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
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.