Friday, April 6, 2012
Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson, a review
--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
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”
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,