Tuesday, December 12, 2006

# Posted 1:14 PM by Patrick Porter  

HANSON'S HISTORIES: After enjoying David's interesting book reviews, over the next little while I'll be posting reviews of the books of Victor Davis Hanson, classical historian and pundit.

I've found Hanson fascinating for years. He has come in for some criticism lately, as an unrepentant supporter of the Iraq war and GWOT.

But he has also written much else on classical history, the politics of immigration, and his family. Several themes intertwine in his writing: western traditions and the western 'way of war'; the connection between citizenship, property-ownership, agriculture, and military service; the decisive importance of certain battles to the development of civilisation; middle-eastern politics, and the historic role of the American military, particularly at moments when it was a political 'force for good.'

One of his most influential works, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, traced the tradition of decisive combat to the combat between the hoplite armies of Greek city-states. He also used his own agricultural background to argue that invading armies did not ravage the countryside primarily to destroy it, but as a challenge to the civic pride of the polis.

Hanson got me a lot more interested generally in the relationship between war and culture, and sparked a research interest in the issue of 'strategic cultures' and national ways of war, and the concept that cultures embrace particular ways of fighting across generations. (As an aside, my own research has led to an agnoticism, or even skepticism, about the existence of culture-bound or culturally-determined ways of war, but that's for another post.)

The archetypal farmer-citizen-soldier, embodied in the legendary Cincinnatus, seems to haunt Hanson's historical and political writing, as an agrarian figure with a profound stake in a Republic, who was content to defend it, turning down the opportunity for absolute rule.

Much as I agree with Hanson's basic political assumptions about the relationship between security and the spread of political liberty, there are also problems to be found throughout his work.

Firstly, he writes about America's current wars in the shadow of World War Two, equating the conflict against Islamicist extremism with the actual war against Nazism and Imperial Japan, and arguing that the long-term struggle against both justifies almost any sacrifice and any error.

While I agree that both sets of opponents stand for abhorrent things, Nazism and Japanese Imperialism stood for a much more powerful barbarism, and a standard of barbarism beyond limit. It is misleading and dangerous to invoke that struggle to dismiss criticisms of some of the errors made in the conflict against contemporary foes. Just because intelligence failures and strategic errors marred the campaign in World War Two, doesn't alleviate the Administration's failures of post-invasion reconstruction in Iraq, for example.

More broadly, Hanson at times has an inconsistent or torn view of the value of dissent and criticism in societies at war. In one chapter of his long-ranging study of western military traditions, Carnage and Culture, Hanson argues that political dissent, audit and questioning everything is ultimately a strength of liberal democracies at war, even if it leaves us conflicted and increases our vulnerability to attacks on our political will in the short term.

However, in his more contemporary political writing, at times he betrays a jaundiced disdain for dissidents. Not only their arguments, but their lack of historical perspective, their weak political will, or their under-valuing of what must be defended.

This isn't necessarily a contradiction, more of a tension, but the VDH who sees the long-term value of dissent seems different from the VDH in his irritation at those very dissidents. On the other hand, to value dissent in principle while disapproving of the content of dissent is not that incoherent.

Ultimately, Hanson's simultaneous engagement with both history and contemporary politics helps to make his writing so resonant and interesting. So over the next few weeks or so, I'll post up some thoughts, starting with Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think to illustrate this point.
(7) opinions -- Add your opinion

I'll be interested to see your reviews of Hanson's work. I'm not familiar with it besides what he posts online, but as far as that goes I think your thumbnail sketch is unfair on a few points.

I don't think Hanson seeks to 'justify any sacrifice' as much as he wants to provide perspective on how severe those sacrifices are. For instance, it may be that the war in Iraq cannot be won, and it is certainly true that the deaths of 3000 Americans is a tragedy. But to say the war cannot be won because of the magnitude of casualties displays an ignorance of military history. Pointing that out doesn't excuse the Administration's failure, but it does demonstrate that it is still possible to win wars after making grave errors.

As to relative levels of barbarism among our enemies, I'd point out that Americans in captivity fared much better in Nazi Germany than at the hands of our present adversaries.

Finally, not all dissent is useful. There will always be robust debate over what course of action America should take to best protect its citizens. But there is also a strain of thought in this country that actively roots for America's failure, celebrates its enemies, exaggerates its setbacks, and refuses to acknowledge its victories.
I'm also looking forward to your reviews. My impression of VDH has been that as a classicist he's done very good work, and as an analyst of current political affairs, he's done very good work as a classicist. But of his books, I've only ever read Wars of the Ancient Greeks and am currently working my way through A War Like No Other, so it's possible he's making better arguments elsewhere (see Peters, Ralph, professional journals v. popular writings).
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hey bgates,

sorry, I should have made two points more clearly. when I said 'justify any sacrifice', I actually was referring to all of the casualties in the Iraqi/Afghan wars, including foreign civilians, not just American casualties.

Hanson often frames these deaths as tragic but ultimately justified by the cause of introducing a democratic alternative into the Middle East, often referring back to the losses in World War Two as a benchmark.

And he does make this point often as a response to criticisms of Administration failures, so I think he goes a bit further than you allow.

In terms of the barbarism point, I meant partly that Nazi Germany and Japan were simply much more powerful on most measures.

While present adversaries do practise barbaric methods, they don't yet command the kind of industrial, military and economic power of the Reich. This also means that it WW2 enemies simply could inflict evil on a scale and intensity that AQ can't yet.

On your dissent point, it may be that not all dissent is useful, and I agree that there is a strain of obnoxious opinion around these issues. But surely this is an inseparable part of an open society at war? To have a climate which allows for constructive review and useful dissent, it would be hard to shut out less reflective views.

However, despite all this I am a big fan and love reading his stuff.

Thanks for the interesting post and VHD, and the link. I'm looking forward to your review.

For the record, you picked my least thorough critique of VDH... what turned out to be my last exasperated gasp of criticism for some time. I'll resist the urge to link-pimp, but let me just say that if you search for Hanson at the Duck of Minerva you'll find some more, and some less, serious critiques.

But anyway, your parenthetical allusion to your skepticism of "cultures of war" is much more important than you let on. Because once that argument falls, a fair portion of the worldview behind Hanson's post-9/11 commentary beings to collapse as well.
Hi Dan,

thanks for this.

I'll have another look for some more of the Duck's responses to VDH, and maybe will work them in to future posts.

On the strategic cultures point, its a nice case of my own research coinciding with blogging topics!

enjoy the holidays, if you have any!

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