Hanson replies to criticisms of Ltc. Bateman
by Victor Davis Hanson
I used to have a great deal of respect for the Chronicle of Higher Education. But on their recent gossipy blog, they advertise a recent hit-piece by one Robert Bateman of my Carnage and Culture, that is now appearing on the website Media Matters, funded if in part and indirectly by George Soros, under an apparently regular feature of Eric Alterman’s called Altercations. The piece is embarrassing and reminds me of playground name-calling in grade school.
Carnage and Culture has been out for a number of years, and has been translated into over a dozen languages. Reviews have appeared in over fifty scholarly publications, and more mainstream magazines and newspapers, by diverse scholars such as John Keegan and Geoffrey Parker. Its general theme that a unique 2,500-year Western military tradition has allowed European and other Western nations advantages in conventional war over a variety of adversaries is, of course, controversial.
I welcome criticism and debate, and in the six years since the book has appeared have defended the book in a variety of written venues, public debates, and radio and television shows. It has a variety of supporters and critics, and continues to sell a number of copies. But so far no one has introduced his criticism of the book by stating at the outset that I am a “pervert” and that Carnage and Culture is a “pile” “of feces”.
To write such childish slander is unprofessional — and especially unbecoming of a military officer. In the upcoming weeks, I will try to offer a point-by-point refutation of LTC. Robert Bateman’s serial attacks, and begin here by replying to his initial charges that Mr. Alterman published recently. My reply is in brackets after each paragraph of Mr. Bateman’s.
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Bateman on Hanson: An Altercation Altercation
by LTC. Bob Bateman
[I omit the first portion of his attack that is on a topic other than Carnage and Culture.]
…Our host has been kind enough to provide me a bully pulpit for the next several weeks as I take down one of the most profound perverts of the historical record in the modern era, Mr. Victor Davis Hanson.
[“Pulpit” is an unintentionally revealing admission. But who is “our host” — Media Matters? Indirectly a George Soros? Eric Alterman?
I don’t know how “perverts” can also be “profound”, much less “perverts” of a “record” (does Mr. Bateman instead mean a “perverter”?) I am flattered that Mr. Bateman thinks I am some sort of “most” “in the modern era.” But alas, I can’t claim to have any such influence, good or bad, earned or not, to justify the silly phrases “one of the most…in the modern era.”
Not a good start.]
If you are not familiar with him, Hanson, or “VDH” as he sometimes styles himself, is a historian of classical Greece, or at least he was a historian of that place and era. Now he is something different. Since 2001 he has laid claims to being a military and cultural historian for the ages, in addition to becoming a columnist for the National Review Online and other hyper-conservative outlets. Personally, I do not care what he writes in an op-ed, so long as he does not torture historical facts in order to validate his own pet theories. But Hanson does exactly that, and so, from my seat, he is the worst sort of polemicist: one who claims academic credentials as a neutral observer, but then insidiously inserts political interpretations of his own present-day biases into the historical record.
[I don’t style myself “VDH”. Others may use the term, but since my first book I have been known as Victor Davis Hanson. I am a historian of classical Greece; the most recent book, A War Like No Other, on the Peloponnesian War appeared in 2005. I wrote a 10,000 word introduction for the upcoming Cambridge History of Ancient Warfare, and am a professor emeritus of classical languages. So I am hardly “something different” now, in this sense that I no longer write or lecture on ancient Greece. I have an article coming out on a new fragment of the orator Hyperides, and just wrote a long scholarly article on Salamis for an anthology, and am just beginning to edit for Princeton University Press Makers of Ancient Strategy, a collection of scholarly essays on the relevance of the ancient world to modern military thought. So I think I am still a classical historian.
Moreover I made no “claim” to anything in 2001, much less being “a military and cultural historian for the ages” whatever that means. “For the ages” and “in the modern era” are apparently Mr. Bateman’s grandiose phrases, not mine, and thus he need only cite the quotation (with a footnote preferably) if he really believes I claimed or wrote any of that nonsense.
I suspect what bothers Media Matters is not Carnage and Culture, but a perception that I often critique leftist views on contemporary issues, hence the invitation to Mr. Bateman by the David Brock-run megaphone.
In the twenty years before 2001 I wrote both military history (e.g.,Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, Hoplites. The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (editor), The Soul of Battle, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, and several scholarly articles on things as diverse as textual problems in Thucydides to Xenophon’s reconstruction of Leuktra, and cultural history (two books on agrarian life, Fields Without Dreams,Letters to an American Farmer, Who Killed Homer?, several articles and op-eds on modern American cultural and agrarian life).
True, I am a columnist for National Review Online, but I don’t think also being a weekly syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services constitutes “hyper-conservative outlets”. I am hardly a polemicist in the partisan sense. My mail, at any rate, has as many attacks from the right as from the left, for everything from supporting Israel and opposing agricultural subsidies to suggesting that blanket deportation of illegal aliens is simply a bad idea and that we shouldn’t presently bomb Iran.]
Hanson’s best-known general thesis, which he has pounded upon since his book Carnage and Culture came out in 2001, is that there are elements in Western culture (that is to say European culture, but only those who derive their heritage from the Greek/Roman traditions) that make us unique and always successful in war. His “evidence” is laid out in his version and interpretation of nine battles and/or campaigns which took place over roughly 2,500 years. In Carnage and Culture these are: Salamis (480 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Cannae (216 BC), Poitiers (732 AD), Tenochtitlan (1520-21 AD), Lepanto (1571 AD), Rorke’s Drift (1879 AD), Midway (1942 AD), and Tet (1968 AD).
[I haven’t “pounded” anything. In Ripples of Battle I emphasized how battle changes art and literature. The Soul of Battle discussed the power of democratic armies to fight for perceived freedoms. A War Like No Othertried to reveal how the Peloponnesian War was fought by the soldiers themselves. Carnage and Culture was one of seventeen books I’ve written or edited, so its theme is hardly “pounded” — and no more or less emphasized than the others, whether the survival of the family farm (Fields Without Dreams), or the dangers of unchecked illegal immigration (Mexifornia).
Of course, I never wrote that the West was “always successful in war.” How silly! That’s a laughable distortion, and again Mr. Bateman should use quotation marks when he writes what I did not write.
Instead, Carnage and Culture took great effort to explain that Western armies often stumbled and cited disasters from the La Noche Triste to Isandlwana. The theme instead was that over space and time, the present dominance of the West was impossible without a military tradition that gave it innate advantages.]
Hanson is tricky. He plays upon a uniquely American dichotomy. Generally speaking, we Americans respect academic qualifications, but at the same time harbor deep-seated biases against those we deem too intellectual. The line there is squiggly. Thus, Hanson tries to claim academic qualities, but then immediately switches gears and denigrates any potential opposition as mere “academic” history (with its unreasonable insistence on things like footnotes or endnotes so that your sources can be checked). Indeed, he dismissed the whole lot by saying, “Academics in the university will find that assertion chauvinistic or worse — and thus cite every exception from Thermopylae to Little Bighorn in refutation.”
[One can’t “claim” academic qualities” (again, unsure here again of Bateman’s vocabulary; is he trying to say, as earlier, “qualifications”?). I have a PhD in Classics from Stanford University, and was a professor of Classical Languages for twenty years at the CSU Fresno campus, as well as a visiting professor at Stanford University, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the U.S. Naval Academy, and presently am a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a retired farmer who produced tree fruit and raisins for some twenty years on our family’s farm.
I suppose those are qualifications, but I don’t know what he means by “qualities” any more than I know what a profound pervert of historical record means. There are some serious problems in expression and phraseology throughout the essay that make it difficult to fathom what exactly Mr. Bateman is trying to say — hence his frustrated resort to braggadocio and slurs.
I have no objection to footnotes, and almost all my scholarly books were extensively footnoted. Warfare and Agriculture is heavily footnoted, in the text and at the bottom of the page. An objection to The Other Greeks was that it was too extensively footnoted in tripartite fashion — Greek and Latin sources cited in the texts, shorter footnotes at the bottom of the page, and then long endnotes at the end of the book citing ancient and modern sources and controversies.
My most recent book A War Like No Other was footnoted in traditional fashion, as was The Soul of Battle. In Carnage and Culture, intended for a different and broader audience, I limited footnotes to citations of quoted material. So I hardly “dismissed the whole lot” — whatever that empty phrase means.
Instead, what I wrote — and the argument is easily understandable to any reader — is that the theme of Western military advantage is controversial on the present-day university campus. And, of course, it is.]
He further eroded any potential critique by claiming that such would be part of the “cultural debates” (conservative code for “campus liberals hate America”). Indeed, that occurred in the very first paragraph of his book when he wrote, “While I grant that critics would disagree on a variety of fronts over the reasons for European military dynamism and the nature of Western civilization itself, I have no interest in entering such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality of the West.”
[Again, another willful misinterpretation of what I wrote. How is it that by stating that I didn’t want to get into campus debates over Western civilization, I “eroded” critique? Again, what I wrote is not hard to fathom: while there is a cultural war over the morality of Western civilization vis à vis other cultures, in this particular book, I was interested in comparative military dynamism, not morality.
Frequently in the book, I noted the slaughter committed by Westerners from the Spanish in Mexico to the British in Zululand, violence that came as a result neither of their intrinsic barbarism nor high-mindedness, but rather of a tradition that allowed them to draw on superior weapons, infantry discipline, open expression and dissent, capitalism, and a variety of other protocols that had resulted in rather small numbers of soldiers fighting successfully far from home against numerically superior enemies.]
His technique worked — until now. Carnage and Culture was a national best-seller, and Hanson is himself now regularly invited into the highest levels of the executive branch of government to speak and advise. All because he twisted facts to tell a story as he wanted it to be, not as the facts themselves lay out. And because he silenced his critics.
[I didn’t know that I had a “technique” much less whether it “worked” Again the scholarly and popular reviews are a matter of record concerning the legitimacy of the argument.
Why all the psycho-drama, when Mr. Bateman should just get on with it and make his case on historical grounds, rather than continuous posturing? Mr. Bateman’s use of “until now” rather pompously suggests that the apparently uniquely gifted Mr. Bateman, unlike past scholars, alone has the expertise to refute the book in this Media Matters venue.
But if this initial effort, replete with inexact vocabulary and factual error, is any indication of what is to come, I welcome the cross-examination. What seems to bother Mr. Bateman most particularly — and perhaps this explains the invitation of Media Matters to publish his rant — is his perception that somehow I have some influence with current administration officials and that it is unwarranted. In fact, I have no influence, at least that I am aware of, and live in central California, about as far from Washington and Mr. Bateman’s Georgetown as one could get.
So I am not “regularly invited into the highest levels of the executive branch of government to speak and advise.” I had a single dinner with the Vice President as part of his ongoing-series of dinners he had hosted with a variety of historians. Likewise, the President set up a series of meetings with scholars to discuss past wars. In a single one of those many sessions, John Keegan and I and four others were asked to talk about military history. None of these were exceptional events, or private meetings. The number of American academics and scholars who has been invited on one or two occasions to critique present policy is in the hundreds, whether in the Clinton or Bush administrations.
I have hardly silenced my critics. Although Mr. Bateman is unusual in using terms like “feces” and “pervert”, one Gary Brecher in a Russian Online Magazine called me a “traitor” and dreamed of burning down my vineyard — somewhat frightening since at about the same time as he voiced that desire, the roadside along my vineyard actually went up in flames, necessitating a visit by the local fire department.
Others have attacked from a “neo-Confederate” perspective, on the grounds that I saw culture, rather than race, a determinant in military prowess.
The weirdest attack was when John Heath and I published Who Killed Homer? about the decline in classical learning: one Judith Hallet, a self-described feminist classicist upset over our critique of race, class, and gender studies, admitted that she called the FBI to report us as possible suspects in the Unabomber manhunt — so dangerously influential she thought our arguments.
Once when giving a lecture on Mexifornia to a group of House aides, a Nancy Pelosi staffer interrupted the session and stormed out (after trying to steal one of the pizzas that had been catered for the lunch session), furious that I must surely be a racist because I was introduced as a “classicist”. He blurted out that this meant ‘a supporter of class divisions” rather than a professor of classical cultures. Classicists to him should be like racists: they use class for their own privilege, or at least that was what he tried to say before being laughed out of the room (and grabbing an entire pizza on his way out).
In other words, I am used now to crack-pot furor and personal invective. But I don’t think I have ever tried, much less succeeded, to silence critics. I live by a general rule: refute criticisms promptly, but don’t stoop to slander. So from time to time, I will try to answer Mr. Bateman’s attacks, but will never suggest that his work is a feces or he a pervert.]
Hanson’s dismissals of those who would correct the record he distorted are based upon two biases: “Campus liberals” would engage in culture wars, and “non-military historians” don’t know about military history and are thus unqualified to speak on the topic at hand. Well, Victor, I am afraid that I’m not going to be so easy to dismiss. Although I teach at Georgetown now, I used to teach at West Point, and the topic I taught is the same that I have studied for 18 years, military history. It is one thing for you to brush off an inhabitant of, say, the history departments at Yale or the University of Wisconsin as knowing nothing of the military or military history. It is quite another to attempt the same with an Army Airborne Ranger who also happens to be an academic historian and who thinks that your personal signal work is a pile of poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces.
[Once again, why all the dramatic and self-important bumper-stickering? — 18 years! Georgtown! Army Ranger! etc.
I know many in the history department of Yale and have only the highest respect for them.
I don’t know why some resort to the false familiarity of first names, e.g., “Victor.”
The truth is I don’t know Mr. Bateman, or he me. Again, quotations are necessary with anything Mr. Bateman writes. In this essay for example, he puts the word “campus liberals” in quotations, and then here uses it a second time as if I ever had. But the term is his, not mine, so there is no need for the quote since he is quoting no one but himself.
Nota bene — I have never judged any scholar’s work per se by either his academic affiliations or past training, but by the merits of the logic and argumentation. I am happy that you are “now” an adjunct at Georgetown, but in truth it matters little whether you teach at Georgetown or West Point or Harvard or Stanford or CSU Fresno or at what level you are employed.
What is relevant only are the coherence, logic and truth of your argument. But from this first weak effort, your thesis, to the extent it can be identified, in fact, is very easy to dismiss outright on its merits well apart from your current status.
I have a great deal of respect for our uniformed military, and your service as an Army Ranger, and hope that gives you special insight as you proceed to reconstruct these nine battles of the past — although it is sadly of no obvious advantage in this initial effort.]
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson