A Sleeper Reply: A Reply to “Martial Flaw”

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

From time to time I post replies to critics. Here is a letter I sent to the journal Democracyin reply to a quite strange rant from one Jim Sleeper about Makers of Ancient Strategy, which I recently edited for Princeton University Press. The book was about the influence of ancient strategy on the contemporary world, and had nothing to do with politics, ancient or modern. But somehow Mr. Sleeper skipped the book written and focused on its editor.

Jim Sleeper’s review essay “Martial Flaw” in the journal Democracy is not an analysis of Makers of Ancient Strategy. It is an extended, though odd, personal attack on the editor, whom, he accuses of using the “classics as a cudgel to denigrate liberalism as a carrier of unprecedented options.”

Yet because what Mr. Sleeper writes is inaccurate and misdirected, the unfortunate result is that the review says nothing much about the book per se, little factual about its editor, but a great deal about the angst of Jim Sleeper.

His vocabulary is not one of a dispassionate reviewer, but devolves into caricature. Thus we learn that the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy is an advocate for “unilateralist U.S. hegemony” and “a geyser of vituperations.” Sleeper apparently wanted to prove that an apolitical scholarly book on the ancient world “reflects conservative polemics” by “showing how Athenians, Romans, and, even before them, Persians extended their sway and coped with challenges to it in ways that American grand strategists can learn from.”

But when he finds no evidence that I am trying to channel the ancients to the service of American grand strategists, Sleeper laments that, “Many of the book’s precedents point in directions Hanson doesn’t want to go.” That self-contradiction is thematic.

The absence of any indications in the book of my own political leanings disturbs Sleeper to such a degree that he sighs that in the editor’s introduction that I advise “cagily that “[r]ather than offering political assessments of modern military leaders’ policies, we instead hope that knowledge of the ancient world will remind us of all of the parameters of available choices — and their consequences.”

Thus as stated, when I offer an initial disinterested synopsis of a contributor’s essay, Sleeper again turns to further anger at what he has not found: “Citing the book’s first chapter by Thomas Holland, the British historian of ancient Persia, Hanson tells us: “Imperial powers . . . create an entire mythology about the morality, necessity, or inevitability of conquest. Their narratives are every bit as important to military planning as men and matériel in the field.” Fair enough, but one can’t help ruing Hanson’s own efforts to help Bush craft a grand narrative.”

In final exasperation at discovering no partisanship, Sleeper concludes that the book really is an effective scholarly account of ancient strategic dilemmas — although that leads unfortunately to unpleasant results: “This collection makes Hanson look good…”

For the record, Princeton University Press asked if I would edit a prequel to its well-known Makers of Modern Strategy. The proposal was approved by a university press board, on the recommendation of two anonymous outside reviewers. There was no agenda of any kind in the book, since the political affinities of the scholars were irrelevant to the purpose of reviewing strategic thinking of all sorts from the Persian wars to the fall of Rome.

The contributors were selected on the joint recommendations of PUP and myself, based on both their chronological diversity and prior scholarship in military history. Two anonymous readers again reviewed the finished submitted manuscript. Their positive recommendations for publication were again approved by the university board — the necessary prerequisite for publication.

Because the anthology does not support what Sleeper wishes to write, the review turns into a personal screed against the editor — and at one point even his late parents. He calls my farm residence and work there the “staging of Hanson’s rusticity.” Because at a stage in our lives, my mother was appointed a judge, my father an administrator, and I have taught, Mr. Sleeper apparently sees all that as proof none us continued to drive a tractor, take out crop loans, or peddle fruit after work, on weekends, or in the summer, or did so to find outside income to save the farm where we lived — although off-farm work is now the norm in much of American farming these days. Sleeper adds further proof that I am “staging” farming because I now commute in my late fifties from my farm to work at the Hoover Institution, was awarded the Bradley prize, and, worse still, President Bush and Vice president Cheney supposedly at one point read and liked Carnage and Culture.

Sleeper alleges in a review on ancient strategy that, “Hanson was in the White House in January 2005, working with the Cold War historian and would-be grand strategist John Lewis Gaddis to help craft Bush’s second inaugural address (both men received National Humanities Medals from Bush).” For the record, that is simply untrue. A diverse group of four historians was asked to offer historical perspectives on and comparisons with past wars in their own theaters of expertise. At no point in that formal one-hour meeting that I attended did I hear anyone asked to “help craft” a proposed presidential speech. Presidents Clinton and Obama likewise have asked historians for perspectives on history and contemporary foreign policy, and there seems nothing sinister about the practice.

The ad hominem attacks extend to some of the contributors. Again, because Sleeper hunts carefully, but ends up finding nothing political, much less partisan, in the volume, he concludes that contributors must be “tweaking” me. Of one contributor’s conclusions that please Sleeper, he imagines that “she “declines to do what I suspect Hanson hoped”.

Again, this is not a review of the book written, but, in passing, of the book suspected and imagined, as part of a personal attack on the editor. In exasperation, Sleeper finally cites the affiliations of just two contributors (and only two) whom he suspects are conservatives — “fellow Iraq War zealot Donald Kagan” and Barry Strauss “a neoconservative professor of classics at Cornell.”

He writes that my account of the preemptive war of Epaminondas is offered as proof of the wisdom of the Iraq war, but again he can find no evidence that I wrote that. In fact, I wrote that I didn’t know until the final verdict is in (e.g., “History alone will judge, in the modern instance, as it has in the ancient, whether such an expensive preemptive gamble ever justified the cost.”)

In Sleeper’s review of Makers of Ancient Strategy, the reader will learn little about the book’s essays, but instead be told that the editor works at the Hoover Institution, his family has supposedly not farmed where he lives, the occupations of his late mother and father, notes about the Bradley Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and political commentary published elsewhere in National Review and other journals, a White House visit, and the political affiliations of three of ten contributors — all offered amid Mr. Sleeper’s Orwellian warnings about the dangers of mixing politics with scholarship.

An angry Jim Sleeper offered up to Democracy an extended personal obsession, not a scholarly review of Makers of Ancient Strategy.

Victor Davis Hanson
Selma, California

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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