Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Ferocious Warmakers: How Democracies Win Wars

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Claremont Institute

The historian Thucydides believed that democracies were the most adept governments at war making. He believed that Classical Athens had not been defeated by Sparta, but lost its war only to the combined efforts of more or less the entire civilized world of the Eastern Mediterranean in concert—Sparta, democratic Sicily, and at times imperial Persia. If we can expand the classical definition of democracy to include consensual governments and parliamentary republics of landowning citizens, then Thucydides seems to be correct—Republican Rome, Swiss cantons, the Renaissance Italian city-states, Victorian England, and democratic America projected military power far beyond what their rather limited territories and populations might otherwise suggest.

And even when Western governments at times were not entirely consensual, classical egalitarianism and distrust of totalitarianism were never really forgotten. The Holy Roman Empire, the Spain of Phillip II, and the 18th-century European monarchies, while not models of enlightened constitutions, never reached the degree of authoritarianism found among the Aztecs, Ottomans, of Chinese dynasties. Dark-Age notions of personal freedom and patronage, the Magna Charta, and Spanish legal codes were reflections of a tradition no comparable to that found in non-Western regimes of the age.

Western military prowess therefore is reflective either of constitutional government or of a tradition of individuality and egalitarianism that survived even within the more narrow confines of monarchy and aristocracy. No historian claims that there is a 2,500-year heritage of uninterrupted democracy or that the West shared unquestioned military superiority during every decade from Pericles’s rule to the present age. But the evidence of reappearing prowess at arms is suggestive. Classical Greeks repelled invasions from the much larger empire of Persia, well before Alexander the Great destroyed it. The Mediterranean was for half-a-millennium a Roman lake. And even when Africa and Asia returned to eastern rule under Islam during the supposed nadir of the West, Europe itself remained secure from most attack. The Crusades were a logistical and operational miracle—it was inconceivable that Saladin could have piloted a similarly sized armada into the Atlantic to wage jihad in Paris or London. For a few weeks in Austria the Ottomans threatened Europe—but only due to the internecine squabbling of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, not to mention the invaders’ parasitic borrowing of Western munitions, sea craft, and military organization. By the 16th century, the die was cast. The continual improvement of military technology and exploration and colonization of the Americas and Orient ensured the Western hegemony that continues to the present day, characterized by the preeminence of Europe and America, joined in the last few decades by Japan, Russia, and India, which have sought to westernize their militaries in varying degrees.

Many factors explain the military dynamism of the West, but the fountainhead of its success is the prosperity for European states and their descendents to embrace personal freedom and some degree of consensual government. When societies are free, then citizens fight as soldiers with a clear sense of rights and responsibilities. So at Salamis, Athenian sailors rowed to chants of “Freedom,” later gave their individual triremes names like “Free Speech,” “Freedom,” “Right,” “Democracy,” “Law,” and “Order,” and voted for their generals. Similar expressions of egalitarianism reappeared among Roman yeomen in the dark days of Hannibal’s invasion, and G.I.s at the Battle of the Bulge. Because such fighters believe that they have had a say in the conditions of their own service, and that their officers are agents of their own elected representatives, they fight with the assurance that no one has shanghaied or coerced them into service in battles for the profit and pleasure of a small elite. Cortes is often dubbed an autocrat and worse; in fact, in comparison to Montezuma, he was a leader among equals, as the conquistadores bickered among one another, were subject to suits and writs, and in council hectored and advised their caudillo about the proper strategy of storming Tenochtitlán. Spaniards, not Aztecs, proved themselves to be the more flexible, spirited, and innovative soldiers in the vicious fighting for Mexico City.

By the same token, consensual governments ensure a standard set of military laws and regulations that soldiers can trust to be uniform and applicable to all—whether they are statutes that regulated service in the legions or the contracts that bound 17th century European soldiers. Such confidence is not merely an abstract assurance, but reminds fighters in the heat of battle that every man in the phalanx, legion, square, and bombing squadron is subject to more or less the same treatment, therefore creating armies that either stand or fall together.

 

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In that regard, free societies have developed a markedly different idea of military discipline that their adversaries in Asia, Africa, and the pre-Columbian Americas. Obedience is more likely to be defined by staying in rank, keeping in time, advancing and retreating on orders, spearing or shooting in unison, and maintaining cohesion and order along a line. What is behind this propensity for group order? Again, once fairness and freedom are assured, then soldiers are more likely to define their bravery and duty by the success of their company, not of themselves. From the Greeks onward, it was always more likely for a Westerner to be commended for his efforts at keeping a shield chest high, saving a comrade in arms, or plugging gaps in a line than for collecting captives or amassing kills. Aristotle remarked how different were warriors outside of the classical Greek city-state who kept tabs on the numbers of their slain victims.

In contrast, at the battle of Plataea (470 B.C.), Herodotus relates that rewards for bravery went to hoplites who stayed in rank, not to those who rushed out to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat ahead of the phalanx. Such allegiance is freely incurred, not coerced—as was the case with Xerxes at Thermopylae, who whipped his soldiers on against the Greeks. In this regard, it is no accident that rarely do suicide soldiers play a large role in the Western tradition, inasmuch as men have confidence in their own abilities, craft strategies for their survival, and believe that their souls belong to themselves—not to the emperor or distant grandee watching from afar on a peacock throne.

Yet consensual government results in more than just disciplined and like-minded soldiers. The culture of freedom also creates a different type of freethinking individual, one who looks to himself and his immediate group of comrades for solutions rather than the rigid orders of distant priests, strongmen, or divinely-appointed kings. At Midway, eccentric cryptographers cracked the Japanese naval codes before the battle even had begun; it is impossible to imagine that such brilliant misfits would ever have been given similar latitude and independence in the Japanese navy. Once the crippled Yorktown arrived at Pearl Harbor, a horde of pipefitters, electricians, and carpenters swarmed over her in dry-dock to make ad hoc repairs as each team saw fit. She steamed out to Midway 70 hours later—and was instrumental in the American victory at the carrier battle a few hours afterward. Such miraculous repairs were far different from the Japanese reaction to their own damaged Shokaku and Zuikaku, which, with far less impairment, emerged from the same battle of Coral Sea—only to sit at the Kure naval base for three months awaiting repairs. The strategic result? American individualism and a deeply ingrained trust in private initiative ensured that there would be three, not two carriers, at Midway, while Japanese rigidity and hierarchy meant that four, not six, Japanese flattops would face the Americans

Of course, much is made of the superiority of Western military technology—as if such deadly weapons exist in a vacuum and are not themselves reflective of larger social and cultural attitudes toward secularism, free and unbridled speech, and the unrestricted flow of information. In truth, from the Greeks to the present, open societies usually have fielded armies whose weaponry was on par with, or more usually far superior to, the equipment of their enemies. Greek catapults, Roman siege-engines, Byzantine Greek fire, medieval crossbows, Renaissance harquebuses, and English men-of-war meant that Western forces (well before the Industrial Revolution) could kill great numbers of their enemies while suffering inordinately small casualties themselves. Why were such deadly weapons—from the hoplite panoply to the A-bomb—usually in the hands of Westerners?

 

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The European scientific edge did not result form the superior brainpower of Western peoples. Nor was this technological dynamism due to accidents, germs, natural resources, or simple theft. To be sure, the Western world stole, borrowed, or adapted everything from gunpowder to stirrups from its adversaries. But the critical point is not the mere presence in the West of such brilliant inventions—the products of individual genius the world over—but their continual improvement, practical application, and wide dissemination of the knowledge surrounding weapons production.

Free societies in the West possessed far fewer political or religious scruples about the consequences of the introduction of new weaponry—which is so often disruptive of custom, tradition, and religion. Gunpowder had been a rather impractical amusement in China, but when transferred to the West, it quickly was transformed by all classes and peoples into deadly instruments for killing—the only logic of gunpowder procurement hinging on its proven excellence on the battlefield. In this regard, capitalism—in its most fundamental sense of free markets, private property, profit and loss, dividend and interest going back to the Greeks—when married to secular government and free inquiry ensured a constant arms race in the West, as inventors, fabricators, and traders all sought to craft cheaper and more deadly weapons than their rivals—the ethical, cultural, and religious consequences of such breakthroughs be damned.

Finally, the freedom to criticize government also brings enormous dividends during wartime—albeit rarely seen as such in the ongoing fire of battle. Not only do politicians, journalists, and pundits of every stripe carefully publicize military operations—sometimes to the detriment of the war effort itself—but their group wisdom results in sound advice to the generals. The closely related notion of civilian audit of the military is also a uniquely Western idea that is a dividend of democracy. It is hard to recall a single Greek general in any city-state—Athens, Thebes, or Sparta—who was at one time not fined, exiled, executed, or jailed. Those commanders with the most impressive records on the battlefield—Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles, Lysander, and Epaminondas—all were dragged into court to answer auditors (whether keen or stupid) about their military record. These checks and balances were known in advance and served to remind generals that their record was subject to public discussion and to prevent any from usurping power. Fabius Maximus, Cortés, and General MacArthur all clashed with their superiors and their governments—and all ended up angry and unhappy at the expiration of their abbreviated tenure.

Nonetheless, group discipline, free-thinking soldiers, civic militarism, superior weapons, and free speech have not ensured that on every occasion Western armies would win. Given the nature of war, it was inevitable that Western armies would often be caught outnumbered far from home, led by incompetents, and beset by disease and poor logistics. Indeed the litany of Western defeats from Lad, the Teutoberger Wald, Manzikert, and Isandhlwana, to Little Big Horn, Adowa, and Pearl Harbor attest to this occasional vulnerability. But freedom allowed Western commanders a great margin of error, the opportunity in the long run to trump bad weather, insufficient numbers, geniuses like Crazy Horse or idiots like Custer—hence the frequency with which even dramatic defeats remained temporary setbacks, not permanent catastrophes.

 

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Have any of these age-old Western democratic advantages come into play in the present war? Nearly all of them have, and they suggest—if we remain true to our ideals nad if our cause continues to be just—that despite the gloomy prognoses of our pessimistic cultural elite, America will defeat utterly its foes and stamp out terrorism, even if such battles transpire on the other side of the globe and pose logistical and tactical nightmares.

Already we have seen the U.S. Congress meet to vote emergency funding for a host of new forces and deployments—funds available only because an open and free market protects, raises, and disburses capital. From our GPS-guided bombs to our laptops in the field, it is clear that MIT and Cal Tech give us advantages undreamed of in the Islamic world. Our soldiers, from every class and background, have been mobilized, according to statute and without any sense of illegality—in sharp contrast to the wretched villagers who were rounded up by the Taliban at gunpoint to serve as cannon fodder against American bombs. Pundits from the Nation to the National Review have not been shy about informing the public and their government that we have either done too little or too much, been too bellicose or too tame, too eager or too reluctant to bomb our enemies. And out of that cacophony our military has listened, distilled criticism, and thereby at times altered strategy and tactics both—the entire time ensuring Americans that it is not running the war for its own pleasure.

Most impressive, however, has been the spirit of free soldiers. The first sign came with the passengers on United Flight 93; before storming the hijackers, they voted freely on their audacious plan, and then ensured that their own lives would not be agents for the deaths of others. The firemen and policemen at Ground Zero in New York within hours of the disaster were crafting ways to climb into the bent steel and smoldering concrete to rescue their own. And the professionalism and élan of our soldiers ensured that for all the mullahs’ whips, nooses, and threats, their men, not ours, would break first in battle.

Most scholars, of course, are reluctant to accept such broad generalizations across time and space, ever eager to protect their own small academic fiefdoms. And we must confess that in the present age of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, the very idea that freedom and the love of truth could create a society not only qualitatively different but also superior on the battlefield is jarring.

Let the academics quibble. But in the meantime let us also learn from history and in that light ponder the American military’s impressive—though not unanticipated—feats since the events of September 11, 2001.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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