Friday, April 6, 2012

Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson, a review

Themistocles, Alexander the Great, Cortes, and the British and American officers of the last two centuries enjoyed innate advantages that over the long duration could offset the terrible effects of imbecilic generalship, flawed tactics, strained supply lines, difficult terrain, and inferior numbers—or a simple “bad day.” These advantages were immediate and entirely cultural, and they were not the product of the genes, germs, or geography of a distant past.

--Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture

Carnage and Culture (2001) serves as a corrective in some ways to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Military success is not just about east-west vs. north-south axes and favorable climates for growing crops, Hanson argues, but about cultures that value individual initiative in conjunction with discipline, and whose armies and soldiers take to the battlefield because of personal choice or the decision of an elected official. As units comprised of free individuals Western armies are invested in conflicts differently than their eastern counterparts.

Hanson says that Western armies discuss and vote on strategy before battle, have the initiative and flexibility to make changes during the heat of the fighting, and audit the performance of their military and non-military leadership afterwards. This cultural mindset makes for a better individual soldier and a more cohesive unit, one that fights in close ranks (the Macedonian Phalanx, British squares, and so on) and prefers open, head-on combat of annihilation (“shock battle” is one of Hanson’s favorite terms). The historical result is a track record of victories over lesser-motivated, more inflexible, and lighter-armored foes, even when outnumbered, such as Alexanders's rout of the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela, for example. In nearly all the major engagements in which west triumphed over east, “the same paradigms of freedom, decisive shock battle, civic militarism, technology, capitalism, individualism, and civilian audit and open dissent loom large,” Hansen writes.

Technology has certainly played a role in the military supremacy of western forces, too. Because free inquiry and rationalism are Western trademarks, European armies have been traditionally been equipped with better arms and armor, Hanson adds. But technology alone cannot account for this long track record of victory: “Themistocles’ triremes at Salamis were no better than Xerxes’, and Admiral Nagumo’s carriers at Midway had better planes than the American’s did,” Hanson explains.

Hanson is careful to stay away from rendering moral judgments on any of these battles or their causes; he does not portray the firebombing of Japanese cities, the Spanish conquest of Mexico and annihilation of the Aztecs, nor Alexander the Great’s systematic plunder and destruction of eastern cities and murder of his own generals, as models of human decency. There is no accounting of race, nor religion, in Hanson’s conclusions about who wins on the battlefield. Just the cultures of the opponents.

Hanson’s thesis does not hold up in all instances. Many examples exist of non-western cultures beating western ones on the field of battle. Hanson recognizes this and offers up examples of major battles in which western forces were either soundly defeated and/or slaughtered (Cannae, Isandhlwana). However, Hanson says these are aberrations, the result of a single brilliant tactician such as Hannibal; in the bigger picture western armies overwhelmingly win. But Hanson’s book has other oversights and problems, too; for example he ignores the subject of World War II Germany and Russia. One wonders: Would he consider these countries “western,” and so a match of equal foes on the Eastern front? Russia is a mixture of east and west, hard to categorize, but certainly more “eastern” than Germany, and yet it was victorious militarily. Perhaps that’s why Hansen did not include the great battles of Kursk or Stalingrad here, as they did not confirm his thesis.

What draws me toward Hanson’s book is not necessarily the validity of his thesis, but the broader, underlying notion that human agency and not environmental factors is the primary determinant of human fortunes. If I find some of Hanson’s evidence too narrow and broadly applied regarding the “west”, so too do I have the same criticism of theories which argue that human history was shaped purely by natural determinism. Great leaders, great battles, and great man-made events have shaped us in profound ways; removing this element, or claiming that individual initiative and democracy don’t matter in the grand scheme of things diminishes us, and creates a picture of humanity I don't much care for.

Even if you find Hanson’s conclusions disagreeable, Carnage and Culture is well worth reading for its examination of battles. Hanson is a sharp, descriptive writer and you get a good feel for what it must have been like standing in the shieldwall at Poitiers, on the deck of a blazing Japanese carrier at Midway, or in a crushed press of hemmed-in, panicked Roman soldiers at Cannae. I’ve never studied the Tet offensive for example and found this chapter particularly illuminating, as I did the great battle between galleys of Turks and Christians at Lepanto. The battles examined in Carnage and Culture include Salamis (September 28, 480 B.C.), Gaugamela (October 1, 331 B.C.), Cannae (August 2, 216 B.C.), Poitiers (October 11, 732), Tenochtitlan (June 24, 1520—August 13, 1521), Lepanto (October 7, 1571), Rorke’s Drift (January 22—23, 1879), Midway (June 4—8, 1942) and Tet (January 31—April 6, 1968).


The Wasp said...

Interesting writer and interesting book. I agree that its conclusions are a little broad. Still, its a solid corrective to Diamond's determinist theory.

Also, it could be argued that Germany's failure against the USSR was primarily due to Hitler's refusal to allow his commanders to use their "initiative and flexibility to make changes during the heat of the fighting, and audit the performance of their military and non-military leadership". Of course they also might have simply lost in the face of time, distance and mass anyway.

Dave Cesarano said...

There's an NPR debate between Diamond and Hanson that you might be able to find in mp3. They really don't debate, though, more just discuss. It's fascinating because their theories aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

The real counter-argument to Hanson is John Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Although Lynn's argument has some problems, and in some places inadvertently prove Hanson's point, he still raises a lot of problems with Hanson's analysis that need revision.

Ken said...

Looks intriguing. Sigh, yet another book to add to my growing backlog.

Tom Simon said...

I’m not sure the Eastern Front in WWII counts as an exception to Hanson’s claims. Let us stipulate — though I personally would disagree — that Russia was not a ‘Western’ country by Hanson’s definition. Then consider:

In 1941, at the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army had a huge numerical superiority over the Wehrmacht: approximately two to one in infantry, two to one in aircraft, three to one in tanks, four to one in artillery. The U.S.S.R. had double the population of Germany and an even bigger superiority in industrial potential, thanks to its self-sufficiency in natural resources. On top of that, the Germans were fighting a two-front war, and their industries were being systematically wrecked by Allied strategic bombing.

Despite these overwhelming disadvantages in manpower and materiel, the Germans nearly knocked out the Soviet Union, and finally lost after two and a half years of bitter defensive warfare against a numerically superior and technologically equal foe. They must have had something going for them to manage that.

Michal said...

Does Hansen have any examination of the Battles of Legnica and Mohi, as well as the fall of Kievan Rus? Those were clear case of eastern armies--Mongols/Tatars, specifically--completely crushing western armies through clear organizational and tactical superiority. If not for the death of Ogedei Khan forcing recall to Karakorum, a significant portion of Europe may have been overrun by the Mongol Empire.

Brian Murphy said...

I’m not sure the Eastern Front in WWII counts as an exception to Hanson’s claims.

That could be right, Tom. Certainly the Wehrmacht employed many of the western techniques so praised by Hanson, and, pitted against any one of the allies separated from the others, likely would have prevailed. Though notably Nazi Germany was lacking some of the other traits Hanson assigns to western armies, including civilian audit of military affairs, consensual government, etc.

Does Hansen have any examination of the Battles of Legnica and Mohi, as well as the fall of Kievan Rus?

No, he does not consider these examples, nor any of the Mongol invasions. Hanson claims that for the past 2,500 years--even in the Dark Ages--there has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare. Even though Hanson says this way of warfare continued through the medieval era, I'm not so sure this is true, given the fragmented state of feudal europe. It's probably telling that the only battle he includes from this era is Poitiers.

LordJim said...

@Michal -

I'm really glad someone else brought up those battles. That has always bothered me. Here's the way I've reconciled it.

Hanson seemed to do one major thing when picking his battles. The trait in question had to be the deciding factor of the battle. In that regard, Legnica and Mohi didn't really fit a paradigm since there were elements of several of his nine factors present (more on that later). But he also tried to pick battles and campaigns where the winning protagonist was among the best contemporary representatives of the Western tradition. And based on his other writings on the topic, I don't think he feels the Eastern European provinces qualified. They were structurally very similar to the Hellenistic Greek states from 320-100 B.C.; that is, they were partially Westernized, but were missing several key elements. The English and the French, as well as several of the German and Papal states, were probably better emissaries of the Classical cultural tradition at that point (even though, as Brian points out, they weren't perfect in the Feudal era). Hanson makes a similar choice with the Germans and the Soviets; a battle between two partially Westernized forces was less interesting to him than a battle between a perfectly Westernized force and the "other" at Midway. So in that vein, the Legnica/Mohi fight mirrors the Nazi/Soviet clash far more than the other battles he cites, and that is likely the reason it wasn't included. Even though a force from the West was defeated, absent any semblance of civic representation, dissent and, to a large extent even freedom, it wasn't a "Western" enough force to be representative.

That being said, one of the best parts of "Carnage and Culture" is that its central tenet isn't a guarantee of victory for the Westernized force instead guarantees the greater margin of error. Brian mentions this in his follow-up point on the Wehrmacht. In that regard, Legnica, Mohi and Kursk, like Cannae, Carrhae, Constantinople or Tet, showed that the losses of the more "Westernized" forces can actually prove Hanson's points.

LordJim said...

Take the Mongolian invasion. While the Khans won decisive battles at both Legnica and Mohi, they did so with their two best leaders, against isolated, largely unprepared and numerically similar forces, while sustaining some of their heaviest casualties to date. In addition, they couldn't subdue multiple fortified centers of resistance. But unlike, say, the Romans after Carrhae, they had no traditions of a.) free speech that would allow new generals and tactics to emerge, b.) civic militarism and close-order drill to replace the lost forces, or c.) systems of rational inquiry and capitalism that would create weapons of seigecraft to deal with Hungary's castles and fortified towns. (The Mongolians famously imported many of their seige specialists from China).

All of this happened BEFORE the death of the Great Khan, so in my opinion it is simplistic to say that his death saved Europe. In mine, and likely Hanson's opinion, despite their initial battle success, the Mongols would have struggled to win a protracted war against a heavily armed and well-led integrated infantry force in difficult terrain, especially when that force was the emissary of decentralized and more egalitarian regime (or at least more so than the Mongols or their normal Eastern opponents), and Hanson already covered that with the chapter on Cannae. And the proof is in the pudding - despite the intense violence and depopulation, the Hungarians were able to regain their autonomy within two years and, forty years later, easily defeated the Mongolian follow-ups despite not being the most powerful European state (Edward I's England probably takes that award).

So as best I can tell, Westernization is a matter of degree, as Hanson points out when he says that what we think of as "Freedom" wasn't necessarily what it meant to the average Greek, even though they used that as their rallying cry. In the same way that civic participation and equality didn't mean the same in ancient Rome as they did at the founding of the US, and they weren't the same then as they are today, the important thing was the ideal that the common soldier unconsciously accepted it as part of his identity. So while Hanson is definitely a little full of himself and his own rhetoric, and he has some inconsistencies, I think his overall point is the best explanation I have yet read of Western military dominance.