[Paleopsych] The Claremont Institute: Cultures of War

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Apr 19 14:18:54 UTC 2005

Cultures of War

      By Thomas A. Bruscino, Jr.
      Posted February 28, 2005

      A review of [1]Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, by John A.

      [2]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
      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

      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
      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

      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.


    1. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0813333717/theclaremontinst
    2. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0385721943/theclaremontinst

More information about the paleopsych mailing list