This book attempts to explain why Westerners have been so adept at using their civilization to kill others - at warring so brutally, so often without being killed. Past, present, and future, the story of military dynamism in the world is ultimately an investigation into the prowess of Western arms. The general public itself is mostly unaware of their culture's own singular and continuous lethality in arms. Yet for the past 2,500 years - even in the Dark Ages, well before the 'Military Revolution', and not simply as result of the Renaissance, the European discovery of the Americas, or the Industrial Revolution - there has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare, a common foundation and continual way of fighting, that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization.
Western Way of War
02 Freedom - Salamis 480 B.C.
03 Decisive Battle - Gaugamela 331 B.C.
04 Citizen Soldiers - Cannae 216 B.C.
05 Landed Infantry - Poitiers 732
06 Technology - Tenochtitlan 1520
07 The Market - Lepanto 1571
08 Discipline - Rorke's Drift 1879
09 Individualism - Midway 1942
10 Dissent - Tet 1968
EP Epilogue - Past and Future
BB Beyond The Book
WR Why Study War?
#1 THE WESTERN WAY OF WAR
Throughout this book I use the term 'Western' to refer to the culture of classical antiquity that arose in Greece and Rome; survived the collapse of the Roman Empire; spread to western and northern Europe; then durin gthe great periods of exploration and colonization of the 15th through 19th centuries expanded to the Americas, Australia, and areas of Asia and Africa; and now exercises global political, economic, cultural and military power far greater than the size of its territory or population might otherwise suggest.
Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more - all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture. What is clear, however, is that once developed, the West, ancient and modern, places far fewer religious, cultural, and political impediments to natural inquiry, capital formation, and individual expression that did other societies, which often were theocracies, centralized palatial dynasties, or tribal unions.
The Western way of way is so lethal precisely because it is so amoral - shackled rarely by concerns of ritual, tradition, religion, or ethics, by anything other than military necessity.
No other culture but
the West could have brought such discipline, morale, and sheer technological
expertise to the art of killing that did the Europeans at the insanity
of Verdun - a sustained industrial approach to slaughter unlike even the
most horrifice tribal massacre. The most gallant Apaches - murderously
brave in raiding and skirmishing on the Great Plains - would have gone
home after the first hour of Gettysburg.
By the same token, there was little chance that the American government in the darkest days of December 1941 - Britain on the ropes, the Nazis outside Moscow, the Japanese in the air over Hawaii - would have ordered thousands of its own naval pilots to crash themselves into Admiral Yamamoto's vast carrier fleet. Im battle alone we receive a glimpse of the larger reasons precisely why and how men kill and die that are hard to disguise and harder still to ignore.
The critical point
about firearms is that such weapons were produced in quality and great
numbers in Western rather than in non-European countries, a fact that is
ultimately explained by a long-standing Western cultural stance towards
rationalism, free inquiry, and the dissemination of knowledge that has
its roots in classical antiquity and is not specific to any particular
period of European history.
There is something radically democratic about firearms that explains their singularly explosive growth in the West. It is no accident that feudal Japan eventually found fireams revolutionary and dangerous.
We should not expect
to see precisely in Greek freedom, American liberty; in Greek democracy,
English parliamentary government; or in the agora, Wall Street. The freedom
that was won at Salamis is not entirely the same as what was ensured at
The key is not to look to the past and expect to see the present, but to identify in history the seeds of change and of the possible across time and space. In that sense, Wall Street is much closer to the agora than to the palace at Persepolis, and the Athenian court akin to us in a way pharaoh's and the sultan's law is not.
While the Inquisition was an episode of Western fanaticism and at times unrestrained by political audit, the tally of its entire bloody course never matched the Aztec score of corpses in a mere four days at the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli in 1487. Even on the most controversial of issues like freedom, consensual government, and dissent, we must judge Western failings not through the lenses of utopian perfectionism of the present, but in the context of the global landscape of the times. Western values are absolute, but they are also evolutionary, being perfect at neither their birth nor their adolescence.
#2 FREEDOM, OR 'TO LIVE AS YOU PLEASE' - SALAMIS 480 BC
"A man should live
as he pleases. This, they say, is the mark of liberty, since, on the other
hand, not to live as a man wishes is the mark of a slave."
- Aristotle, "Politics"
"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", 472 BC.
In Greece by the 5th century almost all political leaders in the city-states were selected by lot, elected, or subject to annual review by an elected council. No archon claimed divine status, execution by fiat was tantamount to murder, and the greatest vigilance was devoted to preventing the resurgence of tyrants. Even personal slaves and servants in Greek city-states were often protected from arbitrary torture and murder. There were not alternative approached to state rule, but fundamental differences in the idea of personal freedom.
No Greek citizen could be arbitraily executed without a trial. His property was not liable to confiscation except by vote of a council, whether that be a broadly based oligarchy or a popular 'ekklesia' under democracy. In the Greek mind the ability to hold property freely - and have legal title to it, improve it, and pass it on - was the foundation of freedom.
Persian monarchs fled ahead of their armies in defeat, while there was not a single major Greek battle - Thermopylae, Delum, Mantinea, Leuctra - in which Hellenic generals survived the rout of their troops. There was also not one great Greek general in the entire history of the city state - Themistolces, Pericles, Alcibades, Lysander, Pelopidas, Epaminondas - who was not at some time either fined, exiled, or demoted, or killed alongside his troops.
"As long as the Athenians
were ruled by a despotic government, they had no better success at war
than any of their neighbors. Once the yoke was flung off, they proved the
finest fighters in the world.... Greece was saved by the Athenians who,
having chosen that Greece should live and preserve her freedom, roused
to battle the other Greek states which had not yet submitted."
- Herodotus, 490 BC.
The moral drawn by Herodotus is unmistakable: free citizens are better warriors, since they fight for themselves, not for kings, aristocrats, or priests. They accept a greater degree of discipline than either coerced or hired soldiers.
Throughout Greek literature the singularity of Greek freedom is mde clear, a strange idea that seems in its abstract sense not to have existed in any other culture of the time, but emerged in the 7th and 6th centuries among Greek-speakers. The word 'freedom' (eleutherias) or its equivalent - like the equally odd 'citizen' (polites), 'consensual government' (politeia), and democracy (demokratia) - seems not to be found in the lexicon of contemporary ancient languages other than Latin ( eg libertas; civis; res publica).
The freedom of the Greek city-states was not the de facto freedom of tribal nomads who seek only to roam unchecked. Nor was it the unbridled latitude that the elite rulers in a ranked society such as Persia or Egypt enjoyed. The Greek's discovery of 'eleutheria' ensured the individual citizen freedom of association, freedom to elect representatives, freedom to own property and acquire wealth without fear of confiscation, and freedom from arbitrary punishment and coercion.
The sins of the Greeks
- slavery, sexism, economic exploitation, ethnic chauvinism - are largely
the sins of man common to all cultures at all times. The 'others' in the
Greek world - foreigners, slaves, women - were also 'others' in all other
societies of the time.
Freedom is an evolving idea, a miraculous and dangerous concept that has no logical restrictions on its ultimate development once it is hatched.
We must be careful not to expect perfection from the first two centuries of freedom's existence; we should instead appreciate how peculiar it was to have appeared so early in any form at all.
#3 DECISIVE BATTLE - GUAGAMALA 331 BC
Before the campaign of Guagamela, Parmenio had purportedly urged acceptance of Darius's 11th-hour offer of a Western Persian Empire for Alexander under the aegis of a general truce. "I would accept if I were you," he told his king. "And I too if I were Parmenio," Alexander barked back.
"The Greeks 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"
Whence did the idea arise that men would seek their enemy face-to-face, in a daylight collision of armies, without ruse or ambush, and with clear intent to destroy utterly the army across the plain or die honourably in the process? Decisive battles evolved in early 8th century Greece and was not found earlier or elsewhere. The circumstances of the birth of decisive battles - wars of small property-owning citizens, who voted for and then fought their own battles - account for its terrifying lethality. Only freemen who voted and enjoyed liberty were willing to ensure such terrific infantry collision, since shock alone proved an economical method of battle that allowed conflicts to be brief, clear-cut and occasionally deadly.
The classical notion that pitched, shock confrontation is the only, way to resolve wars in part explains why... we in the West call the few casualties we suffer from terrorism and surprise 'cowardly', the frightful losses we inflict through open and direct assault 'fair'. The real atrocity for the Westerner is not the number of corpses, but the manner in which soldiers died and the protocols under which they were killed. We can comprehend the insanity of a Verdun or Omaha Beach, but never accept the logic of far fewer killed through ambush, terrorism, or the execution of prisoners and noncombatants. Incinerating thousands of Japanese on March 11, 1945 is seen by Westerners as not nearly so gruesome an act as beheading on capture parachuting B29 fliers.
Alexander stormed a
host of Greek and Persian cities, displaying the truth that the Western
way of war was no longer a technique of infantry battle, but an ideology
of brutal frontal assault against any obstacle in its way. Alexander systematically
captured and enslaved nearly all cities in his path, beginning in Asia
Minor and ending with the carnage of Indian communities in the Punjab.
A conservative estimate would assume a quarter milllion urban residents were killed outright between 334 and 324 BC.
After a two-month siege of Gaza, Alexander let his troops murder the city's inhabitants at will. All Syrian males were exterminated. Nearly 10,000 Persians and Arabs died. All captured women and children, numbering in the untold thousands, were sold into slavery.
Hitler similarly engineered
a brutal march eastward during the summer of and fall of 1941. Both he
and Alexander were singular military geniuses of the West, who realized
that their highly mobile corps of shock troops were like none the world
Just as Alexander understood that European individualism and the know-how of Greek Hellenism could forge highly spirited troops and thereby for a time serve autocracy, so Hitler drew on the rich legacy of Germany and its once-free citizenry to create and equally dynamic and frightening blitzkrieg. History calls Alexander an emissary of world government and a visionary, while it rightly sees Hitler as a deranged and deadly monster. Had Alexander died at the Granicus on his entry into Asia, and had Hitler's panzers not stalled a few miles outside Moscow in December 1941, a few historians might consider the Macedonian merely an unbalanced megalomaniac, and the latter a savage but omnipotent conqueror who through brilliant decisive battles vanquished Stalin's brutal communist empire.
The failure of these ancient and modern autocrats reminds us that decisive battle, superior technology, capitalism, and unmatched discipline give Western armies only ephemeral victories if they lack the corresponding foundation of Western freedom, individualism, civic audit, and constitutional government.
Modern Western man
finds himself in a military dilemma of sorts. His excellence at frontal
assault and decisive battle could end all that he holds dear despite the
nobility of his cause and the moral nature of his war making. We in the
West may have to fight as non Westerners - in jungles, stealthily at night,
and as counterterrorists - to combat enemies who dare not face us in shock
The Western manner of fighting bequeathed to us from the Greeks and enhanced by Alexander is so destructive and so lethal that we have essentially reached an impasse. Few non-Westerners wish to meet our armies in battle. The only successful response to encountering a Western army seems to be to marshal another Western army. Whearas the polis Greeks discovered shock battle as a glorious method of saving lives and confining conflict to an hour's worth of heroics between armoured infantry - the state of technology and escalation is such that any intra-Western conflict would have the opposite effect of its original Hellenic intent: abject slaughter would result on both sides would result, rather than quick resolution.
#4 CITIZEN SOLDIERS - CANNAE 216 BC
"Infantrymen of the
polis think it is 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 they are
outnumbered, fearing death more than dishonor."
- Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics"
The terror of war does
not lie in the entirely human reaction of tribal cultures and bloodletting
- screaming and madness in giving and receiving death, fury of the hunt
in pursuit of the defeated, near hysterical fear in flight - but rather
in the studied coolness of the Roman advances, the predictability of the
javelin cast, and the learned art of swordmanship.
It was not the 'barbarian' advance but the Roman that was truly inhuman and chilling. The legions, as did the British at Rorke's Drift, fought in silence; they walked until the last thirty yards of no-man's land.
The real horror is the entire business of unpredictable human passion and terror turned into a predictability of business, a cold science of killing as many humans as possible, given the limitations of muscular power and handheld steel.
Livy goes on to record examples of extraordinary Roman courage discernible only through autopsy of the battlefield: a Numidian who had been brought alive out of the pile from beneath a dead Roman legionary, his ears and nose gnawed away by the raging Roman infantryman who had lost the use of everything but his teeth.
We think of French slaughter in terms of Agincourt or Verdun, but the true holocaust occured in the mostly unknown battles of the two-century encounter with the Romans, who cut down more Gauls than at any time before or after. Roman steel doomed an autonomous ancient France, whose manhood was systematically destroyed in battle as no other people would be in the entire history of Western colonial subjugation. Caesar's final annexation of Gaul made the 19th century American fighting on the frontier look like child's play - a million killed, a million enslaved, Plutarch recorded, in the last decades alone of that brutal two-century conquest.
The Roman republican
army was not merely a machine. In the tradition of constitutional
governance - the Greek Polybius marvelled at the Roman Republic, whose separation of
powers, he felt, had improved upon the more popular consensual rule of the Hellenic city
state - the Romans had marshaled a nation of free citizens-in-arms.
The ancient Western
world would soon come to define itself by culture rather than by race,
skin color or language. Romanness would soon not be defined concretely and forever by race, geography, or even by free birth. Rather, citizenship in theory could be acquired someday by
those who did not speak Latin, who were born even into servitude, and who lived outside Italy - if they could convince the relevant deliberative bodies that they were Roman in spirit and
possessed a willingness to take on Roman military service and pay taxes in exchange for the
protection of Roman law and security brought on by a free and mercantile economy.
Rome, not classical
Greece, created the modern expansive idea of Western citizenship. Money,
not necessarily birth, ancestry or occupation, would soon bring a Roman
The earlier Greeks had invented the idea of civic militarism, the notion that those who vote must also fight to protect the commonwealth, which in exchange had granted them rights.
The significance of
Cannae? The worst single-day defeat in the history of any Western military
force altered not at all the final course of the war.
Together, enemies of Rome such as Hannibal and Vercingetorix slaughtered nearly a half million legionaries on the battlefield. In the end, all that glorious fighting was for naught. Nearly all of these would-be conquerors ended up dead or in chains, their armies butchered, enslaved, crucified, or in retreat. They were, after all, fighting a frightening system and an idea, not a mere army. Their most stunning victories meant yet another Roman army on the horizon, while their own armies melted away with a single defeat.
Technology, capital, the nature of government, how men are mustered and paid, not merely muscular strength and the multitude of flesh, are the great levellers in conflicts between disparate cultures, and so far more often determine which side wins and which loses - and which men are to die and which to live on.
With the transition to empire and Rome's subsequent collapse (31 BC - 476 AD), republicanism for a time would all but disappear from Europe. Nevertheless, the idea of a voting citizen as warrior and the tradition of an entire culture freely taking the field of battle were too entrenched to be entirely forgotten. In the dark days of the late empire and the chaos that followed, there remained the ideal that men who fought should be citizens, with legal - and sometimes extralegal - rights and responsibilities to their community.
"For although the Romans
had clearly been defeated in the field, and their reputation in arms ruined,
yet because of the singularity of their constitution, and by wisdom of
their deliberative counsel, they not only reclaimed the sovereignty of
Italy, and went on to conquer the Carthaginians, but in just a few years
themselves became rulers of the world."
#5 LANDED INFANTRY - POITIERS 732
The battlefield confrontation between foot soldier and horseman is universal, age-old and brutal. Cavalrymen have always mercilessly ridden down, trampled, and slain with impunity fleeing infantrymen or unfortunate pockets of poor disorganized skirmishers. In defeat, the swift horseman can beat death through flight. In victory, fresh and clean knights often appear from nowhere to kill - but only after the tough hand-to-hand of their inferiors on the ground is over.
There is also a class bias in war between horse and foot soldier. Mounted warriors the world over have always hated crossbow bolts, a wall of spears, a line of shields, or a spray of bullets - anything that allowed the man without a mount to destroy in seconds the capital, training, equipment and pride of his mounted superior.
Whearas away from the chaotic killing of the battlefield, the wealthy man has the predictable structures of society on his side, in the melee such protocols of class and tradition mean nothing. War is democratic in a way: the carnage of battle is one of the few arenas in which ingenuity, muscle, and courage can still trump privilege, protocols and prejudices.
The Franks, descendants of the 'Germani' described by Tacitus in the first century AD, originally lived in what is now Holland and in eastern Germany around the lower Rhine. They seemed to have migrated into nearby Gaul by the 5th century. Scholars do not agree on the origin of the word 'Franks'; most associate it with either their famed throwing ax, the francisca, or the old Germanic word freh/frec, meaning brave or wild. In any case, under Clovis (481-511 AD) the Frankish tribes united in the old Roman province of Gaul in what came to be known as the Merovingian dynasty.
The reasons for this
original Western chauvinism concerning heavily armed and well-protected
foot soldiers again were unique to European and arose largely from Western
economic, political, social and military realities that had been established
centuries earlier in Greece and survived the collapse of Rome. To field
effective infantry - meaning the ability to stand in the face of mounted
assaults and to charge and overrun lines of archers and missile troops
- there were certain prerequisites in the ancient and medieval worlds.
First, landscape: the best infantrymen were rooted country folk and the product of a geography largely composed of valleys and lowlands situated between mountain ranges that favoured intensive farming. In contract mountainous terrain is the haunt of herdsmen, who with slings and bows master the arts of ambush and guarding routes of transit. On the other hand, steppes or uninterrupted plains favour nomadic and tribal horsemen, ensuring plentiful grazing lands, and more important, the room for vast cavalry sweeps that might outflank and envelop columns of foot soldiers. Europe, however, 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.
There is an entire corpus of passages in ancient literature that reflects this ideal that small farms grew good infantrymen, while vast estates produced only a few elite horsemen: the proper role of farmland is to nurture families of infantry, not to lie idle or to rear horses.
Ultimately, war is a question of economics, in which the options of all states are confined by their ability to produce goods and services; thus every armued force calibrates the greatest military power for the least cost.
The spread of firearms throughout the globe did not everywhere automatically result in the creation of disciplined corps of gun-toting soldiers. Only in Europe was the art of loading, firing and reloading in unison mustered. The gunpowder age saw an ascendant Europe precisely because firearms were best employed by pre-existing disciplined columns and lines of infantrymen.
#6 TECHNOLOGY AND THE WAGES OF REASON - TENOCHTITLAN 1520
"All the people of
this province of New Spain, and even those of the neighboring provinces,
eat human flesh and value it more highly than any other food in the world;
so much so that they often go off to war and risk their lives just to kill
people to eat."
- P de Fuentes, "The Conquistadores"
"Among our men, those
who were most encumbered with clothing, gold and jewels were the first
to die, and those who were saved carried the least and forged fearlessly
ahead. So those who died, died rich, and their gold killed them."
- Hernan Cortes
The Aztecs were not
completely familiar with this new type of European battle, which, unlike
their accustomed 'flower wars', campaigns aimed at submission, had nothing
to do with rules or rituals, much less captives, but hinged on the science
of killing the enemy outright, pursuing the defeated, ending his will to
resist, and thus gaining through slaughter what negotiations and politics
had failed to deliver.
Under the tenets of European wars of annihilation, letting a man like Cortes - or an Alexander, Julius Caesar or Napoleon - escape with his army after defeat was no victory but only an assurance that the next round would be bloodier still.
All this from a small man of five feet four inches and about 150 pounds, who arrived in Hispaniola penniless at the age of twenty in 1504.
Aztec warriors' training in the methods of stunning, blinding and passing back captives would prove an impediment against the Spanish - who had drilled since adolescence in the art of killing with a single stroke.
The Aztec king Ahuitizotl purportedly organized the butchery of 80,400 prisoners during a four-day blood sacrifice at the 1487 inauguration of the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan - an enormous challenge in industrialized murder in its own right. Ahuitizotl's killing rate of 14 victims a minute over the 96 hour bloodbath far exceeded the daily murder record at either Auschwitz or Dachau. Oddly, few scholars have ever likened the Aztec propensity to wipe out thousands of their neighbors through carefully organized killing to the Nazi extermination of Jews.
It is an accurate generalization that Montezuma's arms were of an inferior caliber to the artillery, missile weapons, body armor, and offensive armament of Alexander the Great's army some 18 centuries prior.
On the battlefield in matters of weapons, tactics, recruitment, and leadership the Spanish army operated on meritocratic principles of sheer killing; men and tools were trained and designed to dismember people first and provide social advancement, prestige, and religious rewards second. Killing was more likely to result in status than status was in killing.
Unlike the Aztec emperors, Cortes had the benefit of an anthropological tradition of written literature decribing foreign phenomena and peoples - the age old and arrogant Western idea that nothing is inexplicable to the god Reason. Montezuma either feared or worshipped the novelty that he could not explain; Cortes sought to explain the novelty that he neither feared or worshipped.
People from the Stone Age onward have always engaged in some form of scientific activity designed to enchance organized warfare. But beginning with the Greeks, Western culture has shown a singular propensity to think abstractly, to debate knowledge freely apart from religion and politics, and to devise ways of adapting theoretical breakthroughs for practical use, through the marriage of freedom of capitalism. The result has been a constant increase in the technical ability of Western armies to kill their adversaries.
The West, unlike most other cultures, has always freely borrowed and incorporated from others, without worries over either national chauvinism or renunciation of native customs and traditions. When married with a rational tradition of scientific inquiry and research, this flexibility has guaranteed superior weapons in the hands of Europeans.
There must be some common standard that explains why Darius III had Greeks in his employment, why the Ottomans transferred their capital city to the newly conquered European Constantinople, why Zulus used Martini-Henry rifles at Rorke's Drift, why the Soryu looked something like the Enterprise at Miday, and why an AK47 and M16 appear almost identical. The opposite was not ture.
Courage on the battlefield is a human characteristic. But the ability to craft weapons through mass production to offset bravery is a cultural phenomenon. Cortes, like Alexander, Julius Caesar, Don Juan of Austria, and other Western captains, often annihilated without mercy their numerically superior foes, not because their own soldiers were necessarily better in war, but because their traditions of free inquiry, rationalism, and science most surely were.
#7 THE MARKET, OR CAPITALISM KILLS - LEPANTO 1571
not forced exactions, is what sustains wars."
- Thucydides, "The Peloponnesian War"
Capitalism in its most basic form was born in ancient Greece. The word for profit, 'kerdos' is ubiquitous in the Greek language. There is a growing consensus among classical scholars that by the 5th century BC, Greek economic activity - especially at Athens - was decentralized, governed by supply and demand, and characterized by sophisticated notions of markets, profits, banking and insurance, with government assurance of the sanctity of private property and rights of inheritance.
Freedom is the glue of capitalism, that amoral wisdom of the markets that most efficiently allots goods and services to a citizenry.
The great hatred of capitalism in the hearts of the oppressed, ancient and modern, I think, stems not merely from the ensuing vast inequality in wealth, and the often arbitary nature of who profits and who suffers, but from the silent acknowledgement that under a free market economy the many victims of the greed of the few are still better off than those under the utopian socialism of the well-intended. It is a hard thing for the poor to acknowledge benefits from their rich moral inferiors who never so intended it.
"Gentlemen, the time
for counsel is past and the time for fighting has come."
- Admiral Don Juan of Austria, on the eve of battle
We know as little of
the Turkish experience at Lepanto as we do of the plight of the Aztecs
at Tenochtitlan. What we do learn of the non-West in battle is secondhand,
and most often as a result of European investigation and publication. Nearly
all the names of the soldiers of Xerxes, Darius III, Hannibal, Montezuma
and Selim II are lost to the historical record. The few that are known
survive largely to the efforts of a Herodotus, Plutarch, or Diaz, who wrote
in an intellectual and political tradition unknown among the Persians,
Africans, Aztecs and Ottomans.
Things have changed little today in terms of the exclusive Western monopoly of military history. Six billion people on the planet are more lilkey to read, hear or see accounts of the 1991 Gulf War from the American and European vantage points than from the Iraqi. The story of the Vietnam War is largely Western; even the sharpest critics of America's involvment put little credence in the official histories that emanate from communist Vietnam.
Such is the nature of societies that allow dissenting voices and free expression. Even when European and American citizens openly attack the military conduct of their own governments, candor often has the ironic result only of enhancing Western credibility and furthering its dominance of the dissemination of knowledge.
#8 DISCIPLINE: WARRIORS ARE NOT ALWAYS SOLDIERS - RORKE'S DRIFT 1879
"The key invention
is that of the state, that is, civil in contrast with kin-based social
control. Civil government is the dividing line, the threshold, the horizon
between that which is civilized and that which is not. Only the state can
raise large armies. It alone can discipline and train men into soldiers
rather than warriors. Only government can command, not request, and can
punish those who do not feel like fighting that day."
- H Turney High, "Primitive War"
"Free as 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"
The Anglo-Zulu War
was about the last occasion in which European troops used single-shot rifles
against native forces, and at Isandhlwana there were no Gatling guns to
provide repeating fire for the garrison.
In America, repeating Spencer and Henry rifles had been used in the last years of the Civil War; Union troops under Sherman had employed both on their marches through Georgia and the Carolinas in late 1864. The model 1873 Winchester lever-action repeating .32 caliber rifle was ubiquitous on the American plains and could fire three times more rapidly than the British Martini-Henry - well over 30 bullets a minute compared to 12.
In 1856 Zulu king Cetshwayo
had butchered more than 7,000 of his brother's warriors, along with another
20,000 of his own tribal family including the aged, women, and children.
Earlier, Shaka had killed ten times the number of Cetshwayo's victims -
during the decade of formation of the new Zulu empire perhaps as many as
1 million native Africans had been killed or starved to death. Zulu kings,
like the Aztec monarchy, had killed far more indigenous people in their
own tribal wars and random murder sprees than did the Europeans on the
battlefields on their conquest.
This illustrates a mostly unrecognized characteristic of the European colonial military experience: both Europeans and indigenous tribes usually killed more of their own people in battle than they did one another. The Boers slaughtered far more British than did Cetshwayo.
fighting, the desecration of European dead after an initial defeat - through
sacrifice, disembowelment or decapitation - was felt to be cause enough
later to give no quarter and to annihilate, as long as Europeans slaughtered
in pitch battle.
They felt that such mutilation - outside of battle, committed against the dead, inclusive of women and children - was a far more depraved act than anything committed in battle against the living warrior class.
Cannibalism and human sacrifice, the mutilation of the dead, idol worship, polygamy and the absence of written law were typically cited as pretexts for European annexation of territory in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Missionaries and intellectuals in Britain objected to the rapacity of empire building, but sought remedy through amelioration or assimilation rather than withdrawal. Zulus should be Westernized and made into civilized British subjects. Few, if any, of the most liberal critics counseled that the Europeans should go home and leave the Zulus in peace - or, as the case might be, free to murder and to continue tribal war among their own.
Usually, native armies had no conception than a Vera Cruz or Durban was a mere transit station that allowed Spanish or British conquistadores to tap whatever manpower they needed from an overcrowded and restless Europe thousands of miles - but only weeks - away.
The Europeans were willing to fight 365 days a year, day or night, regardless of the exigencies of either their Christian faith or the natural year. Defeat signalled no angry god or adverse fate, but rather a rational flaw in either tactics, logistics or technology. Western armies, as Clausewitz saw, did envison battle as a continuation of politics by other means. Unlike the Zulus, the British army did not see war largely as an occasion for individual warriors to garner booty, women or prestige.
In reality, the most deadly man in Africa was typically a pale British soldier, not much over five feet six inches in height, 150 pounds in weight, slightly malnourished, vastly overburdened with a ten-pound rifle and some sixty pounds of food, water and ammunition on his belt and in his pack. Such an apparently unimpressive warrior, in fact, would himself typically shoot down three or more Zulus in almost every encounter of the war.
"The more helpless
the position in which an officer finds his men, the more it is his bound
duty to stay and share their fortune, whether for good or ill."
- British General Sir Garnet Wolseley, 1879.
Warriors are not always soldiers.
The display of courage
while under attack is a human trait common to fighters everywhere. All
warriors can exhibit extraordinary bravery. Nor in the ancillary of courage,
obedience to command, a peculiarly Western characteristic. Individual Zulus
at Rorke's Drift were as brave as the Englishmen that faced them, and nearly
as obedident to their particular leaders. But in the end the Zulus - who
could be executed on a nod from their king - not the British, ran away
from Rorke's Drift.
Westerners have sought to distinguish moments of individual courage and obedience to leaders from a broader, more institutionalized bravery that derives from the harmony of discipline, training, and egalitarian values among men and officers.
The Greek standard of courage is inextricably tied to training and discipline: the hoplite is to fight with cold reason, not from frenzy. He holds his own life dear, not cheap, and yet is willing to offer it for the polis. His success in battle is gauged not entirely on how many men he kills or how much personal valor he displays, but to the degree his own battleworthiness aids his formation. Punishments were given only to those who threw down their shields, broke rank, or caused panic, never to those who failed to kill enough of the enemy.
How is discipline achieved
and sustained over centuries? Greek, Roman and later European armies found
the answer through drill and a clear-cut written contract between soldier
and state. Westerners especially put a much greater emphasis on this strange
notion of keeping together in time.
In a civic community, drill is not seen necessarily as oppresive even to highly individualistic Westerners, but as an obvious manifestation of egalitarianism that brings soldiers from widely varying backgrounds into a uniformly clothed, identical-appearing, and fluid-moving single body, whose private identity and individual status is for a time shed.
Fighting in rank and formation is in some sense the ultimate manifestation of Western egalitarianism, as all hierarchy outside the battlefield fades before the anonymity of a phalanx of peers.
In the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke's Drift, where a beleaguered force, outnumbered forty to one, survived and killed twenty men for every defender lost. But then it is also rare to find warriors as well trained as European soldiers, and rarer still to find any Europeans as disciplined as the British redcoats of the late 19th century.
#9 INDIVIDUALISM - MIDWAY 1942
"Orders for rifles
and cannon went to France... When Germany defeated France in 1871, the
Japanese quickly switched to the victors. Soon Japanese soldiers were goose-stepping
and following Prussian infantry tactics. Japanese naval officers, most
of whom were samurai learned from the British Royal Navy, often after years
at sea aboard British ships. Japan's new ships would be built in England,
too, for Britain ruled the waves and the Japanese wished to learn from
the best. Japan's Westernization was not confined to military matters.
Western arts, literature, science, music and fashion also flourished. University
students feasted on anything Western... as samurai became industrialists,
railroad magnates and bankers."
- R Edgerton, "Warriors of the Rising Sun"
Midway was one of the largest sea battles of World War 2, and one of the most complex and decisive engagements in the history of naval warfare. Men above, on, and under the vast Pacific in the first week of June 1942 were fervently trying to blow each other up.
Whearas the Asian countries
surrounding Japan had been subjected to decades of onerous French, Dutch,
British and American racism and imperialism, indigenous populations, after
initial celebrations greeting their Asian liberators, were more likely
to aid the 'white' Americans than their brethren Asian Japanese. After
all, the elected government of the former might at some distant time extend
independence to its subjects and satellites. The hearts of men in a democracy
are more likely to change and evolve than the will of an emperor.
In theory the Americans could be a culture rather than a race, but the entire creed of Japanese militarism rested on the implicit assumption of innate Japanese racial superiority over its 'inferior' Asian subject peoples.
All people at times
act as individuals, and as humans prize their freedom and indepedence.
But the formal and often legal recognition of a person's sovereign sphere
of individual action - social, political, and cultural - is a uniquely
Western concept, one that frightens, sometimes rightly so, most of the
non Western world.
Individualism, unlike consensual government is a cultural, rather than political, entity. It is a dividend of Western politics and economics. An insidious individualism grows out of the larger Western traditions of freedom, constitutional government, property rights and civic militarism. There is a 2,500 year tradition of personal liberty and innate trust in the individual, rather than the political or religious collective, unparalleled in the non West.
In American eyes -
and this was entirely characteristic of the Western way of war that had
originated on the daylight killing fields of ancient Greece and evolved
into the Roman and Christian concept of a just war (ius in bello) - its
indiscriminate carpet bombing was far different from murdering prisoners.
The Allies killed on a massive scale, but almost exclusively through open and direct assault, with veritable notification of intent, often in reprisal, and under hostile fire - not customarily in POW camps or after the firing had stopped. To Americans, the Japanese were 'free' in open combat to prevent bomber attacks. They knew the American planes were coming, and they should expect retaliation for starting the war and waging it in China and the Pacific in a most beastly and cruel manner. The Americans further reasoned that as long as they were killinh during the actual exchange of gunfire, and doing so as part of an effort to wreck the military-industrial base of imperial Japan, all was more or less fair in pitched battle.
In contrast, the Japanese simply counted the dead, and figured the hundreds of thousands more of their own innocent civilians had died from American bombs than American captives tortured and executed by their camp interrogators and guards.
#10 DISSENT AND SELF CRITIQUE - TET 1968
"The expedition to
Sicily was not so much a mistake in judgement, considering the enemy they
went against, as much as a case of mis-management 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
- Thucydides, "The Peloponnesian War"
"To me, Tet was the
time when US public opinion and misconception snatched defeat from the
jaws of potential victory."
- Bui Dem, South Vietnamese Ambassador to the US
Once empires commit such resources to military adventures, time becomes an enemy rather than an ally, as the inability to achieve immediate success sends ripples of doubt - fatal to any hegemon - beyond the battlefield to lap at uneasy allies and citizens at home.
In the context of identifying support for the war, the traditional rubrics 'Republican' and 'Democrat' began to mean little. Even the more rigid binaries 'hawks' and 'doves' often evolved to 'fascists' and 'communists', and ultimately 'war criminals' and 'traitors'.
Few American military leaders, who allowed free rein to television reporters and photojournalists, realized the ramifications of this media revolution. World War I or II might have ended differently had Europeans watched the charge at the Somme firsthand, or had citizens of the United States seen the carnage at Omaha Beach while reporters editorialized on the air about the insanity of Americans charging fixed positions from a stormy sea.
No American army in
1944 would have fought the Germans in France without permission to cross
the Rhine or to bomb Berlin at will. Japan won have won WW2 had the US
simply fought in the jungles and occupied towns of the Japanese empire,
promising not to bomb Tokyo, mine its harvors, attack its sanctuaries,
or invade its native possessions, while journalists and critics vistited
Tokyo and broadcast to Americans troops from Japanese radio stations.
GIs in WW2 were killed in pursuit of victory, not in order to avoid defeat or to pressure totalitarian governments to discuss an armistice. In war it is insane not to employ the full extent of one's military power or to guarantee to the enemy that there are sanctuaries for retreat, targets that are off limits, and a willingness to cease operations anytime even the pretect of negotiations is offered.
A realist of the Bismarck school, without regard to human suffering or the misery of the Vietnamese under communism, would argue that it was not in the geopolitical interest of the US to expend such vast amounts of its manhood and capital on a relatively insignificant country, which, left to its own as a communist dictatorship, would probably become as likely a nuisance to its communist neighbors as it was to America.
Saigon fell to a massive
communist offensive on April 30, 1975. Yet the North Vietnamese had paid
a terrible price for victory - at least a million combat dead. In the end,
the communists had four times as many war dead as did the South Vietnamese
Many charges were leveled that the Americans in more than a decade of bombing may have inadvertently killed 50,000 citizens - a fraction of the some 400,000 civilians that were believed killed by indiscriminate communist shelling and rocketing of cities, as well as terrorist attacks. In defeat the US lost 58,000 total dead and spent more than $150 billion.
A communist victory
brought more death and even greater dislocation to the Vietnamese than
did decades of war. Exact numbers are in dispute, but most scholars accept
that well over 1 million left by boat; and hundreds of thousands others
crossed by land into neighboring Thailand and even China. Those who died
in leaky boats or in storms numbered between 50,000 and 100,000. America
alone eventually took in 750,000 Vietnamese and Southeast Asians, other
Western countries another million.
In the first two years after the fall of Saigon, there were almost twice as many total civilian fatalities in Southeast Asia as all those incurred during 10 years of major American involvement.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was the official name of communist North Vietnam, did not draw its nomenclature from the hallowed traditions of Southeast Asia or the perversions of Stalinism, but from the language of freedom of Greece and Rome. Yet there was never to be either a democracy or a republic in Vietnam, instead only empty promises and dreams that fooled not only their own soldiers but much of the American academic and journalistic establishment as well.
The media in themselves did not lose the Vietnam war. Rather, they only contributed to the collapse of American power and resistance, by accentuating frequent American blunders and South Vietnamese corruption, without commensurate attention paid to North Vietnamese atrocities, the brutal history of communism in Asia, and the geopolitical stakes involved.
The record of Vietnam - books, motion pictures, official documents - remains a nearly exclusive Western phenomenon. Antiwar activists criticized this monopoly of information even as they themselves published and lectured in a free society and thus contributed to that very dominance.At various times, the American government and its critics were duplicitous, but rarely at the same time on the same issue. In that marketplace of conflicting accounts, most observers sensed that freedom was the guarantor of the truth, and so looked for veracity anywhere but in North Vietnamese, Chinese or Russian accounts.
The long-held Western
tradition of free speech and self-critique ultimately did not ruin America
despite the ruination of its cause in Vietnam. The communists won the war
and lost the peace, massacaring their people and destroying their economy
- all in a closed and censored society. In the next few decades it shall
come to pass that Vietnam will resemble the West far more than the West
Vietnam. America, despite its propensity for self-loathing, lost the won
and won the peace, its model of democracy and capitalism winning adherents
as never before, with its reformist military emerging stronger, not weaker,
after the ordeal.
How odd that the institutions that can thwart the daily battle progess of Western arms can also ensure the ultimate triumph of its cause.
# EPILGOUE - WESTERN WARFARE, PAST & FUTURE
"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 all
- Plato, "Laws"
Throughout three milennia all Western forces have not shared an exact blueprint in their approach to war making through periods of upheaval, tyranny, and decay. Nor should we forget that the non-West has also fielded deadly armies. But the military affinities in Western war making across time and space from the Greeks to the present are uncanny, enduring, and too often ignored - which suggests that historians of the present age have not appreciated the classical legacy that is at the core of Western military energy throughout the ages. There is a sense of deja vu as these chapters unfold, an eerie feeling that phalangites, legionaries, mailed foot soldiers, conquistadores, redcoats, GIs, and marines all shared certain recurring core ideas about how to wage and win wars.
We may all be Westerners in the millennium to come, and that could be a very dangerous thing indeed. Culture is not mere construct, but when it comes to war, a very deadly reality that often determines whether thousands of mostly innocent young men and women live or die.
Political freedom -
an idea found nowhere outside the West - is not a universal characteristic
of humankind. Western elections and constitutions are not the same as tribal
freedom, in which much land and few people occasionally give individuals
opportunity to find solitude and independence. The desire to fight as freemen
is also different from the simple elan of defenders who expel tyrants and
foreign powers from their homeland - fighting for the autonomy of their
culture not as free voting citizens with rights.
A Zulu could roam relatively freely on the plains of southern Africa, enjoying a somewhat more 'free' lifestyle than a British redcoat in a stuffy barracks; but the Zulu, not the Englishman, was subject to execution by a nod of his king.
Capitalism is more than the sale of goods, more than the existence of money, and more than the presence of a bazaar. Rather, it is the peculiar Western practice that acknowledges the self-interest of man and channels that greed to the production of vast amounts of goods and services through free markets and institutionalized guarantees of personal profit, free exchange, deposited capital and private property.
Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works, a rationalist tradition that alone allows us material and technological progress, the sole political structure that ensures the freedom of the individual, a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind - and the most lethal practice of arms conceivable. Let us hope that we at last understand this legacy. It is a weighty and sometimes ominous heritage that we must neither deny nor feel ashamed about - but insist that our deadly manner of war serves, rather than buries, our civilization.
# BEYOND THE BOOK
It is true that the
Russians paid a horrendous price. Perhaps two out of every three soldiers
of the Wehrmacht fell on the Eastern Front. We in the West must always
remember that such a tragic sacrifice allowed Hitler to be defeated with
far less American British, Canadian, and Australian dead. That being said,
the Anglo-Americans waged a global war well beyond the capability of the
Soviet Union. They invaded North Africa, took Sicily, and landed in Italy,
in addition to fighting a massive land war in central Europe. We had fewer
casualties than did the Russians because we fought more wisely, were better
equipped, and were not surprised to the same degree by a treacherous former
ally that we had supplied.
The Soviets invaded the defeated Japanese only in the last days of the war; the Anglo-Americans alone took on two fronts simultaneously. Submarine warfare, attacking the Japanese and German surface fleets, conducting strategic bombing over Berlin and Tokyo, and sending tons of supplies to Allied forces — all this was beyond the capability of the Red Army. More important, Stalin had been an ally of Hitler until the Nazi invasion of 1941, and had unleashed the Red Army to destroy the freedom of Finland and to carve up Poland. Do we ever read these days that when the Luftwaffe bombed Britain, Russia was sending the Nazis fuel and iron ore? When Germany invaded Russia, however, Britain sent food and supplies.
- from "Remembering World War Two" in "National Review"
After terrible sacrifices,
mistakes, and government dissimulation, Vietnamization between 1971 and
1975 finally was working. The American military had largely rid the south
of the Viet Cong; a peace treaty had established two sovereign nations;
and American ground troops were withdrawn. Yet the war was later lost mostly
because a partisan antiwar Senate, emboldened by Watergate and in hatred
of a duplicitous Nixon, cut off most material and military aid to the south
Vietnamese. That precluded as well American air support to deter an opportunistic
conventional invasion from a calculating northern army that had quickly
sized up the politics of the U.S. Congress.
- writing in "National Review"
Most wars of the eighth
to fifth centuries between Greeks had probably been both short and seasonal.
The rare cosmic struggles for national survival, such as the Persian conflicts
between 490 and 479 were conducted exclusively against foreigners and still
ended with a single climactic pitched battle. The Peloponnesian War was
different. When the Greek world tore itself apart in national suicide for
almost three decades, some Greek thinkers — in the manner of the postwar
1920s generation, who recoiled at the trenches of World War I — began to
associate their own dissatisfaction over the conduct of this particular
war with the nature of war itself. Thus, wartime plays such as Aristophanes'
Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata, as well as Euripides' Andromache, Helen,
Hecuba, and Trojan Women, while they betray no love for the Spartans, seem
to offer a new wrinkle in Greek attitudes toward war: such conflicts themselves
are awful human experiences that transcend the reasons for hostilities.
The farmers and women of Aristophanes' Acharnians, Peace,and Lysistrata,
like the captured and suffering civilians of Euripides' Hecuba, Trojan
Women, and Andromache, reveal that everyday Greeks found shared experiences
across the battle line. Thus the playwrights offer the idea that there
is something wrong with war per se — not just with the Spartans.
While the totality of postbellum thought never became therapeutic, much less pacifist or utopian, the Peloponnesian War at least introduced into Western philosophy the comprehensive idea that war was not always noble or patriotic but often nonsensical, suicidal, and perhaps intrinsically wrong, especially when it lasted twenty-seven years, not a few hours on a summer day. Homer, of course, had questioned the morality and logic of motives and sacrifices of unthinking warriors in the Iliad, but Achilles did not doubt the nobility and heroism inherent in armed conliict.
- from "A War Like No Other"
Many wars metamorphize
into something they were not supposed to be. Few imagined that the Poland
war of 1939 would within two years evolve into a war of annihilation involving
the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, Germany, Japan, and Italy.
- Victor Davis Hanson, "National Review"
Given all of this country’s
past wars involving intelligence failures, tactical and strategic blunders,
congressional fights and popular anger at the president, Iraq and the rising
furor over it are hardly unusual. Consider the national mood in 1968 when
the United States suffered over 16,000 American dead in Vietnam (at that
rate, we lost more troops in three months than we have during the entire
four-year Iraqi war). In response, riots racked the country. Protesters
stormed the Democratic Convention in Chicago. And a polarized country saw
both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. gunned down.
During the Korean conflict, President Truman fired Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson; fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his senior military commander in the theater; and faced calls for impeachment from U.S. senators, including the venerable Robert Taft. By February 1952, Truman’s approval ratings had hit 22 percent — the lowest-known polls of any sitting U.S. president, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon included.
During World War II, more than 1,000 Marines were killed in 72 hours on the tiny Pacific island of Tarawa, storming head on a Japanese stronghold that was considered at best an optional objective. The Time magazine photos of American corpses in the surf caused national outrage and calls for the resignation of widely respected Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Pacific veteran Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith said the senseless American slaughter was analogous to Pickett’s costly and futile charge at Gettysburg.
Optional conflicts like the Mexican War, the Philippines Insurrection, Korea and Vietnam all cost more lives than Iraq. Even our most successful wars witnessed far more lethal stupidity than anything seen in Baghdad. Thousands of American dead resulted from lapses like the Confederate surprise at Shiloh, Japanese surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and the German surprise attacks in the Ardennes.
There have also been plenty of major policy failures in our history — a failed invasion of Canada during the War of 1812, a failed 12-year reconstruction of the south, a failed effort to help Chiang Kai-shek stop Chinese Communists under Mao, a failed effort at the Bay of Pigs to remove Fidel Castro, and a failed effort to stop communism in Southeast Asia, to name a few.
Since World War II, our intelligence agencies failed to foresee the Chinese invasion of Korea, the Yom Kippur War, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the sudden spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Cambodian and Rwandan holocausts, and the acquisition of the bomb by Pakistan and North Korea.
Nor have past wars been any easier on other presidents than Iraq has been on President Bush. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon left office despised. Exhausted wartime presidents Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were either assassinated or died in office. The controversial aftermath of World War I was a likely cause of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke.
The high-stakes war to stabilize the fragile democracy in Iraq is a serious, costly and controversial business. But so have been most conflicts in American history. We need a little more humility and knowledge of our past — and a lot less hysteria, name-calling and obsession with our present selves.
- Victor Davis Hanson, on America's past and present wars, "National Review" (Mar'07)
A civilization is won
or lost by those who fight to protect it — and judged as deserving by the
gratitude offered to its soldiers by those who were saved. Afghanistan
and Iraq remind us that there are now Americans in battle in the tradition
of 1776, 1864, 1918, or 1944. But are we, the public, still cognizant of
their sacrifice as our forefathers once were? ...When in Europe we don’t
pay our respects at the American cemetery at Hamm. Indeed, we know an American
battle only to the degree it has been the rare topic of a recent film.
Thanks to Saving Private Ryan there is still a D-Day among our youth.
Politically correct history has also made us indifferent to the sacrifice of the soldier. The Civil War, we are sometimes told, was not really over slavery anyway. The Great War was unnecessary infighting among European aristocracies. World War II is now as much the Japanese Internment, Rosy the Riveter, and Hiroshima, as saving Europe and Asia from a racist slavery at places like Falaise and Tarawa. Does anyone make the connection between a Samsung television or Kia in our showrooms with the bloody see-saw struggles for Seoul? Why is a Noriega in jail, why are Milosevic and Saddam bad memories, and why are men walking without beards in Kabul?
...Do we still appreciate that our soldiers, so many of whom have perished to keep us free — and yet also freed a defeated enemy as well from a Hitler, or Tojo, or the Taliban — knowing that had they failed our enemies, would not be so magnanimous?
In our sophistication, perhaps too we think we should have evolved beyond war, the nature of man at last changed for good through greater education, affluence, and experience. Commemorating war’s toll, then, for some, may be like recalling cancer — as if the oncologist and soldier alike somehow are tainted by the respective horror of what they must do.
...We should remember on this Veterans Day that some very young people — with long futures, in the prime of health, and at the center of their families — died for the rest of us. They lost their lives not just for us to watch an OJ outburst in Vegas or American Idol, but for the idea that we — most often not so young, not so hale, and not with such bright futures as our soldiers — could be free at their expense; free, not merely from being conquered or enslaved, but free from the very thought of it.
- Victor Davis Hanson, writing in National Review on Veterans Day 2007
In the luxury of some
60 years of postwar peace and affluence — and perhaps in anger over the
current Iraq war — Patrick Buchanan and Nicholson Baker and other revisionists
engage in a common sort of Western second-guessing. The result is that
they always demand liberal democracies be not just better and smarter than
their adversaries, but almost superhuman in their perfection. Buchanan
and others, for example, fault the Treaty of Versailles that ended World
War I as too harsh on a defeated Germany and thus an understandable pretext
for the rise of the Nazis, who played on German anger and fear.
Those accords may have been flawed, but they were far better than what Germany itself had offered France in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War, or Russia after its collapse in 1917 — or what it had planned for Britain and France had it won the First World War. What ultimately led to World War II was neither Allied interbellum meanness to Germany nor an unwillingness to understand the Nazis’ pain and anguish. The mistake instead was not occupying all of imperial Germany after the first war in 1918-19. That way, the Allies would have demonstrated to the German people that their army was never “stabbed in the back” at home, as the Nazis later alleged, but instead defeated by an Allied army that was willing to stay on to foster German constitutional government and its reintegration within Europe. The Allies later did occupy Germany after World War II — and 60 years without war have followed.
Had Nicholson Baker been alive in 1942, I doubt he would have had better ideas for how to stop the Nazi and Japanese juggernauts that had ruined Eastern Europe, Russia, and large parts of China and southeast Asia — other than using the same clumsy tools our grandfathers were forced to employ to end fascist aggression. A Nazi armored division or death camp stopped its murderous work not through reasoned appeal or self-reflection, but only when its fuel, supplies, and manpower were cut off...
THe GIs and the leaders who sent them into the carnage of World War II knew that Americans could do good without having to be perfect. In contrast, the present critics of the Allied cause enjoy the freedom and affluence that our forefathers gave us by fighting World War II, while ignoring — or faulting — the intelligence and resolve that won it.
- Victor Davis Hanson, "National Review" (2008)
Versailles was less
harsh than the treaties imposed on the defeated by Germany — and less harsh
than what Germany had planned for the allies... Germany’s plans for Western
Europe in the event of its victory, which we know from post-World War II
archives would have made the Versailles treaty tame in comparison... The
problem was not Versailles, but the inability or the unwillingness of the
allies to promote and foster German postwar democracy, occupy the country
and thereby remind the German people that they had not been “stabbed in
the back” in foreign territory, but militarily defeated on the battlefield
and in full retreat when their generals sued for peace. That would have
had a powerful effect in reminding the German people that neither Jews
nor socialists had caused their defeat, but the madness of invading France,
and the futility of fighting Russia, France, Britain, Italy, and the United
States all at once... A defeated German army in November 1918 retreated
from foreign territory and reentered the fatherland, promulgating the myth
that it had never been beaten, when in fact it was within days of annihilation
by an advancing allied army that included over a million American soldiers.
- responding to Patrick Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler and The Unnecessary War"
We are nearing the
seventh anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Its replacement
— the Freedom Tower — should have been a sign of our determination and
grit right after September 11. But it is only now reaching street level.
Owners, renters, builders, and government have all fought endlessly over
the design, the cost, and the liability. By contrast, in the midst of the
Great Depression, our far poorer grandparents built the Empire State Building
in 410 days — not a perfect design, but one good enough to withstand a
fuel-laden World War II-era bomber that once crashed into it... California
is also in yet another predictable drought and ensuing water shortage.
Despite strict conservation and new water-saving technology, we simply
don’t have enough water for households, recreation, industry, and agriculture.
Building new dams, reservoirs, and canals, you see, would apparently be
considered unimaginative and relics of the 20th century. The causes of
this paralysis are clear. Action entails risks and consequences. Mere thinking
doesn’t. In our litigious society, as soon as someone finally does something,
someone else can become wealthy by finding some fault in it. Meanwhile,
a less fussy and more confident world abroad drills and builds nuclear
plants, refineries, dams, and canals to feed and fuel millions who want
what we take for granted... Americans also harp about the faults of prior
generations. We would never make their blunders — even as we don’t seem
to mind using the power plants, bridges, and buildings that they handed
down to us. Finally, high technology and the good life have turned us into
utopians, fussy perfectionists who demand heaven on earth. Anytime a sound
proposal seems short of perfect, we consider it not good, rather than good
- Victor Davis Hanson, "The Can't-Do Society" (Jun'08)
# WHY STUDY WAR?
These extracts are from a piece entitled "Why Study War" which appeared in August'07:
The university’s aversion
to the study of war certainly doesn’t reflect public lack of interest in
the subject... Popular culture displays extraordinary enthusiasm for all
things military... The public may feel drawn to military history because
it wants to learn about honor and sacrifice, or because of interest in
technology—the muzzle velocity of a Tiger Tank’s 88mm cannon, for instance—or
because of a pathological need to experience violence, if only vicariously.
The importance—and challenge—of the academic study of war is to elevate
that popular enthusiasm into a more capacious and serious understanding,
one that seeks answers to such questions as: Why do wars break out? How
do they end? Why do the winners win and the losers lose? How best to avoid
wars or contain their worst effects?
A wartime public illiterate about the conflicts of the past can easily find itself paralyzed in the acrimony of the present. Without standards of historical comparison, it will prove ill equipped to make informed judgments. Neither our politicians nor most of our citizens seem to recall the incompetence and terrible decisions that, in December 1777, December 1941, and November 1950, led to massive American casualties and, for a time, public despair... Knowledge of past wars establishes wide parameters of what to expect from new ones... Military history teaches us, contrary to popular belief these days, that wars aren’t necessarily the most costly of human calamities... Finally, military history has the moral purpose of educating us about past sacrifices that have secured our present freedom and security. If we know nothing of Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Tarawa, and Chosun, the crosses in our military cemeteries are just pleasant white stones on lush green lawns. They no longer serve as reminders that thousands endured pain and hardship for our right to listen to what we wish on our iPods and to shop at Wal-Mart in safety—or that they expected future generations, links in this great chain of obligation, to do the same for those not yet born. The United States was born through war, reunited by war, and saved from destruction by war. No future generation, however comfortable and affluent, should escape that terrible knowledge.
It would be reassuring to think that the righteousness of a cause, or the bravery of an army, or the nobility of a sacrifice ensures public support for war. But military history shows that far more often the perception of winning is what matters.
In the twenty-first century, it’s easier than ever to succumb to technological determinism, the idea that science, new weaponry, and globalization have altered the very rules of war. But military history teaches us that our ability to strike a single individual from 30,000 feet up with a GPS bomb or a jihadist’s efforts to have his propaganda beamed to millions in real time do not necessarily transform the conditions that determine who wins and who loses wars... We fought the 1991 Gulf War with dazzling, computer-enhanced weaponry. But lost in the technological pizzazz was the basic wisdom that we need to fight wars with political objectives in mind and that, to conclude them decisively, we must defeat and even humiliate our enemies, so that they agree to abandon their prewar behavior. For some reason, no American general or diplomat seemed to understand that crucial point 16 years ago, with the result that, on the cessation of hostilities, Saddam Hussein’s supposedly defeated generals used their gunships to butcher Kurds and Shiites while Americans looked on.
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