Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Doubleday, 2001). 492pp.
Christopher Bassford, National War College (NDU), 2002
was really prepared to dislike this book. At first glance, Hanson’s emphasis on culture looked suspiciously like the faux-anthropological nonsense John Keegan spouted in his A History of Warfare.*1 Also, I have found Hanson’s intense political partisanship in the popular press to be annoying, and this is certainly an ideological tract in many respects. But, it turns out, I do like the book a great deal, despite what many reviewers will no doubt see as its objectionably pro-Western chauvinism.
Partly that’s because I’m feeling pretty chauvinistic myself these days. But mostly I like the book because Hanson has forthrightly stated an argument that very much needed stating—not only to the general public (Hanson’s explicit target) but to the historical profession itself. This is the thesis that Western military forces, since the classical Greeks but not before, have more-or-less consistently proven superior to non-Western forces on land and sea because of certain cultural features—the occasional Carrhae- or Little Bighorn-style disaster notwithstanding. That thesis is not really new, but this certainly is a timely moment to put it back on the table. Western culture has some unique qualities, with deep roots and continuing importance, that have consistently made it militarily and politically superior to what Hanson darkly calls “the Other” over most of the last 2500 years. After all, even in its moments of greatest weakness—during the post-Mycenaen and post-Roman dark ages—the Western core has never been conquered by outsiders. “In the long history of military practice, it is almost a truism that the chief military worry of a Western army for the past 2,500 years was another Western army.” (p5) Isandhlwana pales to insignificance in comparison to Verdun.
In some respects, this is an old-fashioned “Great Battles of World History” sort of book, with chapters on Salamis (480 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Cannae (216 BC), Poitiers (732), Tenochtitlán (1520-21), Lepanto (1571), Rorke’s Drift (1871), Midway (1942), and Tet (1968). But these commendably brutal and unbowdlerized battle and campaign studies are merely vehicles for Hanson’s larger argument, so that is what I will focus on here. Hanson is brave enough to include as major elements in his study Western reverses like Cannae and Isandhlwana. The inclusion of Cannae is a bit of a problem, however, since it is not at all clear that heavily Hellenized Carthage was not itself part of the West. It might have been worthwhile to include as well some major calamity that is less ambiguous in the context of this book, such as Manzikert, Mohacs, the Fall of Singapore, or Dien Bien Phu (though, to be fair, the latter two involve substantially Westernized foes as well). The cultural features Hanson credits include Western ideas of group and individual freedom; a fixation on decisive battle emphasizing the shock collision of professional or semi-professional heavy infantry; “civic militarism” and the citizen-soldier ideal; a particularly Western style of discipline, based not on fear of authority or on the heroic ideal of individual bravery, but on a determination not to break formation and endanger one’s fellow citizens/soldiers; technological progressiveness and the market economics that helps it flourish; the dominance of rationalism (vice religion or superstition) in practical decision making; and traditions permitting dissent, self-critique, and auditing of operations by elements outside the military and political leadership directly involved.
Perhaps the most important of these cultural features is the concept of the free, self-sufficient citizen soldier first typified by the Greek hoplite—a notion that ultimately underlies many of the others. This concept, despite the de facto disappearance of such individuals from the common soldiery in certain periods, continued to have psychological power over the behavior of Western troops and their leaders. In any case, the relevant cultural attitudes remained a reality among the officer classes, who enjoyed a relationship of near- or quasi-equality with their highest political and military commanders. That relationship was entirely alien to that of, say, Chinese, Aztec, Zulu, or Ottoman subordinates with their masters. Certainly it is difficult to imagine an Ottoman commander—legally a slave—snapping at his Sultan with words like those Seydlitz used to Frederick the Great at Zorndorf: “Tell the king that after the battle, my head is his to do with as he pleases; in the meantime, allow me to use it in his service!” (My example, not Hanson’s.) That is so in part because of the slave system Hanson decries, but also because, even if an Ottoman commander had said such a thing and survived, the Ottoman historical tradition would not likely have recorded it—and certainly not in the approving way the Western tradition does. Even Alexander the Great, well on the way to making himself into an oriental-style living god, had to put up with continual carping and criticism from his subordinates. The same could be said for Napoleon, Eisenhower, and even Hitler.
I think Hanson makes an error, or at least misses the point, by talking excessively about the “lethality” of the Western approach to war. Primitive warfare is extremely lethal, as anthropologist Lawrence Keeley has demonstrated pretty conclusively, though the body count gets racked up in innumerable small-scale ambushes and massacres rather than on formal battlefields.*2 Plenty of non-Western peoples—if not most—have been given to large-scale butchery, on the battlefield and off. It is hard to think of any military force more “lethal” than the Mongols. Aztec warfare was also extremely lethal, though primarily to POWs rather than to armed soldiers still in the field. Rather, it is the decisiveness of Western warfare that is prominent, though not entirely unique. Now, “decisive battle” is a tricky phrase. Most military historians use it to mean “a really big battle,” or perhaps “a battle exciting enough to justify your buying my book about it.” More justifiably, it is sometimes used to describe a battle that ends in undisputed tactical victory by one side or the other. But it really means a battle the outcome of which actually decides something of real importance—i.e., a major political issue. Ideally, a “decisive battle” leads directly to peace (e.g., Appomattox in 1865), though in practice it may simply resolve some intermediate issue. For instance, in 1704 Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim was decisive in that it shut down one major theater of the War of the Spanish Succession and effectively drove a major belligerent—Bavaria—out of the war, even though the larger struggle went on for years. Westerners, because they traditionally draw a sharp, legalistic distinction between war and peace, habitually seek such decisions in hopes of getting the war over with and getting on with normal life. Many other societies, however, see a permanent state of hostilities as normal. Their rulers are therefore not inclined to take big chances in pursuit of a swift conclusion to hostilities—especially if the usual result of a decisive loss is the loser’s extermination.
One of Hanson’s strengths, on the other hand, though it is merely a tactic, lies in making it very clear that he is focused exclusively on the superiority of the Western approach to warmaking, rather than attempting to make any more general argument for the West’s cultural or ethical superiority. Indeed, Hanson's story is essentially an amoral paean to the political, military, and economic virtues of a decentralized, ruggedly individualistic, but brutal and brutally self-interested class of landowner on the model of the Greek citizen-soldier/landowner/slaveowner. (A class more comparable to the Prussian Junker or Old South plantation-owner than to the enterprising urban entrepreneur that epitomizes the ideal, involved citizen of the modern democracies.) This approach, while certainly grounded in historical truth, is wildly anachronistic today—hardly the self-validating model many delusional neo-cons (mostly feckless urbanites and Vietnam-era draft dodgers) seem to think it is. Hanson strives to separate the issues, but unreluctantly concedes that the same factors that account for the West’s military dominance contribute to a higher level of admirability in these other spheres as well. Nonetheless, the broader argument is right. The West dominates the world on many levels because it is rich, creative, and free—not the other way around. The same factors that account for Western military superiority apply as well to Western successes in fields like business and science.
Hanson asks some interesting questions whether these factors still apply and will continue to shape warfare in the future. Hanson’s fears for the military future of the West fall into two very different categories. On the one hand, he sees the world being increasingly Westernized. If that means it will be democratized, this may mean an end to war. But such hopes have always been dashed in the past. There is therefore a danger that future wars might always be of the most dangerous kind—i.e., intramural clashes between Western forces. "We may well be all Westerners in the millennium to come, and that could be a very dangerous thing indeed." The other category of Hanson’s concern might be interpreted in evolutionary terms as a fear of democratic hyperdevelopment. That is, we may be seeing democratic ideas developing in American culture in such an extreme form that they undercut rather than energize our military capacity. One of the great strengths of the classical Mediterranean democracies was that suffrage was limited to voters with a strong personal stake in the realism of policy—as property owners they were used to making decisions that impacted on their own fortunes, and as soldiers they knew that the state’s military policies placed their own lives and property on the line. In subsequent Western societies, there have usually been comparable limitations placed on political suffrage. Today, however, most American voters—and especially members of the press—are economically dependent on others’ decisions and know absolutely nothing of military realities. They are thus utterly unsuited to the exercise of any kind of leadership in foreign affairs and war. Increasingly unmilitary Western societies may lose the edge they once enjoyed, and warfare will degenerate into the bloody but indecisive mess that characterizes much of the non-Western world. For good or bad, it certainly looks like we will get a chance to see how these fears play out in the world crisis brought into the open by the events of 11 September 2001.
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One wishes, however, that Hanson had explored more deeply the complex historical implications of his thesis. Why did Western superiority on the battlefield not result in European world conquest much earlier? After all, his list of empowering cultural ideals accounts in some part for the internal political divisions among the classical Greeks and later the Swiss that prevented their creation of empires despite their overwhelming (and very similar) military superiority over their neighbors. For centuries, both made their principal marks on world history by fighting promiscuously as mere mercenaries in the service of less capable societies. Indeed, Hanson’s ideas could be used to help explain the habitual disunity of the West as a whole, which has been a key factor in world history. But Hanson is unaccountably dismissive of the argument—prominent in the works of writers like William McNeil and Paul Kennedy*3—that it was the very fragmentation of the West that created and preserved the socio-politico-economic-military dynamo he praises. Despite what Western “culture” might have told them, Western rulers were just as inclined as their oriental counterparts to tax any profitable innovation to death. Western political fragmentation and political opportunism gave innovators multiple chances to find shelter and favor, and to prove the competitive value of their work to the state. A near-total collapse of Western civilization concluded the one period in which the West was unified—a point Hanson seems entirely to miss (p16).
It also follows that, if Hanson is right that the cultural features he has identified gave Western forces a general superiority over non-Western forces, then those Western societies that more strongly demonstrated these features would presumably have an advantage over less representative Western societies. But it seems at first reflection that the most impressive modern Western militaries have belonged to those societies that were the least democratic. When we think of the Western army par excellance, we think of the armies of Prussia and of Second- and Third-Reich Germany. Although I think this dilemma is easily resolved, I would have liked to see Hanson wrestle with it. Of course, he’s already bitten off a pretty substantial chunk of history to chew on, so maybe that would have been a bite too far for this one book.
But surely it is not enough simply to credit Western victories to the superiority of Western culture. One must ask, How did Western culture come to be so superior? And here Hanson runs into trouble. He acknowledges in more than one place that there is a wealth of factors at work in shaping the course of history, yet he takes every opportunity to denigrate non-cultural explanations for various facets of the problem he has tackled. I’ve mentioned McNeill’s fragmentation thesis and Hanson’s rejection of it. For another example, although his thinking and writing has obviously been affected in significant ways by Jared Diamond’s fascinating Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,*4 Hanson repeatedly goes out of his way to make broad and simplistic attacks on what he calls its “natural” or “biological” determinism. (e.g., pp15-19)
Hanson seems actually to have read Diamond’s work fairly closely. But he rejects Diamond’s thesis for essentially emotional reasons: Hanson’s tribal chauvinism runs deeper even than his formidable intellect. For instance, Hanson tells us that the Aztecs’ culture was obviously defective because they had ample access to the same Mexican iron ore and sulfur that Cortez’s men used to restore their stocks of firearms and gunpowder, yet failed to develop those resources into weapons equal to those of the conquistadors. This is absurd, of course. After all, 18th century Americans sat on top of uranium deposits—their failure to turn these into atomic bombs reflects no fundamental cultural failure, but merely their technological progress to date. The Aztecs had not reached even the technological level that the Greeks had possessed before they undertook the cultural innovations Hanson lauds, yet in many respects they accomplished far more with their low technology than the Greeks had with their’s even as late as 500 BC. And Diamond’s thesis provides some truly compelling explanations why technological progress came easier in Eurasia than outside it—reasons that Hanson dumbs down to the point of inanity.
Typical of Hanson’s thin skin on comparative issues is his undisguised outrage (pp15-16) over Diamond’s defense of what he describes as the equal or possibly even superior mental equipment of the average low-tech New Guinean aborigine. (p.20 in Diamond) In reality, of course, Diamond’s comments on that subject were driven by the same concern that drives Hanson himself to repeatedly stress the bravery, ingenuity, and intelligence of his Aztecs and Zulus. That is, he was blowing smoke in the well-founded fear that politically correct reviewers would automatically accuse him of racism simply because of his acknowledgement of the superiority of the Western achievement. This momentary digression by Diamond has nothing to do with his fundamental argument. Indeed, one might find it very surprising if the typical New Guinean native could survive in the outback with the low levels of situational awareness and high level of general befuddlement that characterize most modern Westerners in the altogether more user-friendly environments that their societies—but not they themselves, as individuals—have created. But this argument need have no genetic component—the environmental explanation (encompassing both physical and cultural aspects) suffices. In any case, we shouldn’t let this kind of chaff distract us from real issues.
Since Hanson, like Diamond, has pointedly rejected the notion that there is something inherently—that is to say, racially or genetically—superior about Westerners, there must be some circumstantial explanation for the West’s unique cultural evolution and its consequent competitive advantages. Now, that explanation may turn on environmental factors or on chance, or, much more likely, on some combination thereof. Unfortunately, Hanson’s sneering rejection of what he calls Diamond’s “natural determinism” essentially amounts to an argument that Western culture achieved superiority because ... well, because it just did. Hanson is too bright a fellow to leave it at that, of course, and in fact his practical explanations echo and are perfectly compatible with Diamond’s. For example, Hanson explains the prevalence of the heavy infantry model thusly: “Europe ... from the Balkans to the British isles, was largely a continent of good farmland and valleys, cut off by mountains and rivers, that was ideal for the operations of heavy infantrymen: flat ground for decisive charges of cumbersome foot soldiers, with nearby hills and mountains to prevent mounted flank attack.” (p159) Speaking as someone who has actually participated in infantry operations in Europe, I feel comfortable saying this is both pretty simplistic and probably a valid factor. But it clearly is the same kind of determinism—in this case, topographical determinism—that Hanson decries when practiced by others.
In fact, we can get a lot more mileage out of reconciling Hanson’s thesis with those he dismisses than we do from his narrow insistence on the single (and ultimately unexplained) cultural factor. If we were to overtly stitch Hanson’s and Diamond’s theses together, with some help from Robert Drews’ work on the late bronze age,*5 McNeill’s on the rise of the West, and nonlinearists’ ideas on culture as an evolutionary environment, it would go somewhat as follows.
Until the advent of the archaic or classical Greek polis, nothing particularly distinguished Western proto-states from their larger and more powerful counterparts in the Near East, Egypt, and China. Mycenaen Greece was essentially an off-shoot of Anatolian civilization, the ethnic “Greeks” being created by the merger of chariot-borne Indo-European-speaking conquerors with the Aegean area’s indigenous population. The West did share in the general technological advantages offered by Eurasian geography, flora, and fauna. The initial spread of Homo Sapiens across Eurasia had not coincided with or led to the extermination of potential draft animals, as it had in the Americas and elsewhere. The east-west axes of communications across Eurasia meant that animals and plants domesticated in any one area could spread easily and widely through a large band of roughly similar climatic attributes, whereas in the Americas the North-South axes meant that local domesticates tended strongly to remain localized. The sheer size and relative ease of movement across Eurasia meant that there were more people, in more communities, with access to a wider variety of potentially domesticable plants and animals, and thus more opportunity for the creation and spread of ideas and advances (and diseases: Diamond does of wonderful job of showing the connections between human diseases and the domestication of animals). After all, most of the key elements of the Greeks’ diet and technology (including their crucial writing system, mathematics, and architecture) originated elsewhere in Eurasia.
However, while the megalithic cultures of western Europe had been roughly on a par with early experiments in advanced culture elsewhere, the peripheral position and broken nature of the terrain in Europe retarded the growth of large political entities and thus of certain cultural developments that flowed therefrom. Europe’s riverine system was not conducive to the development of any large river-valley civilization like those of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, or Yellow River—with all the political implications of those regions’ hydrographics.
The crucible for the creation of a distinctive Western civilization was the period 1200-448 B.C. In a relatively brief spasm of violence c.1200 B.C., Mycenaen society was decapitated by large-scale raids, by as-yet unidentified raiders who came (probably from the west and north) by ship, fought with devastating effect on foot against the chariot armies of the late bronze age, and did not stick around to replace the fallen kings. There was no large-scale, permanent influx of foreign barbarians. Although the raids were destructive, they focused fairly narrowly on the rich palace complexes. The royal class, its theocrats, its small and specialized chariot warrior elite, and its tiny coterie of literate scribes vanished in the flames. But with the disappearance of the palaces, their concentrations of wealth, and their diplomacy-driven trade in luxury goods, further large-scale, long-distance raids into the area became economically unrewarding. The survivors, who were numerous and included most of the middling classes of rural landowners and town-dwellers, reorganized themselves on a very local basis and evidently could not—or elected not to—replace the missing elites. With the weaknesses of chariot warfare exposed, these societies were forced by circumstances to rely on locally recruited infantry forces for defense against residual raiders and each other. They naturally sought to maximize the number of fighters economically capable of equipping themselves for combat, and those proto-citizen soldiers naturally extracted a political price for their services—i.e., a voice in the running of the local polis. The need to equip masses of troops drove the development of iron weaponry, which, while inferior to bronze in most respects, had the virtue of being relatively plentiful and cheap.
Objectively, these circumstances must have applied to all the post-palatial, early iron-age societies in the eastern Mediterranean area. The early Hebrews clearly relied on a mass infantry and were hostile to the institution of kingship. But geographical considerations, particularly the fragmented landscape of Greece and the relative isolation of the Greeks from the traditional centers of power in the Near East, meant that the Greek poleis had time to mature politically and militarily before they were forced to contend with a powerful Near Eastern empire like Persia. Israel, in contrast, was constantly under assault from without, forced to unite under kings for self-defense, and successively conquered by Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians centuries before Greece came under serious external assault. Further, the Greeks had ready access to the sea and a tradition of seafaring. It was proto-capitalist Greek mercantilism, rather than the needs of a narrow palace elite, that led to the rebirth of both literacy and trade in Greece, and it was the sea that permitted the Greeks to spread their colonies and their political model throughout the central Mediterranean. The constant but limited warfare among the archaic Greek city-states honed their military skills and led them to maximize their military manpower, but did not cause a lot of destruction in Greece proper. This warfare, combined with the Greeks’ recognition of clear boundaries between war and peace, meant that at any given time many city-states had surplus warriors in need of employment. Greek mercenaries, like their late-medieval Swiss counterparts, became ubiquitous—with veterans bringing back valuable intelligence of the wider world.
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Thus were the core of Western civilization and its military arm forged. There are certainly elements of geographical determinism here, but these elements were powerfully shaped by unique historical contingencies. Hanson is very clear in understanding that the survival of this experiment via victory at Salamis in 480 BC was a very close call, a matter of contingency. The advantages granted to the Greeks by their political and military culture were very nearly counterbalanced by the disadvantages of their disunity and dithering. But success in the struggle with Persia infused the Greeks with a confidence that led them to self-consciously pursue the unique aspects they had come to recognize in their own culture, exploring their meaning in brilliant political experimentation and philosophizing. The Greeks even engaged in a certain political evangelism, which the Italians (Etruscans, Latins, and others) and Phoenicians certainly picked up on. Thus, even as the Greeks themselves exhausted their energies in new and more destructive internal struggles, and then diluted their culture in trying to digest Alexander’s huge eastern conquests, the Latins, Etruscans, and Carthaginians continued evolving the new Western model.
The ways in which various Mediterranean peoples defined themselves—a matter of culture—was driven by historical contingencies and had a lot to do with how they adapted to their political and military niches. The Hebrews had come from disparate origins. (The word hapiru originally meant something like “vagrant” or “landless scum,” but in the late bronze age also took on connotations of “mercenary footsoldier.”) However, Israel’s culture created a myth of a singular origin and the Jews became a closed ethnicity. The Greeks had a sense both of the complexity of their origins and of being a unique nation, but rigid local particularisms kept them divided. The Romans, like the Hebrews, had eclectic origins, but they were evidently pretty comfortable with that fact: Their national myths, political institutions, and ready ability to assimilate new peoples into the Roman community reflected this eclecticism. Ultimately, in significant part because of this flexible sense of identity, Rome was able to rework the Greek city-state model and make it function on the scale of a true nation-state—so successfully that it outgrew the feasible scale of either city-state or nation-state and grew into an empire encompassing the entire Western world.
Alas, universal empire—despite the manifest virtues of Western culture and the Pax Romanum—was a dead end for the West. The Roman Republic’s cultural and political institutions were unable to withstand the concentration of wealth and the attendant power that its conquests had put into the hands of a small class of politicians like Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Crassus. After many destructive civil wars, Augustus “restored” the Republic—genuinely preserving many of its local institutions, but fatally centralizing key political, economic, and military functions. Roman civilization lost the vital evolutionary qualities of variation and adaptability. The momentum provided to the Empire by deeply engrained traditions of local autonomy nonetheless carried the West forward for a few more centuries.
Eventually, however, the concentration of real power among an ever-narrowing and self-similar class left the Empire tottering on too tiny a leadership base—that is, the layer of free individuals accustomed to making decisions for themselves. Left without avenues to political influence, capable individuals who during the late Republic or early Empire might have become local bureaucrats or military officers instead retreated into preoccupations like those offered by the mystery religions. These at least offered them some scope for self-expression, but left local society with a leadership steeped in priestly but not military or economic skills. (Ironically, this permitted a version of Rome to survive, in a very real but radically different form, down to the present day—in the guise of the Catholic Church.) Rome’s long slide into collapse was characterized by a multitude of local failures—social, political, economic, and military. Its decision-makers were too few and too far away to understand and act effectively on those disparate problems. The late Empire was simply overwhelmed by too many crises—internal political and economic crises, external military threats, and possibly environmental changes—occurring all at once.
The late Roman armies ran short of manpower, not because of a decline in absolute numbers (though that seems to have happened to a significant degree as well, perhaps because of the concomitant economic collapse), but because of a decline in the numbers able to understand and practice military discipline as it had been understood by the free men of the classical republics. There was an even greater decline in the class able to inspire, mobilize, and lead them. The urban cultures that had provided the wellspring of Western politics and culture became irrelevant to the late Roman leadership. Rome itself was abandoned as the political capital of the West well before it fell to barbarian armies, and power gravitated into the hands of a small, dispersed, landed, rural elite.
The imperial leadership recognized its dilemma, of course, prompting the Emperors repeatedly to divide the Empire into what modern Americans would call CINCdoms. Unfortunately, this was no substitute for genuine decentralization. In any case, late Roman political culture could not tolerate the existence of more than one true power center, and the Empire’s declining strength was wasted in recurrent efforts to forcibly reunite what desperate Roman strategists had intentionally sundered. The surviving eastern half of the Empire eventually came up with the much more flexible (and controllable) Theme system of strategic decentralization, but far too late to save the West.
And then there was the problem of lead plumbing, of course, which we must reluctantly leave for discussion at another time and place.
Fortunately, the influx of a free barbarian warrior class, at least partially adapted to Roman methods, helped to redress the manpower problems of the late Roman world. This led to victories like the one Hanson describes at Poitiers in 732 AD, preserving the West from the Muslim conquests that would ultimately lead much of the rest of Eurasia and Africa into an evolutionary cul de sac. The disintegration of the Empire in the West and the evolution of feudalism began to recreate local elites, as did the rebirth of independent cities. Feudalism by itself could have led in any number of directions, but the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage was sufficiently strong that the military, and then economic, recovery of the West led to renewed progress along distinctively Western lines. The geographic and now linguistic fragmentation of Europe continued to promote political fragmentation, but the memory of the Roman political achievement meant that the new Europe would not be limited to the small scale of the classical city-state. From the early renaissance forward (actually, starting from the somewhat abortive Carolingian renaissance), European states sought with varying visions to recreate the Roman model of the citizen soldier—this was Machiavelli’s dream. The soldiers of the French Revolution and of the Third Reich (very different experiments aimed at harnessing the talents and initiative of the people to the service of the state) all marched behind reproductions of the legionary eagles.
The failure of any Western state to achieve hegemony, however, and then the break-up of medieval Christian unity, meant that the Roman mistake of political unification did not recur to stifle the reemerging Western dynamo. Horrified by the descent into anarchy and barbarism occasioned by the religious wars, and especially after the Peace of Westphalia ended the fratricidal Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Europeans sought order in the creation of a set of strongly centralized but limited states. These states were defined by their determination to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence (which is, in fact, Weber’s definition of the state). They put a substantial stop to large-scale internal violence, especially violence fostered by religious sectarians, mercenary freebooters, and the local nobility. Through a system of royal courts and inspectorates, they offered the rule of law instead. Increasingly under the cultural or intellectual sway of the “age of reason” and then of the Enlightenment, rulers sought to operate on principles of legitimacy and of rational self-interest. Frederick the Great—an “enlightened despot,” abolisher of capital punishment (except for treason) and the self-styled “first servant of the state”—was as much a cultural figure and economic manager as he was a military leader.
These developments were driven by the brutal experience of the religious wars, which forced Western civilization to recognize that Europe’s political and religious fragmentation could not be overcome by any one player. Accordingly, Europe’s ruling classes came to accept the permanent existence of a multilateral balance-of-power system among the independent states. The new system was kept in balance by constantly shifting alliances and limited wars fought to redress perceived or potential shifts in that balance. The orderly dispersal of military, political, and economic power fueled the growth of local and national elites everywhere in Europe. With the new limited warfare of the post-Westphalian era, Western Europe entered upon a period in which constant small-scale internal scuffling led to continuous military improvement, with all its bureaucratic, financial, and technological accessories. The relative absence of serious attempts to overthrow the European system, however, allowed Westerners to focus their burgeoning energies outwards. Substantial European domination of the world followed. When the Europeans eventually did make energetic attempts to resolve the internal tensions created by their balance-of-power system, especially the efforts of 1914-18 and 1939-45, they cost continental Europe its hegemony but threw world power into the hands of other Western or heavily Westernized states. The follow-on struggle was between the American-dominated Western alliance and the deviant Marxist Westernism of the Soviet Bloc. It was won decisively by the side that more truly reflected the Western cultural tradition, as much if not more by its economic and cultural supremacy than by its military skills.
Thus cultural factors were crucial to the consistency, direction, and drive of Western political-military evolution. The unique Western literary tradition helped transmit that culture across serious disruptions like the collapse of Rome. But the environmental, geographic, and topographical factors described by Diamond and even by Hanson himself were equally crucial, at least until the point where the cultural dynamics of the West became so overwhelmingly powerful in their own right that no other culture could really compete. And the unique ways in which these factors combined were always moderated by contingency—the precise manner in which Mycenaen society was decapitated, the delay in the East’s assault on the embryonic West, the key battles that could have gone either way.
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The approach I’ve taken above demonstrates the utility of combining Hanson’s thesis with other ideas he rejected. He regards these ideas as competitors to his own, but they are in reality quite different in nature and entirely complementary. Thus Hanson makes a great contribution in giving the West’s unique culture its due, but the value of this contribution is seriously undermined by his sneers at other factors and at the thinkers who have sought to explore them. The real world is a multicausal place.
Not that the book is without other serious flaws. Some of these are stylistic or even syntactical—the book abounds with sloppy phrases like “all enemies of Rome usually died….” (p385). The reader is subjected to strange malapropisms, e.g., “abrogate” when the author evidently means “delegate” (p321), “special compensation” instead of “special dispensation” (p314), and “resides” instead of “recedes” (p327). The general reader who is Hanson’s target may be frustrated by the occasional untranslated quotation from foreign sources. The section on Vietnam is betrayed by the clash between Hanson’s balanced intellect and his bitter partisan stance in America's present-day Culture Wars: He argues furiously that the war was lost by a disloyal press and a small, vocal, misguided, ultra-liberal minority—but then states quite clearly that gross political and strategic mistakes by main-stream American leaders lost it first. More broadly, the book is full of redundancies caused by its near stream-of-consciousness organization, as Hanson repeatedly sweeps back and forth over the events. It is nonetheless pretty easy reading—the inherent drama of the events Hanson describes will probably carry most readers past these oddities.
Hanson also makes odd errors when he wanders outside his areas of expertise. For example, he misrepresents the Roman corvus as a derrick for upending enemy ships (a trick reportedly used by Archimedes against the Romans when they besieged Syracuse), rather than describing it correctly as a shipborne bridge that locked an opposing vessel in place and facilitated boarding by naval infantry (p231). This is unfortunate, since a correct understanding would have reinforced his points not only about Western inventiveness, but about heavy infantry and shock tactics as well. Nor does he grasp the difference between the artilleryman’s canister and grapeshot (p225). There are many references to “landed infantry” that puzzled me: I know what a “landed aristocracy” is, but what is landed infantry? Marines ashore? No, that can’t be it. I thought at first that it referred to an infantry manned by the landowning classes, but that interpretation does not seem to stand up to Hanson’s actual usage of the term. He seems not to grasp the agricultural importance of the pre-Aswan-dam Nile flooding that annually renewed Egypt’s fertility (pp17-18). His understanding of Japan is shallow, so his treatment—while noting some of post-Meiji Japan’s key failures—fails entirely to account for its unique successes in adapting to the Western challenge. I suspect that many of his specific examples of Western virtue can be replicated or overmatched by anecdotes familiar to specialists in various non-Western areas. For instance, Cortez’s “innovative” use of warships built in friendly territory, disassembled, and reassembled in the lake surrounding Tenochtitlán, was merely a small-scale variation on Mehmet the Conqueror’s (recent and quite well known in the West) movement of a much larger Ottoman fleet overland during the siege of Constantinople in 1453. Nonetheless, I believe the overall thesis will withstand serious scrutiny, if only because the immense achievements of the West are so inescapably manifest in the world today (at least, to everyone but college professors).
Of course, any of us who want to write ambitious, sweeping, synthetic historical studies like this one have such gaps in personal knowledge and inevitably make such errors in our drafts. But that’s what editors and colleagues are there to save us from, if we would only take the trouble to use them. Editorial problems like the ones I describe typically occur when one relies too heavily on one’s close relatives and students to proofread one’s work (as Hanson evidently did), or when an author is in too big a hurry to add to his or her list of publications. The latter tendency is not infrequent among academic military historians, who often feel besieged in their politically correct departments and look to a thick Vita as armor. Of course, it might also be accounted for by simple greed, since military history is the one species of history that actually makes money—another reason military historians are sometimes unpopular on campus.
But these editorial gripes serve mostly to fill up the space available for this review essay, to demonstrate my lofty scholarly balance, and to gratify my own delusions of omnipotence. The book overall is a good read and the positive points it makes are well worth making. My more serious complaint is about capable, ambitious historians’ unfortunate tendency to insist on the primacy of their own narrow, idiosyncratic solutions, rather than trying to integrate their fundamental and valuable ideas with those of other thinkers and disciplines. Single-factor analyses are wrong by definition. I prefer to think that we scholars are engaged in a collective effort to make sense of the universe we live in, not in a dog-eat-dog competition to see who can leave the biggest individual imprint on the meme pool.
National War College
*1. John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York, Knopf, 1993).
*2. Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
*3. William H. McNeil, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society Since A.D. 1000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 ed.); Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987).
*4. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997).
*5. Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe of ca.1200 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).