosophy beyond just the particular history, period, or era he is narrating.

Steigerwald: What was the best book about World War II?

Hanson: I think Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms. It’s a single-volume (1,208-page) history of World War II. It’s so good because he looks at the war in a holistic fashion, so we understand for the first time how the Balkan uprising affected German war plans, or how what was going on in the Japanese empire in places like Korea or Taiwan or mainland China affected the war with the British, or what people in the Nazi Party were discussing with Hitler in terms of alternative plans rather than what actually happened. Weinberg understands source material very well and has an eye for trying to give us a world at war other than just Britain, Germany, and the United States. He shows, ultimately, how lucky we were to win.

Steigerwald: What’s the best antiwar book?

Hanson: A whole genre of antiwar books followed the First World War. There are novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front or memoirs like Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That, or poetry by people like Siegfried Sassoon that came out of the World War I experience in Europe. Europe had never undergone anything like it. There are other things that have been written, like The Red Badge of Courage, and plays going back to the Greeks, like The Trojan Women or Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, that were antiwar in nature. But it seems to me that World War I and the advent of industrial war created entire new genres of novels, poetry, and memoirs that started with the premise that there was nothing at all possibly glorious about war.

Steigerwald: Would you agree with that last phrase you uttered?

Hanson: To an extent. I am not one of these people who see World War I as a tragedy in the sense that there was no moral or ethical difference between the Germany of 1914 and France and England. If one were to look at the nature of German aggression in Europe, the nature of German colonies overseas, or what the German agenda was, it seems to me that it was very different from the liberal tradition that prevailed in France and England. It’s a tragedy that it had to end in a war like that, but given the superiority of the German army in 1914, I don’t know any other way anybody would have stopped it. In terms of artillery, in terms of personal arms, in terms of general staff, railroads, communications, esprit de corps, it was far superior to the colonial armies of France and England. The ambitions of the German kaiser were so great, I don’t know how anybody could have done anything other than what was done. They would have had to appease Germany or capitulate. It was a tragedy, but I do think there was a qualitative difference in the fact that the Allies won. The tragedy of World War I, it seems to me, is how the Versailles Treaty ended and the Allies were not willing to remain vigilant because, given their enormous losses in the war, a sort of utopian pacifism followed.

Steigerwald: You’ve been reading books about the war in Iraq by various participants. They’re all pointing fingers at each other for various reasons. Which book so far do you find to be the most informative and the most credible?

Hanson: I think the most recent that I read, [former undersecretary of defense] Douglas Feith’s War and Decision, is the most informative. And I think it’s the most credible for one reason—it’s the best documented. More important, he has deliberately avoided or promised not to use a technique that has been common in other books such as Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco or Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon’s Cobra II: he has not used anonymous sources in the footnotes. So we don’t see "senior Pentagon official" or "junior American diplomat" cited after a direct quotation. Nor do we see, as in Bob Woodward’s books, conversations among a small number of people repeated verbatim but without our knowing who gave the author that information. Such information can never be checked.

"The ambitions of the German kaiser were so great, I don’t know how anybody could have done anything other than what was done. They would have had to appease Germany or capitulate."

Feith not only gave citations but put them on his website so anyone can go there, click on the footnote, and see whether the reference is accurate. Moreover, I don’t think he was trying to get even. Part of the problem with a book of this genre is that, one, it’s written right in the middle of a war. Two, when Paul Bremer writes, he’s going to blame Feith and General Ricardo Sanchez; when Sanchez writes, he’ll blame Bremer and Feith; General Tommy Franks is going to say, "I did a great job, and I left and everything was all right," and once you get into that cycle it’s unending.

I think if you read Feith carefully, you realize he not only escapes that trap but takes some of the blame himself. It’s an apology, in a sense, for the idea that the Pentagon had a war plan, that had people listened to Defense rather than the State Department, things would be better than they are now. It’s not "my brilliant war was ruined by somebody else’s lousy occupation." That’s pretty much the subtext of every other book.

Steigerwald: How many years after a war does a historian need to get a proper perspective?

Hanson: I think it takes a half century. . . . It takes the death of people, and that’s usually fifty years. Look at World War II: we had a radical change of heart once Eisenhower passed away and once General Omar Bradley passed away, because they were icons of the American military. At first, if we had said that Bradley was not as good a general as George Patton, that would have been heresy. Patton died right after the war and was caricatured as an uncouth bigmouth. But after Bradley died and there was no longer a Bradley core of scholars—clients, so to speak—in the military and civilian worlds, then people began to look at World War II with a fresh eye. The past two or three biographies of Patton have been very sympathetic; they have started to say that it was Bradley who was responsible for the Falaise Gap (in Normandy); it was Bradley who didn’t have a good plan to restore the Bulge; it was Eisenhower who was naive about Czechoslovakia and Berlin. These questions were not even raised before because of the enormous stature those men held while they were alive. And this is true of every war: you really can’t question in a disinterested fashion because the surviving principals have their various spheres of influence. I don’t think we’ll understand Iraq until all the major players are gone.

"We’re going to see a whole new cadre of Army officers who are more versed in counterinsurgency than they are in armor, artillery, or air support."

Steigerwald: Some people have said Iraq is the worst blunder in the history of American foreign policy. What do you say when you hear that statement?

Hanson: People are often ill-informed about things we’ve done in the past. I’m not saying arming the Soviet Union to fight Hitler was a blunder, but you could have argued for that term after the Soviets killed 30 million of their own people. We went to war to ensure that Eastern Europe was liberated from Nazi totalitarianism and we ended up ensuring that Eastern Europe was subjected to Soviet totalitarianism—empowering an empire that was every bit as bad as Hitler. . . . On a tactical level, Iraq is not even close to World War II. Putting pilots in Devastator torpedo bombers, or trying to sell the idea that the Sherman tank, for all of its strengths concerning maintenance, was going to be anywhere near comparable to a German tank, and the thousands of people who found out with the cost of their lives that it wasn’t true . . . I could go down the line.

"This is true of every war: you really can’t question in a disinterested fashion because the surviving principals have their various spheres of influence. I don’t think we’ll understand Iraq until all the major players are gone."

Whether it’s the Civil War, or the First World War, or the Second World War, or the status of U.S. armed forces in August 1950, we’ve made so many more blunders and we’ve reacted so much more slowly to correct them than anything we have seen in Iraq. So I just don’t think anybody can make any historical comparison.

That being said, is Iraq a fiasco or a blunder? If we were to withdraw and were to lose, I would concede that it would be. But if we stay and are successful in creating a constitutional government, then you can see that that would be an amazing achievement. It would not only make Saddam Hussein’s Iraq an ally rather than an enemy that attacked its neighbors, but it would have a deleterious effect on Iran. We can talk in terms of Iran undermining Iraq—that’s true. But if Iraq were to win that struggle, then it would—by its very presence as a constitutional state—undermine Iran and pressure other countries that don’t have our interests at heart. All we did by going into Iraq was raise the ante; great good can come of it, or great evil, depending upon whether we prevail.

As for the losses, I don’t quite understand it. I don’t like to be heartless, but in six years we’ve lost about the same amount of soldiers we lost in two or three days in a major campaign in World War II. During an eight-year period of the Clinton administration, when the military was two or three times larger and not nearly as adept in its training, I think we lost in peacetime accidents almost twice as many as we’ve lost in Iraq. I think in the eight years of the Clinton administration we lost more than seven thousand dead in accidents. So if you look at the rate of casualties this month, for example, we’re averaging less than one a day. It was always a fairly standard figure that we would lose three soldiers a day in the military in the 1980s and 1990s—well over a thousand a year. It doesn’t mean it’s not tragic that we are losing people, but given the stakes, I’m always amazed at how well the military does.

"Is Iraq a fiasco or a blunder? If we were to withdraw and were to lose, I would concede that it would be. But if we stay and we are successful in creating a constitutional government, then you can see that that would be an amazing achievement."

Steigerwald: If you were to write a book about the war in Iraq now, after six years—and I know you’d probably say it’s too early to write one—what would it focus on?

Hanson: I think I would concentrate on two issues. One is how victory or defeat would affect the position of the United States in a geopolitical sense. That would touch on everything from the price of oil to the nuclear arming of Iran to the programs for weapons of mass destruction that we know took place under Saddam but also, more important, in places like Pakistan, Libya, and Syria. I’d argue that a victory would discourage proliferation of all these weapons and encourage reform and that a defeat would make things much worse than before.

Second, I would concentrate on how the military evolved: how a force of artillery, armor, and rapidly moving columns that won the war and then in a bureaucratic sense was static in the occupation had to adjust, and how it adjusted faster than the insurgents did. I think we’re going to see a whole new cadre of Army officers who are more versed in counterinsurgency than they are in armor, artillery, or air support.

Steigerwald: What lessons has the war in Iraq taught future historians?

Hanson: It’s a reminder that there are new lessons in war. No war turns out as one predicts. So those who were arguing after the three-week victory that we’d have a constitutional government up and running in six months, given the euphoria of the brilliant victory, were wrong—just as people were wrong about the Civil War lasting one summer or World War I being over by September 1914. Also wrong were those who thought that the insurgency had won and the situation was hopeless; that the United States could never go into the heart of the caliphate and know what it was doing; or that Arabs could never vote in a peaceful, orderly fashion among themselves. I think the Iraq war re-emphasizes that the strengths of the U.S. system—civilian control of the military, reliance on high technology and logistics, and, most important, the freedom for people of varying ranks to offer different ideas or different strategies—will finally come into play if we have enough patience, despite all the problems we’ve had. We get somebody like General Petraeus, and he turns the theater around, and the unheard-of and the impossible starts to happen: suddenly a Shia-dominated government is attacking Shia radicals who are surrogates of Iran, while appealing to Sunnis to join it and to do their part to rout Al-Qaeda and Wahhabi insurgents. Nobody in his right mind would have believed it just a year and half ago. But with patience, we get the right kind of people in such a system who can change things around.