Posted: February 28, 2005
ver the past twenty years, Victor Davis Hanson, a one-time raisin farmer and now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, has become one of the world's most prominent military historians. Hanson's bestselling books and opinion pieces on culture, warfare, and foreign affairs have become so influential that in the aftermath of September 11, he receives consultation calls from the White House and Pentagon.
Not surprisingly, his high profile has brought criticism, ranging from the shrill—in the mid-1990s one critic asserted that he could be the Unabomber—to the professional. Battle, by University of Illinois professor of history John Lynn, belongs in the latter category.
Battle is an eclectic study of world military history, tackling a wide array of subjects, from virtue and ethics in ancient Chinese and Indian conflicts to the war on terror. Lynn brings a fresh cultural perspective to a number of long-standing historical arguments. He describes the brutality of medieval Western warfare, dominated not by chivalry in battle but by rape, pillage, and murder in thechevauchée, the great raids across the countryside. To those who find unchanging truth in the work of Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, Lynn charges that Clausewitz must be understood as a creature of his cultural times. Before World War I, military thinkers studied the Prussian's principles of decisive battle; after World War II, they looked with equal fervor to his ideas on limited war. And contrary to the prevailing wisdom that the strategy and brutality of World War II in the Pacific stemmed from race hatred on both sides, Lynn wisely maintains that geography dictated the strategy and conflicting military cultures created the brutality.
Lynn shows that culture can also be an obstacle to battlefield success, using the Egyptian army from 1948 to 1973 as an example. The Egyptians' rigid, top-heavy command structure stifled fresh ideas, tactical flexibility, and honest communication from lower levels, leading to a drubbing by the Israelis in the Six-Day War. In the Yom Kippur War (1973), their preplanned attack—scripted down to the individual soldier—negated any advantage they might have had in surprise and personal initiative; even adjusting for their culture did not lead to ultimate victory. This brings us to our present situation in the Middle East. If you can't beat an enemy on the battlefield, you have two options: you go up, to weapons of mass destruction, or down, to terrorism.
Prof. Lynn makes a persuasive case for culture as a driving force in world history in this iconoclastic and learned study. Nevertheless, Battle will disappoint readers who long for broad conclusions and sweeping historical themes. To Lynn, complexity and discontinuity separate history's many ways of war.
Victor Davis Hanson begins Ripples of Battle with a personal narrative, describing the death of his father's cousin, and his namesake, in the battle for Okinawa in 1945. This death on a distant island almost sixty years ago has rippled through the Hanson family ever since. The killing and destruction of war, Hanson argues, ripples through human history in much the same way. "Battles," he writes, "are really the wildfires of history, out of which the survivors float like embers and then land to burn far beyond the original conflagration."
Hanson examines three battles—Okinawa, Shiloh, and Delium—describing how, in a matter of a few hours or days of fighting, they precipitated changes across entire societies. In the bloody Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Ulysses S. Grant's federal forces barely overcame a surprise rebel attack. A previously disgraced William T. Sherman played a key role in the federal stand, a role that rescued him from despair and obscurity. Shiloh launched him on a course that would end in his decisive march through the heart of the South. His capture of Atlanta two years later saved Lincoln's presidential election, and his partnership with Grant eventually won the war.
On the other side, the fluke death of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston on the evening of the first day at Shiloh prevented any further rebel attacks on the wavering federal lines. Whether or not Johnston's survival would have turned the tide is irrelevant; the fact is that many Southerners did and do believe that to be the case. Chance, not the skill of the enemy, destroyed the Confederate cause. This myth would be cemented by the death of Stonewall Jackson and by the missed opportunities at Gettysburg.
Yet the effects of Shiloh pale in comparison to the Battle of Delium in 424 B.C., an obscure and strategically unimportant engagement in the Peloponnesian War that changed the course of Western civilization. In the midst of devastating war, the Athenians decided to turn and defeat Sparta's Boeotian allies to the north. Of the thousands of hoplites who took their place in the Athenian line, one was a middle-aged philosopher named Socrates. After being routed by the Boeotians, the Athenians fled in three directions. While others fled to the mountains or their fortress, Socrates headed for the woods; only those who chose the woods escaped slaughter. And so the father of Western political philosophy lived to pass on his wisdom to Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and us.
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A key idea separates Victor Davis Hanson and John Lynn. Hanson's work has championed a "Western way of war." For Hanson, Greek agrarian culture produced a war method based on civic militarism and decisive battle, and the West has more or less been fighting that way (and winning against the non-West) ever since. Western traditions like consensual government, secular rationalism, and individual ingenuity produced an unparalleled, lethal military dynamism. The Greeks and Macedonians defeated the mighty Persian empire; Rome, not Carthage, conquered the known world; Spanish conquistadors ran wild in Latin America; and gunpowder, a toy for the Chinese elite, became in Western hands the basis for repeating rifles and explosive shells—not due to superior numbers, higher IQs, guns, germs, or steel, but to a 2,500-year cultural tradition. The success of the Western way of war explains why "the rest of the world copies its weapons, uniforms, and military organization from us, not vice versa."
Lynn disagrees. He criticizes Hanson's Western way of war for creating a universal Western warrior, unchanged through time. Lynn maintains that the soldiers and fighting styles from Imperial Rome through the Early Modern period drastically departed from their Greek antecedents, rupturing Hanson's supposedly unbroken tradition. Besides, it is not as if the West has been universally successful against the rest of the world. The Huns, Muslims, Mongols, and Turks each held their own or had their way with Western armies.
But Hanson's gift is to summon history in ways meaningful to the present. Whereas John Lynn sees coincidence in the emergence of civic militarism combined with decisive battle, Hanson sees a pattern encoded in the West's culture. Lynn saw terrorists crashing planes into buildings as marking the emergence of a new type of warfare. Hanson does not. In late 1944, the Japanese began kamikaze and banzai attacks against U.S. fleets in the Pacific. They were attempting to frighten the U.S. out of invading the mainland, which would potentially lead to millions of deaths. It was this that persuaded U.S. military planners to drop the atomic bomb. "There was a similar chain of events," Hanson writes, "after the terrible autumn of 2001." Again, the U.S. found itself faced by thousands of suicidal ideologues, convinced their fearlessness would overcome the decadent U.S. Hanson observes, "Romantics may have remembered the kamikazes; realists recalled how they were dealt with.... Okinawa taught the world that the chief horror of war is not the random use of suicide bombers, but the response that they incur from Western powers whose self-imposed restraint upon their ingenuity for killing usually rests only with their own sense of moral reluctance—a brake that suicidal attack seems to strip away entirely."
Ideas are tricky things, difficult to track and measure through time. Ripples of Battle demonstrates the lasting and unexpected influence that warfare can have on all aspects of culture. If there is a Western way of war, its path from the Greek hoplite to the American soldier remains at least partially obscured by history's mountains and valleys; hidden among the ideas, prayers, art, and actions of countless souls. John Lynn is right to point this out, because discovering such a path is the essence of the historian's work. But as Victor Davis Hanson so clearly understands, in an uncertain world, history can also tell us who we are and for what, if necessary, we fight.