Passions: A Primordial Landscape

Comment on Colin S. Gray’s military history arguments for the Historical Society

by Victor Davis Hanson

Historically Speaking

As a long admirer of Thucydides I must plead guilty to agreeing with almost all of the sensible points that Colin S. Gray has made.

Not long ago in the inaugural issue of The New Atlantis (Spring 2003) I wrote a brief article entitled, “Military Technology and American Culture” that addressed, in the immediate aftermath of the three-week victory over Saddam Hussein, similar misplaced giddiness about the new technology and its role in the perceived “revolution” in war:

The most dangerous tendency of military planners is the arrogant belief that all of war’s age-old rules and characteristics are rendered obsolete under the mind-boggling technological advances or social revolutions of the present. Tactics alter, and the respective roles of defense and offense each enter long periods of superiority vis-à-vis each other. The acceptance of casualties is predicated on domestic levels of affluence and leisure. But ultimately the rules of war and culture, like water, stay the same — even as their forms and their pumps change.

So I find very little in Gray’s essay that I could argue with, inasmuch as he hits on themes of unchanging human nature that sober thinkers such as Angelo Codevilla, Michael Howard, and Donald Kagan have reiterated in warning us about believing that war reinvents itself ex nihilo each generation.

Even the Macedonian sarissas that Gray alludes to in passing are instructive. They did entail a change in tactics (two hands were now required to hold such a long pike, requiring the mostly mercenary phalangites to jettison the old protection of the large hoplite shield held with the left hand), as the phalanx achieved greater killing power (five rows of spear tips, not three, hit the enemy in the initial crash). The sarissa–phalanx’s resulting clumsiness necessitated a symphony of forces, as Philip and Alexander protected such an unwieldy mass with light and heavy cavalry, the hypaspists, and missile and light-armed troops. Nevertheless, for the men asked to fight, victory was still achieved or lost by the degree of discipline and élan in the ranks, the acumen of their generals who sought out favorable terrain, and the larger political objectives that such forces were used for. In other words, the newfound lethality of the Macedonian phalanx did not change at all the older rules of why men fight, the ingredients for their success or failure, or how such new technology was rightly or wrongly employed in an unchanging strategic landscape.

All of the valuable examples Gray cites from the 19th to 20th century to refute the notion of a radical, technologically-based revolution in the essence of warfare could find earlier antecedents from ancient and medieval times. Catapults were lamented in reactionary literature of the 4th-century B.C. for destroying the old hoplite code predicated on battle courage. But by the century’s end stouter walls, new styles of construction, and counter-artillery mounted on the walls had neutralized even torsion catapults, and relegated them to a mere cycle in the age-old tension between the besieger and the besieged.

15th-century fiery weapons, it is true, soon empowered the offense and eventually made iron, steel, and bronze body plate obsolete. Yet in an age of Kevlar and new ceramics that can stop many bullets, we are relearning not only the age-old science of crafting personal armor, but the reasons why such protection is needed when the training and costs of specialist warriors simply make them too expensive to lose. In that sense, Gray is absolutely correct to note: “We do not care about many of the details of warfare’s changing character through two and a half millennia. What we care about is the unchanging nature of war.”

In this age of materialist thinking, Gray makes an even better point. He quotes Thucydides’s famous “fear, honor, and interest” as motivations for war, invoked by the Athenians as the primary reasons that they acquired and kept an empire (1.75.) The Spartans, Thucydides also says, started the Peloponnesian War out of “fear” (phobos) of the growth of Athenian power — since it is hard, despite the many pretexts, to cite any real legitimate grievance against the Athenians who had pretty much kept to the understandings of the existing peace accords. In general, the powder kegs for most wars in the ancient Greek world were ostensibly marginal border lands, territory of little real economic value but of enormous psychological importance to the perceived collective worth of neighboring agrarian communities.

We constantly need to be reminded of the often frightening passions of our primordial brains. After September 11 many thought that Osama bin Laden’s earlier fatwas, alleging various grievances — from American troops in Saudi Arabia to the UN oil-for-food embargo of Iraq — were serious writs, rather than mere pretexts (Thucydidean prophases) for deep-seated anger and humiliation brought on by a globalized and Western culture that really did threaten all the old hierarchies of an increasingly non-competitive Muslim world and the worried mullahs, patriarchs, and theocrats who found past privilege and honor in them. And believing that Osama and his suicide bombers represented some entirely unprecedented existential threat was also as invalid as assuming our cruise missiles or GPS-guided bombs at last offered a lasting antidote to terrorism. In other words, Osama bin Laden probably went to war over a sense of lost honor, in fear of Western globalization, and due to his perceived interest in thinking — given perceptions of relative Western appeasement of radical Islamicist terrorism since 1979 — that he could win more than he might lose. And neither his brand of terrorism or the many antidotes to it were especially novel in the tactical or strategic sense, despite the new technology of miniaturization that allows deadly weapons to be carried on a single person, and the computerized-guided weapons that we often use to strike back at terrorist hideouts a half-a-world away.

My only slight modification of Gray’s sensible comments is in regard to his apparent impression that most in the armed forces do not believe as he. Yet I do not think that the defense establishment in toto is quite yet in thrall to the presentism and enslaved by its technological pizzazz. Thucydides and Clausewitz are required reading in many courses at the war colleges and academies, and scores of Defense Department strategic analyses start with the Greeks and Romans. Those with whom I have talked to people at the Pentagon and in the military are very aware that they are hardly exempt from war’s timeless nature simply by reason of their newfangled weaponry, but instead still players in an ancestral deadly game whose age-old truths they must master or perish.

But in general, to believe that Gray is incorrect would be to assume that human nature itself is malleable and that people now act differently than they did in the past — either due to some accelerated evolutionary process that has changed our very brain chemistry since the advent of recorded history or because the use of computers and advanced electronic circuitry alters in some organic fashion the very function of the human brain and its attendant emotions. Thus we would need a new history of a new species to find general truths from the past to guide the future or assume history is bunk because humans alter their genetic make-up and accustomed behavior almost yearly.

In contrast, the extent to which there is real ethical or material progress in human history hinges not merely on technology or new methods of thinking, as much as on understanding timeless human nature, and the plethora of examples from history that can guide us, mutatis mutandis, from making the same general mistakes in the present.

My worry, in fact, is not so much with our armed forces and military theorists—who often seem to recognize that the face of war may change, but not its essence—as with many of our institutions that ultimately guide and shape civic society.

The general credo, for example, of current Peace and Conflict Resolution Theory programs in American universities is that classical notions of deterrence no longer apply, since either education or evolution can change the nature of man and substitute Enlightenment principles of education and dialogue for the use of credible defenses against primordial enemies. In a recent debate with the Peace Studies director at Dartmouth College, I was struck by a comment by Professor Ronald Edsforth, who insisted: “Evolution [of human behavior] is a fact. It didn’t stop back in ancient times . . . . We are capable of learning as humans and changing our environment in such a way that that which we abhor is less and less likely.” (The Dartmouth Review February 11, 2005).

The problem Gray so ably recognizes may not be that mere defense theorists, generals, and national security advisors are convinced that their new weaponry has invented the world anew. Instead the real worry is that a much larger cast of therapists believes that our dazzling modernity—either by reason of its technology or the evolved humans who created it—is no longer guided by the lessons of the past.

And that is a frightening thought indeed.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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