Then & Now

Battles change us and stay with us.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of a four-part series excerpted from the introduction of Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, reprinted with Doubleday’s permission. Part I of the series can be read here and II here and III here.

“Great battles,” Winston Churchill remarked, “change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, in armies and in nations.” They do, and we Americans, individually and collectively alike, have not yet seen all the “new moods and values” created “in nations” by September 11, 2001. The longer-term ripples of that attack are still washing up — long after the first tidal waves of horror that swept over us in the days following the crashing of airliners into the symbols of American economic and military power.

We know that there are three thousand dead. A trillion dollars in capital has been lost; $100 billion in property damage was incurred; and millions of Americans were put out of work. The government itself was transformed — citizens worldwide were delayed and disrupted by increased security measures. Access to public facilities is now restricted. Private nagging fear and doubt about future attacks remain. We will not grasp for years the full interplay of events set in motion by the sudden vaporization of thousands in the late summer of 2001. The orphans and children of orphans not yet born will not — cannot — forget September 11 because they are now part of it forever.

The victims of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crashing airliners did not fall in pitched battle. They were not even armed. None were expecting their fate. Yet they were nonetheless combat casualties of self-described warriors — indeed, the first terrible fatalities of what may prove to be a long war. And because battle by its very nature radically changes history in ways that even other seminal events — elections, revolutions, inventions, assassinations, and plagues — cannot, it will require decades before historians can chart all the aftershocks that followed September 11.

Churchill’s “great battles” often dispel the easy assumptions of peacetime, as democracies, once attacked, are aroused from their somnolence to deadly and unpredictable fury. Before the carnage at Shiloh, Ulysses S. Grant forecast that the Civil War would be ended by “one great battle.” Afterward — with more casualties on April 6-8, 1862, than in all of America’s wars up to that time — generals realized that in a novel fight with rifled muskets and canister shot, a great number of young men on both sides would have to die before the South would accept Union primacy. A previously labeled “crazy” Sherman would use his sudden Shiloh fame and the new realities of total war to think the once unthinkable — and in a few months lead thousands on the March to the Sea.

Just as Grant and his generals woke up from Shiloh on April 8 to a new world, so did Americans on September 12. In a blink the old idea of easy retaliation by using cruise missiles or saber-rattling press conferences seems to have vanished. With the end of that mirage, the two-decade fear of losing a single life to protect freedom and innocent civilians also disappeared. Past ideas of restraint, once thought to be mature and sober, were now in an instant revealed more to be reckless in their naïveté and derelict by their disastrous consequences. In the years to come we may well see far more nightmarish things in our military arsenal than bunker-busters and daisy-cutters. Americans once feared to retaliate against random bombings; terrorists now wonder when we will stop — as the logic of September 11 methodically advances to its ultimate conclusion. Aroused democracies reply murderously to enemy assaults in a manner absolutely inconceivable to their naïve attackers.

At peace and in affluence, many Americans look back in revulsion at Hiroshima, but hardly any of these moral censors were mature enough in 1945 to remember Okinawa. They can hardly appreciate what suicidal fanaticism in April, May, and June of that year had taught past generations: over 12,000 American dead, 35,000 more wounded, and over 300 ships damaged. In fact, 35 percent of all American combatants who fought in and around Okinawa were casualties. The Japanese lost 100,000 killed and another 100,000 civilian casualties — much of it in hand-to-hand fighting on this large island, but an island minuscule in comparison with the far better defended and as yet unconquered Japanese mainland.

Far more often than a suicidal attack on people at work, battle consists of a few hours of reciprocal and organized killing in which thousands of soldiers collide to decide the fate of thousands more to the rear. In the melee, heroism, bravery, or even superior technology cannot guarantee survival. Combatants often perish due to accident and simple bad luck, with consequences that become apparent often only decades later. Battle also is not merely a logical continuance of politics, but an abnormal event in which thousands of warriors — most often in the past, young male adults — are freed to kill each other for a few hours, a dramatic and strange experience bound to change their lives and the fate of their families and friends for centuries thereafter.

Battles are deliberate and entirely human-inspired. Not being accidental occurrences, they can be even more calamitous to the human psyche than the occasional greater carnage caused by natural disasters or human catastrophes — such as mine explosions or raging fires and floods that fall as acts of God upon the entire civilian population. It is said that divorce can be worse for children than the demise of a parent; so too the battle dead are harder to take for their surviving kin than fatalities from the highway or plague. You see men, not gods, are deliberately responsible for the dead of battle, in the conscious effort to slay other humans and not through mere carelessness or errors in judgment. In time we can come to accept the deaths of loved ones if they fall into chasms or die of infection — less so when we know that their youthful bodies were torn apart by angry humans without help from nature.

People forgive the ravages of water and flame, but less so Japanese, American, or German slayers. Battle — again so unlike nature — brings with it bothersome and nagging ideas of preventability, culpability, causation, and responsibility married to the lingering notions of what-if?, whose fault?, and he, not it, did this. Anger, passion, and revenge always erupt from battle. “Remember the Alamo,” “. . . the Maine,” or “. . . Pearl Harbor” inflames nations in a way that the far greater losses from polio, Hurricane Carla, or the Anchorage earthquake cannot. We do not bury even heroic lifeguards or smoke jumpers in Arlington National Cemetery or put them atop bronze horses. Hundreds of firemen perish each decade, but rarely instantaneously and in great number trying to rescue thousands of their kin while under attack by a foreign enemy.

The social sparks that fly from battle ignite entire societies and soon become the flames of history. Herodotus reminds us that in war, fathers bury sons rather than sons fathers. Euripides insists that wives and mothers, like those of his Trojan Women who grieve and suffer over their lost ones, have it worse than soldiers themselves. Historians remind us that our own Civil War was a “rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” The forces of opposition to American segregation that had remained dormant in peace were awakened by World War II — as the nonwhite fought well for a country they loved but that did not accord them full political equality.

Battles, then, rip open the scabs of wounds of generational rivalry, the age-old competition between the sexes, class struggle, and racial strife. Already Americans ask, “How could aliens so easily enter the United States and under what auspices?” — as the government in response moves radically to reassess the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Meanwhile, the once reactionary idea of profiling suspects by age, gender, religion, and ethnicity should have disappeared — but apparently not altogether when the 19 murderers of 3,000 innocents were uniformly young, male, Islamic, from the Arab world, and living stealthily in the United States.

Battle is the raucous transformer of history because it also accelerates in a matter of minutes the usually longer play of chance, skill, and fate. Mistakes become fatal in seconds rather than remaining irrelevant lapses of day-to-day existence. Deaths are not the singular and often anticipated events among families, but occur en masse, wholly unexpected, and often horrifically. Education, training, and aristocratic pretension may become meaningless in combat. Many of those with the top-dog views at the World Trade Center were doomed; janitors and clerks on the bottom floor lobbies had a better chance of flight. A destitute homeless person found safety on the sidewalk five blocks away by his very failure and subsequent distance from society’s sophisticated and visible machinery, while a Harvard MBA, distinguished record of hard work and rare discipline, ensured that a stockbroker was in the line of fire as an easy target who had the grand views of Floor 93.

So battle is a great leveler of human aspiration when it most surely should not be. Stray bullets kill brave men and miss cowards. They tear open great doctors-to-be and yet merely nick soldiers who have a criminal past, pulverizing flesh when there is nothing to be gained and passing harmlessly by when the fate of whole nations is at stake. And that confusion, inexplicability, and deadliness have a tendency to rob us of the talented, inflate the mediocre, and ruin or improve the survivors — but always at least making young men who survive not forget what they have been through.

Usually, military historians examine decisive battle in either a strategic or tactical context — the role of Lepanto or Hastings in deciding the larger pulse of wars, which end, renew, or are unaffected by a single day’s butchery. Just as commonly, scholars see battle more as the science of how to destroy thousands through maneuver and technology. Books abound on Hannibal’s encirclement at Cannae, the stealth of Arminius, Rommel’s use of Panzers, or LeMay’s devilish brew over Tokyo. But rarely do we appreciate battles as human phenomena or the cumulative effects — the ripples — that change communities for years, or centuries even, well after the day’s killing is over. And to do that we must reexamine some well-known battles of the past in different ways, and measure others that heretofore have not warranted much attention on the grounds of their tactical irrelevance, bad timing, or absence of suitable witnesses and recorders.

Great men are cut down in battle who could have saved thousands of other lives; families ruined for centuries due to a single bullet. And by the same token, the supposedly mediocre emerge from battle, with the acclaim and opportunity to match their innate (and previously unknown and untapped) talent. Plays, poems, and novels are written because of a day’s fighting, art commissioned, philosophy born. Whole schools of thought are created or deemed flawed by a battle.

In this regard I plead guilty to the classical notion — more or less continuous from Herodotus and Thucydides to the close of the nineteenth century — of the primacy of military history. In theory, of course, all events have equal historical importance — the creation of a women’s school in nineteenth-century America, the introduction of the stirrup, the domestication of the chicken, or the introduction of the necktie. And such social or cultural developments, whether they are dramatic or piecemeal, do on occasion change the lives of millions.

Yet in reality, all actions are still not so equal. We perhaps need to recall the more traditional definitions of the craft of history — a formal record of past events that are notable or worthy of remembrance. Whereas I Love Lucy might have transformed the way thousands of Americans in the 1950s and 1960s saw suburban life, women’s roles, or Cubans, it still did not alter the United States in the manner of a Yorktown, Gettysburg, or Tet — in creating, preserving, or almost losing an entire society. It was an event of the past, but not necessarily either notable or worthy of remembrance or commemoration.

Nor are all battles themselves equal. Ostensibly, the greater the number of participants, the more critical the tactical, strategic, and political stakes at play — and the more blood on the butcher’s bill, the more likely is the engagement to make history. From what we know more than a century after the fact, Gettysburg — whether we look at Lee’s climactic failure to topple the North, the heroism on Little Roundtop, the sheer number of dead and wounded, or Lincoln’s address — was more momentous than Pea Ridge fought in March 1862 to ensure that Missouri would remain in the Northern camp. All remember Salamis, where Western civilization was saved in its eleventh hour from Xerxes; few recall Artemisium weeks earlier, where storms and Greek courage helped hold off for a time the invading Persian fleet.

Scholars argue over the so-called “great battles” as historians and compilers continue to publish such lists — in no clear agreement whether Antietam or Vicksburg, Normandy Beach or the Bulge, Stalingrad or Kursk were the real seminal events. Yet my purpose here is not to enter that fray other than to discuss its existence in the epilogue. Rather, I wish to show that while all battles are not equivalent in their effects upon civilization, they do share at least this common truth: there will be some fundamental and important consequences beyond other more normal occurrences, given the unnatural idea of men trying to kill each other in a few hours in a relatively confined space. Battles really are the wildfires of history, out of which the survivors float like embers and then land to burn far beyond the original conflagration. To teach us those important lessons we must go back through the past to see precisely how such calamities affected now lost worlds — and yet still influence us today.

In that regard, I have selected across time and space three less well-known battles of spears, black powder, and modern guns to show how our lives even today have been changed in ways we do not readily appreciate — and by a few hours long ago that few recall. Most of us know something of Marathon, but almost nothing of the obscure battle of Delium in 424 b.c. Gettysburg is part of the American heritage, less so Shiloh a year earlier. Books and films herald Normandy Beach; almost none commemorate the far greater losses on Okinawa — a savage event less well known than Iwo Jima, where far fewer were killed.

These battles in themselves are tragic — not always inherently evil, yet much less very often good. Instead, moral appraisals of battle rest with the nature of the combatants, the causes for which men kill and die, and the manner in which they conduct themselves on the battlefield. Yet battles at least alter history for centuries in a way other events cannot. And we should remember that lesson both when we go to war and try to make sense of the peace that follows.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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