Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Historian and Contemporary Critic: Interview with VDH

by Randy Brich

Nuclear Street

Raw, uncut and uncensored Nuclear Street proudly presents Victor Davis Hanson, a historian who’s not only an expert on the past, but the present as well.

Nuclear Street: Since the advent of the internet and the embrace of cyber culture by young people would you say, based on your students, that they are better informed on the primary issues of the day than they were compared to 20 y ago?

Dr. Victor Davis Hanson: I think the advent of the internet, electronic social networking, email, text-messaging, cell phones, talk radio and cable news etc. has so saturated the public space that youth are more exposed to the news, but ‘informed’? I don’t think that conclusion follows. Many of the students I come across could not define ‘filibuster’, explain what Obamacare is, or describe the START treaty — though they would claim that they have heard all three terms quite often. There is a quite expansive veneer of exposure, but one with very thin comprehension. In some sense, it is harder than ever for youth to find a path of comprehension through blankets of dense media fog.

NS: Given the current situation in Afghanistan would you be willing to offer an opinion on the merit of ramping up the battle by the current administration?

Dr. Hanson: I don’t think surging or not is the question. In Iraq, the key was not just the 30,000 extra troops of the 2007 surge, but the message that Bush was escalating and staying rather than leaving, as well as changing tactics, enlisting the help of the sons of Iraq, and the sheer cumulative toll of years of eliminating jihadists that finally reached a tipping point.

So the key is whether Obama will back off from his set in concrete withdrawal dates, whether he talks daily to his generals on the ground, whether the war is number one on the daily presidential agenda, whether he uses the word “victory” rather than pontificates that there is no such concept in postmodern warfare. Afghanistan can be stabilized in the manner of a Iraq, but it requires an executive commitment that we have not seen since 2009 — no doubt because the 2007-8 Obama campaign binary of ‘let me at” the supposedly necessary, winnable and good UN/NATO sanctioned Afghan war versus “I will end” the supposedly gratuitous, lost and bad unilateral war in Iraq was fossilized and out of date by his inauguration day in 2009.

The result was a sort of confused catch-up as Iraq was suddenly redefined as the administration’s ‘greatest achievement’, while tribunals, renditions, Predators, and Guantanamo became OK — even as the once necessary EU-approved multilateral effort in Afghanistan was proving a mess.

NS: Have you read Decision Points by GW Bush? Assuming your answer is “yes” do you think it accurately summarizes the key decisions of his administration, or, did he omit any you’d have considered worthy of discussing? Also, did you know that GW Bush was an avid mountain biker as well as an avid reader?

Dr. Hanson: I bought his book at Sam’s Club and read it cover to cover. He addressed the main issues, but the book sort of exudes Bush’s surprise that all his centrist efforts to pass prescription drug, No Child Left Behind, massive aid to Africa, and reach out to the other side nevertheless earned him little more than contempt from the Left.

At one point, he is admirably praying with the pope for the recovery of Peter Jennings. I am not sure to this day he quite fathomed how much his opponents loathed him and were willing, for example, to equate Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, Predator drones, etc. with supposed non-constitutional lawlessness — only in an eye blink to snore when Obama either adopted or expanded them all. 2005-8 was a surreal time, when Alfred Knopf published a novel about killing Bush, the Toronto Film Festival gave first prize to a cheap docudrama imagining Bush’s death, the Guardian published an op-ed hoping for the return of a modern Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth, and everyone from John Glenn to Robert Byrd was calling Bush a Nazi. Crazy times that are simply and rightly unimaginable among the opposition today.

Yes, I knew he was both an avid reader and mountain biker. From time to time, he had groups of historians visit for an hour or two to talk about the past and its relevance to the contemporary scene, in a non-political sense. I went a few times, and he came across as learned, well-read, quite humble and circumspect and eager to talk and debate — about the opposite of the popular caricatures. He seemed especially interested in Truman circa 1952 and Lincoln around spring 1864 — both successful presidents who were nevertheless despised when the bleak news from the battlefield was politicized into personal and often vicious invective.

NS: Do you have any idea why it is that everything that the Left is in favor of is either wrong or greatly overstated? Things that come to mind: antinuclear power, manmade global warming, anti-business, anti-growth, anti-prosperity, pro green energy. Did they just do poorly in school or is there some underlying reason for their apparent lack of accuracy across the spectrum of issues?

Dr. Hanson: I think for many secularists certain dogmas, in lieu of a deity, become religious in nature and thus become exempt from empirical evidence — believing in man-made global warming is a sort of cachet, an entré to proper society, or proof of all sorts of cosmic goodness, rather than something that must be proved through data and inductive reasoning. Wanting all these things to be workable — a nation of windmills or cradle to grave entitlements or a one-hundred-percent unionized workforce — can become as important as these things being workable.

In addition, we’ve come a long way from the liberalism of my 1959-60 youth when my mother used to pack us in her broken down car and drive about the nearby barrio here in Selma trying to raise one dollar from every house (“Dollars for Democrats”) to help pass minimum wage laws, disability insurance, an 8-hour day, civil rights, and fair housing. Now that old goal of an equality of opportunity in a much poorer nation has become a government mandated equality of result in a very rich country.

And so many of the most passionate on the Left are so often the most wealthy and privileged, as if loud and abstract professions of progressive causes can serve as a sort of psychological mechanism that provides justification for leading rather apartheid lives, cut off from the much praised ‘other’, with tastes indistinguishable from that of the CEO, even as values are predicated on rather old-fashioned status and insider influence. The Clintons sort of epitomized that disconnect, especially in his post-presidential years of wheeling and dealing abroad for his tens of millions while professing communitarian solutions for global miseries.

I have met a lot of professors who can go from citing Marx to their granite counters and wood floors in a nano-second, or profess empathy for government forced integration plans in the public schools while simultaneously bragging that junior made it from prep school to Princeton. Obama for many was the ultimate sort of psychological insurance, as if a mere vote and loud attestation of it offered compensation for behaviors that otherwise were quite elitist, materialist, and segregated. And he knew that — and has profited from that for years — better than anyone.

And finally, there is a lot of leeway, margin of error, padding so to speak still in the US. There is limitless talent and energy in the private sector that create huge amounts of collective wealth with the result that thousands in universities, the media, foundations, Hollywood and the arts can disconnect from the underbelly of capitalism and afford to dream, philosophize, pontificate and condemn — all with the assurance that some grubby others are out drilling oil wells for their Volvos or fracting gas for their stainless steel cooktops or refining plastics for their iPods.

NS: Hypothetical: Have you ever thought about writing an essay on the following subject:  Essential Knowledge for the Average American? What would the outline look like? Will you consider writing it?

Dr. Hanson: Yes, something like that. Here are five eccentric essentials:

1. Know how to run either a snow blower, lawn mower, or chain saw — if for no other reason than to understand how dirty, noisy and tricky machines can quickly and radically change the immediate environment. Better yet know how to ride a horse or some sort of heavy machinery — or both.

2. Read some book (even in translation) that was not written in English — if for no other reason than to experience how non-Americans, past and present, have envisioned reality.

3. Try mastering something that does not have immediate financial value and is not merely a hobby — whether reading French, taking up welding, or wiring — that requires exercising effort and skills that most of us either have lost or never had.

4. Return to some sort of memorization or rote — whether that be mastering Latin conjugation, memorizing a Dylan Thomas poem or trying to make mental lists of ten great painters or five of the best composers — anything that is concrete, definite, and specific that will stay with you when most else departs and serves as an antidote to abstract theorizing.

5. Military history is a forgotten subject, but to the ancients — Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, etc. — it was the only history. Tactics, strategy, diplomacy, logistics, politics — they are all there. I just wish today’s student would return to military biography and read the lives of Alexander, Cortés, Eisenhower, Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Lee Patton, Ridgway, Sherman, Wellington, etc. These have become almost invisible figures, but their stories are the narratives of Western history and the human experience in general — and can provide inspiration for overcoming adversity or confronting danger or being responsible for the lives of others or avoiding their excesses.

NS: Thank you Dr. Hanson for taking the time out of your busy schedule and, oh, one more question: What book are you presently reading and what will you next write about?

Dr. Hanson: I just finished a novel, The End of Sparta, about the great march of the Thebans to liberate the Spartan helots (369 BC) — a very different and perhaps more negative take on Spartans from that of most fiction. It comes out from Bloomsbury on August 1, 2011. And at the same time I submit the MS. of the “Savior Generals — how great captains won lost wars” (to appear in spring 2012) that looks at the careers of six unlikely heroes from antiquity to Iraq. I am almost done with the MS, and then sometime in 2012 will start on another project.

©2011 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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