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The Western Way of War

Saturday, December 1, 2001

Victor Davis Hanson.
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.
Doubleday. 492 pages. $25.00

It is a question that goes to the buried strata of the human psyche: Whether war is a more natural condition than peace for the species in which we are card-carrying members — even defining peace so contingently as the absence of war. Probing as this question must be for philosophers and political scientists, however, for the historian it is less compelling than the constant fact of conflict over recorded time.

This constancy of war is the field the military historian plows, though that specialty has not enjoyed top billing on the academic marquee in recent decades. In Carnage and Culture, Victor Davis Hanson explores the intimate kinship of social institutions and the waging of war, stretching the topic beyond the traditional matrix (so historian John Keegan suggests, and indeed Hanson credits him with sketching the outlines of this fresh approach).

The theme trenchantly explored by Hanson, professor of classics at the University of California at Fresno, is that since Greco-Roman times, “There has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare, a common foundation and continual way of fighting, that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization.” This “singularity” of battlefield prowess resides in free men mustering under consensual governance (it is not courage, as such; that, Hanson notes, is a human characteristic). “Citizens, it turns out, are history’s deadliest killers.”

Hanson stipulates that his interest is in the military power, “not the morality,” of the West. Nor is he interested in discussing the “general nature and evolution” of Western civilization at large in a book intended for general readers.

The “continuum” of superiority in war, he contends, is intrinsic to Western philosophical premises and political institutions, among them the development of “vibrant” markets, empirical energy, and technological innovation, all of which have been basic to the Western way of war.

Those who read his book published five years ago, Fields Without Dreams, a painful lament and angry analysis of the fading agrarian idea in the West as examined in the travails of his sixth-generation family farm in California, will be familiar with Hanson’s take-no-prisoners intellectual style and refusal to give hostages to fashion. He will be visiting professor of military history at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis during the 2002-2003 academic year, and has been churning out pungent commentary as a contributing writer for National Review Online.

Carnage and Culture is an insightful journey through the past, and immediately pertinent as the Western coalition and its non-Western partners now are embarked on a “twilight war” against terror and its practitioners. It is an audacious historiographic thesis, and the more so as Hanson also reflects that this martial legacy might be at an “impasse” as a new millennium has begun unfolding.

To establish the consistent lethality of Western arms and its cultural genesis, the author writes of nine illustrative battles. The first is Salamis in 480 bc. In that narrow body of water a few miles from the burned Acropolis, Greek citizens of Athens manned the oars of their sleek triremes and devastated the huge fleet of Xerxes, with as many as 40,000 Persian casualties. “All were doomed far from Asia in the warm coastal waters of the Aegean, all destined for the bottom of the Saronic Gulf. Their last sight on earth was a Greek sunset over the mountains of Salamis — or their grim king perched far away on Mount Aigaleos watching them sink beneath the waves,” Hanson writes with the felicity that makes his narrative a pleasure.

The other battles in this sanguinary account are: Gaugamela, 331 bc, where Alexander, relying on the concept of decisive battle and massed heavy infantry developed by his father, Philip, defeated Darius III’s army of peasants and slaves in Mesopotamia, thus ending the Archaemenid dynasty that had threatened Greece for a century; the Roman disaster at Cannae, 216 bc, where Hannibal’s smaller polyglot army killed 70,000 Roman legionnaires, which the resilient republic was able to replace within a single year; Poitiers, 732 ad, in which Charles Martel defeated the Moors, marking the “high-water mark” of Islamic penetration of Europe; Tenochtitlán, 1521, where Cortez’s miniscule army brought down the dazzling Aztec empire by relying on technological savvy; Lepanto, 1571, the devastation of the Turkish fleet by the Holy Alliance; Rorke’s Drift, 1879, where fewer than 100 British soldiers fighting desperately under the “harmony” of capable leadership and steely discipline held off a Zulu army of more than 3,000 warriors for a day, just after a British force of more than double their strength but abominably commanded and deployed were wiped out at Isandhlwana; Midway, 1942, where antiquated U.S. aircraft, inexperienced pilots, solid intelligence, and individual initiative crippled a far more modern Japanese fleet and ripped Tokyo’s ambitious strategic blueprint; Tet, 1968, the Viet Cong-North Vietnamese offensive that was smashed in weeks but was so portrayed as a defeat in the U.S. that it prefigured the eventual and dismal end to America’s commitment.

Each of these illustrates aspects of the evolving Western legacy of battle: the tenacity of constitutional states; emphasis on decisive battle; the “civic militarism” of citizen soldiers, defined by Hanson as “the notion that those who vote must also fight to protect the commonwealth, which in the exchange granted them rights”; reliance on heavy infantry; technological power; the contribution of market capitalism to warfare; discipline and leadership, individualism and initiative; and dissent, self-critique, and civil audit of the conduct of wars.

In discussing the military efficacy of individualism, as exemplified at Midway, Hanson enuppercaseulates components of this Western “singularity”:

[T]he formal and often legal recognition of a person’s sovereign sphere of individual action — social, political, and cultural — is a uniquely Western concept, one that frightens, sometimes rightly so, most of the non-Western world. Individualism, unlike consensual government and constitutional recognition of political freedom, is a cultural, rather than political, entity. It is the dividend of Western politics and economics, which give freedom in the abstract and concrete sense to individuals and in the process fosters personal curiosity and initiative unknown among citizens where there are no true citizens and neither government nor markets are free.


As a template for his thesis, Hanson begins with Xenephon’s Anabasis, the remarkable account of the “Ten Thousand” who hired out to Cyrus the Younger in his campaign to unseat his brother from the Persian throne in 401 bc. These Greek soldiers of fortune were veterans of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), the civil war that had fragmented the Hellenic world. Many were murderous renegades and exiles, and they knew their brutal trade.

After Cyrus was killed on the verge of victory, the Greeks were faced with either surrender or the prospect of fighting their way home through 1,500 miles of hostile territory. They chose the latter. (Anyone who studied the ancient world in a dimly recalled past, even if now barely able to navigate the Greek alphabet, vividly remembers the triumphant shouts of “Thalassa! “Thalassa!” as the sturdy warriors reached the Black Sea at the end of their epic march.) The Ten Thousand survived because they were highly disciplined soldiers who routinely assembled to vote on the proposals of their elected leaders and met in councils to debate tactics and modifications in organization. They were, in short, “a marching democracy” — the product of a “vast cultural divide” between the Eastern tribes they fought and the unique institutions of the Greek polis, the city-state.

Carnage and Culture obviously constructs in its general theme a long wall from past to present. It is a well-mortared one. Hanson is careful to note the variables, the often interrupted progress, and the seeming contradictions out of which Western battlefield superiority developed. For example, the different meanings over time of “free,” from the limited extent of citizenship in Greece to the inclusive sense under the Roman republic; the technological inventiveness of Western weaponry and organization which, even when effectively copied by opponents, as the Japanese did in years leading up to World War II, lacked the cultural scaffolding to sustain it in battle.

Hanson’s is a compactly comprehensive examination of the Vietnam war, with Tet as a crystallizing campaign — and thoroughly examines the role of dissent and self-critique in the history of Western warfare. “The Vietnam experience stands as the worst-case scenario imaginable in a free society at war — a test of the institution of free criticism fundamentally distorted, in which many of the dissidents were ignorant, their tools of communication instantaneous and enormously powerful, and their sympathies more with the enemy than with their own soldiers.”

The first three years of major U.S. involvement, 1965-1968, were devoted tactically to an attempt to create the conditions of the traditional Western decisive battle, in which its “wonderfully trained and disciplined shock infantry” could destroy the enemy and go home. But U.S. forces encountered an enemy that preferred infiltration, terror bombing, and raiding. “The military’s problem in Vietnam, at least in the short term, was not an absence of an approving majority back home, but the growth of a vocal, influential, and highly sophisticated minority of critics — activists who cared much more deeply about abruptly ending American involvement than did the majority of supporters in maintaining it” — this minority including dominant elements of the media, for whom “hysteria” was an element of their reportage.

Additionally, “it was as if thousands of graduates from America’s top military academies had not a clue about their own lethal heritage of the Western way of war. . . . Yet ultimately, the American military command itself forfeited the war. . . . The top echelon lost the conflict because they accommodated themselves without imagination to the conditions of political audit and scrutiny that made it difficult, but not impossible, to win,” Hanson writes. “The military could have easily won the war it wanted to fight, but did not know how to fight the war it was asked to win.” Consonant, however, with the Western tradition, the author contends, the unrelenting barrage of criticism did contribute, post-Tet and under Gen. Creighton Abrams from 1968 to 1971, to a more rational and effective prosecution of the war — though too late to overcome political and social opposition.


The millennia-long superiority of Western arms fails, Hanson writes, only when Westerners have fought Westerners in Europe — of which the late last century provides a bloody epitome. It is this prospect, with the cataclysmic weapons of mass destruction in intra-cultural war, that worried Hanson in contemplating the future — as he wrote this book doubtless watching the ominous turbulence in the Balkans (where it has been observed that more history is produced than can be consumed locally). “Most see in the advance of rationalism, capitalism, democracy, and their ancillary values the seeds of perpetual peace and prosperity. Maybe, but we must remember that these ideas are also the foundations that have created the world’s deadliest armies of the past.”

Now, in the acceleration of change and event, there is likely an even greater inhibition to the traditional way of Western war and its lethality. A decisive battle in which Western powers invoke decisive shock force and over-whelming weaponry can hardly be the script of this first war of the twenty-first century — the war against terror and, in part, against resurgent Eastern antagonism toward the West. The caves of the Taliban and the formidable topography of Afghanistan, plus the insidious global network of terrorist organizations and resources — and, it may be, their possession of weapons of mass destruction and/or panic (e.g., anthrax) — will be an enemy so different in degree as potentially to constitute a difference in kind.

There will also be the influence of the Western tendency to lose patience when victory proves elusive, when vast riches are expended, when body bags continue to be filled, and, not least, as Vietnam direly documented, a vocal minority is able to influence significantly public perseverance — for rational or for contrived reasons.

Hanson ends this stimulating book by noting that key ingredients of traditional Western warfare appear to be all but gone: “Mercenary armies in America and Europe are the norm. . . . Fewer Americans — soldier and civilian alike — are voting than ever before. Most have not a clue about the nature of their own military or its historic relationship with its government and citizenry. The rise of a huge federal government and global corporations has reduced the number of Americans who work as autonomous individuals. . . . Freedom for many means an absence of responsibility, while the culture of the mall, video, and Internet seem to breed uniformity and complacence, rather than rationalism, individualism, and initiative. Will the West always, then, possess persons of the type who fought at Midway, or citizens who rowed for their freedom at Salamis, or young men who rushed to reform their battered legions in the aftermath of Cannae?”

The questions are bluntly put. Now — as perplexed editorial writers sometimes end their day’s quota of opinion — “we shall see.”