[Paleopsych] The Claremont Institute: Cultures of War
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Tue Apr 19 14:18:54 UTC 2005
Cultures of War
By Thomas A. Bruscino, Jr.
Posted February 28, 2005
A review of Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, by John A.
Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We
Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, by Victor Davis Hanson
Over 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
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
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 the chevauchée, 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.
* * *
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
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
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.
Thomas A. Bruscino, Jr. is a Ph.D. candidate in the history
department at Ohio University.
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