2001-12-16: Carnage and Culture

Carnage and Culture

Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001)

by Victor Davis Hanson (1953-)

Hanson’s thesis seems to be that the rise of Western power is due to the cultural traditions that make citizens of the West better soldiers (and sailors), hence allow them to dominate other cultures militarily.

In brief, he says that the cultural advantages of the West are:

  • Its citizens are free men, choosing when and how to fight, selecting its own leaders, and auditing their results.
  • The fighters fight under law, representing the state and subject to the state’s constraints.
  • The fight is not for personal glory, but for state purposes.
  • Each fighter is responsible for his fellow fighters.
  • State purposes are often summarized as the very survival of the state.
  • Survival of the state against a belligerent state requires the annihilation of the opponent’s ability to fight.
  • Annihilation requires the extreme shock of confrontation of massed forces, and the relentless pursuit and destruction of a defeated enemy.

He illustrates his thesis with analysis of nine battles:

  • Salamis, Greece v. Persia, September 28, 480 BC
  • Gaugamela, Alexander v. Darius III, October 1, 331 BC
  • Cannae, Hannibal v. Rome, August 2, 216 BC
  • Poitiers/Tours, Saracens v. Franks, October 11, 732
  • Tenochtitlan, Cortes v. Mexicas, June 24, 1520–August 13, 1521
  • Lepanto, Christians v. Muslims, October 7, 1571
  • Rorke’s Drift, British v. Zulus,  January 22–23, 1879
  • Midway, USA v. Japan, June 4–8, 1942
  • Tet, USA v. North Viet Nam, January 31–April 6, 1968

Some of these battles were Western defeats. Yet Hanson finds lessons in all of them to support his thesis. Hanson opens each chapter with a quotation from classic authors. These are:

When the trumpet sounded, the soldiers took up their arms and went out. As they charged faster and faster, they gave a loud cry, and on their own broke into a run toward the camp. But a great fear took hold of the barbarian hosts; the Cicilian queen fled outright in her carriage, and those in the market threw down their wares and also took flight. At that point, the Greeks in great laughter approached the camp. And the Cicilian queen was filled with admiration at the brilliant spectacle and order of the phalanx; and Cyrus was delighted to see the abject terror of the barbarians when they saw the Greeks.
– Xenophon, Anabasis (1.2.16-18)

O sons of Greece, go forward! Free your native soil. Free your children, your wives, the images of your fathers’ gods, and the tombs of your ancestors! Now the fight is for all that.
– Aeschylus, The Persians (401–4)

The Greeks, as I have learned, are accustomed to wage wars in the most stupid fashion due to their silliness and folly. For once they have declared war against each other, they search out the finest and most level plain and there fight it out. The result is that even the victors come away with great losses; and of the defeated, I say only that they are utterly annihilated.
– Herodotus, The Histories (7.9.2)

Infantrymen of the polis think it is a disgraceful thing to run away, and they choose death over safety through flight. On the other hand, hired soldiers, who rely from the outset on superior strength, flee as soon as they find out they are outnumbered, fearing death more than dishonor.
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (3.1116b16-23)

But once the city-states grew and those with infantrymen in heavy armor became stronger, more people shared in government.
– Aristotle, Politics (4.1297b16-24,28)

A cunning fellow is man. His tools
make him master of beasts of the field
and those that move in the mountains …
He has a way against everything,
and he faces nothing that is to come without contrivance …
With some sort of cunning, inventive
beyond all expectation
He reaches sometimes evil,
And, sometimes good.
– Sophocles, Antigone (347-67)

Accumulated capital, not forced exactions, is what sustains wars.
– Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (1.141.5)

Free though they are, they are not entirely free–for law is their master, whom they fear far more than your men fear you. Whatever their law commands, that they do; and it commands them always the same: they are not allowed to flee in battle from any foe, however, great the numbers, but rather they are to stay in their ranks and there conquer or perish.
– Herodotus, The Histories (7.104)

Now where men are not their own masters and independent, but are ruled by despots, they are not really militarily capable, but only appear to be warlike. … For men’s souls are enslaved and they refuse to run risks readily and recklessly to increase the power of somebody else. But independent people, taking risks on their own behalf and not on behalf of others, are willing and eager to go into danger, for they themselves enjoy the prize of victory. So institutions contribute a great deal to military valor.
– Herodotus, The Histories (7.104)

Now where men are not their own masters and independent, but are ruled by despots, they are not really militarily capable, but only appear to be warlike. … For men’s souls are enslaved and they refuse to run risks readily and recklessly to increase the power of somebody else. But independent people, taking risks on their own behalf and not on behalf of others, are willing and eager to go into danger, for they themselves enjoy the prize of victory. So institutions contribute a great deal to military valor.
– Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places (16,23)

The expedition to Sicily was not so much a mistake in judgement, considering the enemy they went against, as much as a case of mismanagement on the part of the planners, who did not afterwards take the necessary measures to support those first troops they sent out. Instead, they turned to personal rivalries over the leadership of the people, and consequently not only conducted the war in the field half-heartedly, but also brought civil discord for the first time to the home front. … And yet they did not fail until they at last turned on each other and fell into private quarrels that brought their ruin.
– Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (2.65.12–13)

For every state war is always incessant and lifelong against every other state. … For what most men call “peace,” this is really only a name–in truth, all states by their very nature are always engaged in an informal war against al other states.
– Plato, Laws (1.626A)

I think most Westerners would find Hanson’s ideas attractive, and they might be true. However, I don’t think they are useful. There are many state-level problems in the world, and war hasn’t been shown to be an effective way of solving them.

 

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