by Victor Davis Hanson
In a recent review of Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War, and my Autumn of War, (“Theatres of War: Why the battles over ancient Athens still rage” New Yorker Magazine, [January 12, 2004]), the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn says that I believe that it is immoral to suggest defeat can be seen as victory: “The play asks the very question that Victor Davis Hanson considers “immoral”: whether abject defeat can yet somehow be a victory.”
Apparently, I am supposed to believe some strange idea that when armies win and someone says they lost, it is immoral. And to support Mendelsohn incoherent contention he offers a direct quote from my Carnage and Culture.Here’s what he offers.
There is an inherent truth of battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory. . . . To speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality.
Always beware of those little dots when someone has an ax to grind. So note very carefully the grammatical gymnastics that Mendelsohn must use to distort what is actually in the text of Carnage and Culture.
The sentence, “To speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality” is most certainly not, as Mendelsohn wants to suggest in his rendention, the summary of “to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory.”—but of several sentences immediately prior that Mendelsohn must deliberately omit to obtain his strange meaning.
So here’s what I wrote (the italics are what Mendelsohn chose to cobble together):
There is an inherent truth of battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory. Wars are the sum of battles, battles the tally of individual human beings killing and dying. As observers as diverse as Aldous Huxley and John Keegan have pointed out, to write of conflict is not to describe merely the superior rifles of imperial troops or the matchless edge of the Roman gladius, but ultimately the collision of a machine-gun bullet with the brow of an adolescent, or the carving and ripping of artery and organ in the belly of an anonymous Gaul. To speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality: the idea when hit, soldiers simply go to sleep rather than are shredded, that generals order impersonal battalions and companies of automations into the heat of battle, rather than screaming nineteen-year-olds into clouds of gas and sheets of lead bullets, or that a putrid corpse has little to do with larger approaches to science and culture.
Mendelsohn has cut out most of the paragraph, and then made a complete sentence out of a phrase that ended in a colon that specifies exactly what I meant by the use of “any other fashion.” The reader knows my use of “immorality” refers, not to Mendelsohn’s “whether abject defeat can yet somehow be a victory,” but rather clearly to the idea that military historians owe it to their discipline to talk of the carnage that war brings to the poor men who must fight it.
But had the ‘moralist’ Mendelsohn quoted what I actually wrote, then he could not have immediately followed the misrepresentation so easily with the quip:
And yet the Greeks themselves-not least Thucydides-did speak of war in these other ways. In fact, it is Hanson and Kagan who strip away the moral meaning that underpins Thucydides’ account of the war.
Some moralist, this fellow Mendelsohn, who can ‘strip’ away all meaning through scissors, paste, and creative punctuation—and then find it published in the New Yorker.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson