Sunday, February 11, 2007

# Posted 5:36 PM by Patrick Porter  

RIPPLES OF BATTLE: As promised, here is the first in a series of reviews of Victor Davis Hanson's histories.

Hanson's argument is clear. Some battles which are largely overlooked in collective memory can still have a powerful impact on later generations.

Hanson takes three cases to illustrate this point: the battle of Okinawa in World War Two, Shiloh in the American Civil War, and Delium in the Pelopponesian War.

The first thing that marks Hanson out is his sinewy prose. One of his themes is that we must face the grim realities of combat and war's costs squarely. Hanson goes further and almost revels in the detailed texture of the carnage on the plane of Delium, the attrition of the effort to ferret out Japanese defenders dug in at Okinawa, and the confusion and exhaustion of the movement of clashing forces at Shiloh.

Its a necessarily impressionistic book, in that its by definition hard to measure with any precision the long-term, subliminal effects of particular battles on later society's psychology, values, or political culture.

For my money, the really evocative chapter is the one on Delium, a conflict between Athenians and Boetians, where as a classical military historian Hanson is probably most at home. Interestingly, Hanson also seems to identify strongly with both the USA and ancient Athens, and his other works have argued that America is a continuation of the experiment in radical democracy and military excellence, with the latter drawing strength from the former.

The ripples of Delium, he argues, were threefold:

it is one of the set-piece hoplite battles between the heavy infantry of Greek city-states which helps sets the scene for the tradition of decisive showdowns of free citizen-soldiers;

the poor men of Thespia are sacrificed in great numbers because their senior coalition partners force them to fight on the vulnerable flank of the line, which opens the way later to the destruction of the poorly-defended town of Thespia;

and the emergence of Socrates, a survivor of the battle and one of the most important philosophers in the western intellectual tradition.

Although its hard to measure the link exactly, Hanson argues that the broader vitality of 5th century Athenian culture was generated by the interaction of wealth, emergency (the great Plague had struck only a few years before, and the war with Sparta was ongoing) and an open society. Or as he puts it:

In modern terms of material wealth, we wold find the city abysmally poor. Yet the combination of radical democracy and imperial grandeur had energised the citizenry, creating a unique but fragile - and transitory - symbiosis between politics, commerce and the life of the mind.
One of Hanson's ways of measuring the ripples at Shiloh and Delium is through the careers of prominent men who survived each clash: Grant, Sherman, and Nathan Bedford Forrest at Shiloh, Socrates and Alcibiades at Delium.

By contrast, one of his more ambitiously drawn ripples is the linkage he sees between the shocked reaction to the Japanese surprise assault on Pearl Harbour and the suicidal attacks on 9/11.

Okinawa was made possible by the massive mobilisation, industrial power, and violence aroused by Pearl Harbour, which combined with the desperate tactics of Japanese combatants in the Pacific war persuaded the Allies ultimately that such extremism must be destroyed by the atomic bomb.

Similarly, he argues, the indiscriminate fanaticism of 9/11 offended western morals and thereby called forth the lethal economic, military and civic power of modern America.

This is where I don't fully agree. He's surely right that both aggressions, Pearl Harbour and 9/11, summoned the will of Americans because they offended western scruples. However, the comparison is hardly exact in terms of scale, as 9/11 with all its huge damage and the subsequent war have not yet generated the kind of will to incinerate major cities with nuclear weapons. As it is, the US has not been able to sustain the kind of broad consent that it did in ww2.

American force and will was unleashed against a specific empire-state in 1941, whereas the force of transnational Islamist terror is a more fluid thing, and after the supportive Taleban regime was overthrown, is devolving more into something much more complicated, part brand, part floating management consultant-style centre of personnel, training and finance, and part loose alliance of cells.

There is a sense in which Hanson is seeking the reassurance from world war two that the new fascism can be combated by the same dynamic. But while there are arguably ideological affinities with Japanese militarism of the time with Islamist extremism, it doesn't quite fit in other ways.

Just saw the time. Gotta hit the road.


(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

I agree, the war on terror is a bit different from the war with the Japanese in WWII. Terrorists are practically impossible to fight. I think a better analogy would be the American Revolution - the Red Coats versus the American Peasants with their pitchforks, only this time we're the Red Coats and the terrorists are the peasants.

Therefore, I believe that instead of fighting them we should help them get out of their misery by fighting global poverty. Maybe then they wouldn't hate us as much! In 2000, 191 countries made a promse known as the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to eliminate global poverty by 2015. Let's hold them accountable by letting our representatives know that we care!
Hanson is fine if you want to know how the West fights between themselves, but he is useless in trying to understand an East vs. West conflict. The Eastern Way of War relies on maneuver, and striking where your enemy is weakest. The Western Way of War relies on firepower. What is the smallest component of a U.S. unit? A Fire Team, not a "Maneuver Team." Many Westerners point out that a U.S. sergeant has the same decision-making authority as an Arab colonel. Fine. Are we fighting Arab Colonels? No. We are fighting terrorists who fight in small squad-sized units armed with RPGs and machine guns. Do terrorists in these cells have greater latitude in initiating and breaking off engagements, in choosing the time and place to attack U.S. forces? Almost certainly.

Read John Poole's "The Tiger's Way", "Phantom Soldier" and "Crescent Moon" and other books on the tactics and strategies of Eastern warriors (and by East anything east of Greece). Poole convincingly argues that the Eastern commander may not value his soldiers' lives as much as Western commanders--but, more significantly, the Eastern commander values his soldiers' individual contributions much more than the West does.
Marie2 & Aaron,

thanks for your observations. it so happens that I don't quite agree with either of you, and Aaron I'm actually writing a paper questioning this 'eastern way of war' concept.

but unfortunately I'm a bit busy for the next few days, so I'll leave it to other oxblog folk to jump in, if they are there...

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