War and History, Ancient and Modern: An Interview with Victor Davis Hanson

by Michael J. Totten


I recently spoke with military historian and former classics professor Victor Davis Hanson in his office at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. He is the author of more than a dozen works of history, and his new book The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern was just released by Bloomsbury Press.

We discussed military history, Peace Studies programs, warfare in the ancient and modern Mediterranean, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s push for hegemony in the Middle East, and the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.

MJT: You’re a military historian, so it goes without saying that the Vietnam War-era slogan “ain’t gonna study war no more” doesn’t work for you.

VDH: No, it doesn’t.

MJT: Tell us why, though, anyone should study military history. What do you hope your students and your readers take away from your work?

VDH: Military history is didactic, and those who study it can get some idea why wars break out, how they progress, how they end, and how peace is kept. I can’t think of where you could get that information other than from the study of wars in the past.

There’s also a moral element. Not all history is equal. If people are willing to wage their entire existence in a few brief seconds, those moments are more worthy of commemoration and study than others.

I once wrote a book called Ripples of Battle that traced the great art and literature that came out of just three battles — the Battle of Delium, the Battle of Okinawa, and the Battle of Shiloh. I could have done that with hundreds of battles.

History is not equal, and whether we like it or not, strange things happen during wars that don’t transpire as often in peace time. We have to nurse the next generation on some knowledge of the collective sacrifice of prior generations, otherwise the society won’t understand what it gave up in the past to enjoy in the present. So it’s also a moral issue.

MJT: What do you think about Peace Studies programs? What goes on in these departments?

VDH: Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution is something that grew out of the Vietnam War, and it’s predicated on the principle of the United Nations Charter, the League of Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are wonderful ideas in the abstract, and they’re based on the idea that all the players involved can agree on certain premises — that peace is better than war, that war makes no sense, that war is legalized murder. And they’re right.

MJT: Of course. We can all agree with that, but some people in these departments seem to think military historians like you must not agree, that you’re creeps who like war.

VDH: They think we feel that war brings out the best in people, that war is a ritual that’s necessary for society, or that war is a macabre interest like video games are for some people. It’s like assuming an oncologist must like cancer, because why else would he study cancer?

They often don’t agree with supposedly archaic ideas like the balance of power, pre-emption, and deterrence. President Obama is a good example of a product of that kind of thinking. He seems to believe that if he can just sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez that he can talk to them as a reasonable and charismatic person and convince them of the logic of not having a bomb.

But if you take the classical tragic view, it makes perfect sense for Iran to have a bomb. I see it as a win from Iran’s point of view.

MJT: Sure. At least from the point of view of the Iranian government.

VDH: It’s a natural expression of the European Enlightenment. Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Locke deified their God, reason. It was a quantum leap in human thinking, in intellectual evolution. We no longer had to explain natural phenomena through superstition. Just as we could explain the tides and eclipses and no longer had to rely on Zeus, so too human existence could be charted and predicted and changed. That really got going in the 20th century with advanced technology, better nutrition, and so on. War is a disease, and since we conquered all these other things, why can’t we conquer war the way we conquered polio?

It’s an attractive idea because the alternative is medieval. Some people have a hard time accepting that we’re no better than medieval man, that the only thing that keeps some of us from clubbing somebody else is the fear that they’ll be clubbed worse.

MJT: I can see where they’re coming from. Look at Europe since the end of World War II. Up until then, Europe had been chewing off its own leg for all of recorded history. Europeans seem to have figured out how to make themselves stop.

VDH: That’s an interesting point. According to the Peace and Conflict Resolution theory, Europe has created a New Man who is a rational thinking creature. A classically minded person would say we need to look at Europe very carefully after 1945.

Europeans had a common enemy, the Soviet Union, that united Western Europeans so they didn’t end up like Eastern Europe. The United States protected them. What would have happened if we took out the United States? Remember, the slogan of NATO was Russia out, America in…

MJT: …and Germany down.

VDH: If you take out the United States, which is slowly what I think is happening, and if you have a resurgent Mother Russia, and if you get a powerful Germany, I don’t see any reason why all the historic tensions won’t reappear. I don’t believe the European Union has forever solved the problem, though I agree with it and I hope it works.

I lived in Greece for three years, and I was reading the Greek newspapers during the financial crisis. You might have thought it was 1942. The headlines were saying Germany had once again invaded Greece, only this time with money. The sophisticated op-ed writers were saying Germany owes them money, that Germans took all the gold from the Bank of Greece and never paid it back. They were really xenophobic.

And some German commentators were telling the Greeks they had 2,000 uninhabited islands and should sell them to Germany. [Laughs.]

MJT: [Laughs.]

VDH: It was all very 19th century. It didn’t sound like the E.U. And as we speak today, thousands of people are demonstrating in front of the E.U. office in Athens.

The plan to incorporate individual European nations like American states into a federation, an empire, may be impossible when there are religious, linguistic, historical, and tribal differences. I’m still skeptical.

MJT: The institutions constrain European countries from slugging it out with each other, but I’m not convinced when I speak to Europeans about others, even others inside Europe, that they’re really much more advanced as people than they were.

VDH: I don’t think they are. They count on the United States to protect them. And they have such a large investment in social entitlements that they believe any type of defense or fighting would take away their cradle-to-grave benefits. It’s all very tenuous. It’s predicated on the idea of the United States dealing with a Slobodan Milosevic for them.

When you talk to air force officers about the bombing campaign in Serbia, you start to realize that for all the talk of NATO, 90 percent of the sorties were flown by the United States Air Force. European pilots had all kinds of rules. Some of them wouldn’t fly before eight in the morning, for instance.

MJT: Seriously?

VDH: Yeah. Italian pilots. American pilots would fly at any time in any weather.

When the Europeans scheduled flights, they had restrictions. They also have restrictions in Afghanistan regarding night fighting.

MJT: Why didn’t they want to fly before eight in the morning? So they could sleep in? Was it that bad?

VDH: Yeah. And they were much more worried about the weather.

MJT: [Sigh.]
VDH: I think what we’re seeing in Europe, unfortunately, is an aberration. But you have to put all that beside a larger truth. There is something to President Bush’s notion that it’s less likely—not unlikely, but less likely — that constitutional and democratic states will fight one another. That has been true since antiquity.

MJT: Has it really been true for that long?

VDH: With notable exceptions.

MJT: What are the exceptions?

VDH: There are two things you need to remember.
MJT: Okay.
VDH: One, it depends on how you define a democracy. Consider that during the war of 1812, England had a parliamentary government. During the Boer War, the Boers had a constitutional assembly, and so did the British. During the Civil War, the Confederacy had a house and a senate. So there’s an argument over what constitutes a democracy.

The second thing to remember is that during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian democracies and their satellites fought the Spartan oligarchs and the Peloponnesian satellites, then suddenly, during a hiatus, Athens went and attacked democratic Sicily. It was much harder for them because they lost their ideological fervor, but they did it.

That being said, there was a propensity for more democratic states to align themselves with Athens, and less democratic states to align themselves with Sparta.

Today we have more democracies than we’ve ever had, and we don’t have much evidence that they’re attacking each other to the same degree that autocracies are attacking them or each other.

MJT: Right. The closest we’ve come recently was Lebanon and Israel in 2006, but Hezbollah attacked Israel with no knowledge or permission from Lebanon’s elected government, and the Lebanese government was not a combatant.

VDH: That’s right. And I think Iraq will be a lot less likely to attack or aid an attack on Israel.

MJT: Absolutely.

I’ve often asked Iraqis what they think about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

VDH: They don’t seem to be interested in it.

MJT: They aren’t. The Kurds actually like Israel, and every time I’ve asked Arab Iraqis about it, they wonder why I’m even bringing it up.

VDH: I’ve noticed on my visits there they always want to ask one question of me. They want to know if the U.S. is going to do anything about Iran.

MJT: Yes.

VDH: They are much more obsessed with Iran, especially in Anbar Province.

MJT: Of course, they’re Sunnis out there in Anbar. A lot of the Shias in Iraq aren’t too pleased with Iran, either, which is interesting.

VDH: I think that has been underplayed. I’ve written about how we could destabilize Iran via democratic Shiism in Iraq.

MJT: Absolutely.

VDH: It’s potentially very destabilizing for Iran. That’s why they want to destroy it.

MJT: The Shias of Lebanon are much more politically pro-Iranian.

VDH: They’re kind of creepy, aren’t they? Nasrallah and Hezbollah…

MJT: Yes, Nasrallah is very creepy.

VDH: Of all the people in the Middle East, he’s the scariest, I think.

MJT: What’s strange is that the Lebanese Shias are much more socially liberal than Iraqi Shias.

VDH: They’re more affluent, aren’t they?

MJT: They’re more affluent, the women are less likely to cover up, they drink alcohol, they hang out at decadent night clubs. Not all of them, of course, but a lot more than in Iraq.

VDH: They hate Israel more than the Iraqi Shias, don’t they?

MJT: Much more, partly because Israel has fought wars inside Lebanon and has never fought inside Iraq. The Shias of Lebanon have been bombed by Israel while the Iraqis have not.

VDH: The Israelis did billions of dollars of damage in Shia areas of Lebanon.

MJT: I was shocked when I toured the devastated areas after the war. It looked like World War II had hit some of the places.

VDH: I talked to some people in the administration at the time, and they said — off the record, so I won’t give you their names — that the Sunni Arab world lobbied the United States to have the “Zionist Entity” conduct operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and that they’d give the Israelis an exemption from criticism for a week or two.

MJT: This was before the 2006 war?

VDH: During the 2006 war. But there had to be a time limit. It would become untenable after a while.

MJT: The Saudi and Egyptian governments condemned Hezbollah for starting the war and said nothing about Israel.

VDH: They wanted Israel to destroy Hezbollah. I don’t know why they didn’t.

MJT: Well, it’s not easy. Hezbollah is the most capable terrorist organization in the world. The Israelis fought a counterinsurgency in South Lebanon for eighteen years, between 1982 to 2000, and they didn’t get anywhere. Still, the Israelis won every battle, in 2006 and between 1982 to 2000.

VDH: People keep saying Lebanon was a mistake and Gaza was a defeat, but Lebanon and Gaza aren’t sending as many rockets over the border as they once were. Israel puts a price of a certain amount of damage for serious attacks and lets them sit there afterward and stew in their own juices and think about whether they want to do it again.

MJT: I think the Israelis do feel like they lost in Lebanon. At least they did at the time.

VDH: But the Israelis can sustain a fight a lot longer than Hamas and Hezbollah can. And they aren’t getting hit by rockets like they once were.

MJT: That’s true. But Hezbollah has twice as many rockets and missiles now as in 2006.

VDH: If Hezbollah forgets how expensive the last war was, the Israelis will just go in and do it again.

MJT: Probably.

VDH: And it will cost another ten billion dollars in Iranian money. The Iranian street seems to be pretty upset about that.

MJT: It’s interesting how the Iranian street, the Persian street, whatever we ought to call it, is very much against this whole business while most Shias in Lebanon are for it.

VDH: It is strange, but it’s also not strange. Somebody else is paying for it. It’s like saying, “we need more entitlements, so why aren’t the people in the top tax bracket paying more?” The Iranians are paying for it at the expense of other things.

MJT: You’ve written all these books about wars in the ancient Mediterranean. How much can we learn from them about wars in the modern Mediterranean after so much has changed?

VDH: I’ve written a lot of books that are comparative. Carnage and Culture had ten chapters about wars from antiquity to the present it.

MJT: It’s a great book.

VDH: The Soul of Battle looked at three democratic armies — Epaminondas of Thebes, Sherman’s march to the sea, and Patton’s march into Germany. I did the same with Ripples of Battle . I’ve tried to reclaim the value of the ancient world in our understanding of medieval warfare, Renaissance warfare, and modern warfare, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s very well documented. We know more about any given year in the 5th century than we do about 800 AD or even 1620 AD.

MJT: Really?

VDH: We have a lot of information about the ancient world. Pick a random year, like 417 BC. We have Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. There are 20,000 inscriptions from the ancient world. We have archeological remains that are well documented. We’ve got plays from Aristophanes and tragedies from Euripides. We have a lot of information.

VDH: Second, there is less noise and confusion. Things were elemental back then. People came to empirical conclusions from the world they saw around them.

Third, there was not a self-conscious notion that one should or should not say something. Someone might, for example, think empire was good because Athens was superior to a subject state out in the Aegean, that conquered people should thank their lucky stars they were bested by Athenians. The Athenians might say they had to be tough so conquered people could say at least they lost to Athenians and not two-bit Mantineans. They might say, “you know, I think it’s wrong that we have this empire, but it’s dangerous to give it up.” A Spartan might have said, “I’m better than an Athenian for the following three reasons.”

People in the ancient world weren’t worried about things that shock the modern mind, things we’re not supposed to say. There’s an honesty that permeates the literature and drama. It helps. People explicitly said why they did what they did. They would invade a place and say they did it because they could, because nobody could stop them. They took it because they wanted it, and they didn’t apologize. There was no pretense, like when Stalin said he supported national liberation movements or when Hitler said he needed space.

MJT: There’s a strange situation in the modern Mediterranean that seems to me unprecedented. The Israelis aren’t allowed by the rest of the world to finish wars, and the Israelis put up with it. They’re sensitive to the opinions of passive bystanders like the Europeans. I mean, what are the Europeans going to do if Israel decides to just destroy Hamas once and for all? Europe can’t do much about it, and might not even mind all that much if the Israelis succeeded and could therefore begin genuine peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Yet the conflict is not allowed to be resolved. It just goes on and on and on, decade after decade.

VDH: The earlier wars were between nation-states, and Israel couldn’t finish those wars because of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union called us up and told us to make the Israelis stop. They did that in 1967 and 1973. The war was at least finished enough, though, so that Egypt, Syria, and Jordan wouldn’t attack Israel directly any more. If they did, Israel would not only fight back, but maybe demolish their capitals. Today there is no longer a Soviet Union to stop the Israelis.

What we have now instead is terrorism and self-imposed limitations. Israelis want to be liked. They don’t want to be the pariah of the world. There’s a desperation among the Israelis, especially on the left. They’re exasperated. They try to reassure people that they have three languages for every sign in the country, for instance — in Arabic and English as well as in Hebrew.

MJT: It’s true, they do.

VDH: They hate being talked about in Europe the way they’re talked about there.

My answer to them is always the same. We’re only 65 years from the Holocaust. Europe is still anti-Semitic, and Israel is on its own except for the United States.

What worries me about Obama is that there is no longer a bipartisan agreement that the world would always be hostile to Israel, especially when oil, Middle Eastern demographics, and the fear of terrorism are added into the equation. There was a bipartisan idea that the United States had a moral duty to protect the Jewish state and say that — unlike Germany, France, and Britain — we aren’t going to be swayed by 300 million versus 7 million or oil or the fear of terrorism. We’re going to stand up for the democratic oasis.

With Obama and his moral equivalence, Israel is hardly any better than Hamas or Hezbollah or the Palestinian Authority. I wonder, though, if they really believe that.

What if a Jew says he wants to live in Ramallah because it’s a nice place? Arabs live in Nazareth and other places in Israel, so what if a Jew says he wants to be a Palestinian citizen?

MJT: That’s impossible.

VDH: Jews aren’t allowed there.

MJT: It’s crazy, isn’t it?

VDH: That fact all by itself should tell the Obama administration that there’s something weird about that place and there’s no moral equivalence. We have autocratic illiberal societies at war with a constitutional democracy.

MJT: Palestinian society is not liberal.

VDH: The administration does not seem to grasp that. I’m not saying we have to blare it out.

MJT: They should at least quietly factor it in, which the Bush administration did, more or less. There is no need for the U.S. government to insult Palestinian culture.

VDH: But they have to understand that with Israel they’re dealing with a country that, per capita, produces more scientific research, more commercial activity, and more humane thinking than any other country in the area and more than even many Western countries.

MJT: It’s about equal to California.

VDH: Or more. It’s a unique society and deserves credit for what it is achieving now and has in the past. I’m just baffled by these supposedly liberal thinkers who point out that there are still hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. They seem unmoved by the fact that the Arab states ethnically cleansed Jews from Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus.

MJT: Those ethnically-cleansed Jews are in Israel now.

VDH: Exactly.

MJT: They are refugees, too, but they don’t demand the right of return to Baghdad.

VDH: Why would they want to be perennial refugees? There’s no purpose to it.

MJT: There isn’t.

VDH: If you and I know that, why can’t the Obama administration understand it? They’re smart people, they’re empirical, so I have to ask, why can’t they accept this? Is it because they’re afraid of the power of oil? Is it because Obama wants to be a charismatic Gandhi-like figure? Is Obama anti-Semitic? I don’t know what the answer is.

MJT: I don’t think the president is anti-Semitic. I get the sense he doesn’t want to polarize the world against the United States, so he’s going to go along to get along. If ganging up on Israel is the popular thing to do, he’ll do it. If the Organization of American States wants to isolate Honduras, Obama doesn’t want to be only the head of the state in the hemisphere doing the opposite. That might make the United States look it’s returning to Yankee imperialism again, even if it’s not true.

VDH: If you go to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and talk to these anti-Israel journalists, you’ll find that every single one of them wants to stay in Israel and just visit the West Bank just for the day. They don’t want to stay in the West Bank. They have their food and medical needs.

I always ask them why they don’t live in the West Bank and take day trips to Israel.

MJT: Some do, and they’re mostly fanatics. I even met a Western journalist in Lebanon who lived for a while in the suburbs south of Beirut, the area controlled by Hezbollah.

VDH: They knew about him?

MJT: They knew about him.

VDH: He’s pro-Hezbollah?

MJT: He had to be or he couldn’t stay. He was still miserable there. His neighbors were convinced he was a spy.

VDH: Yet people who are anti-Israel can stay and live in Israel. I think deep down inside these Westerners do understand that there’s a level of criticism that Israel can accept and that its enemies can’t.

MJT: Sure. You can say anything you want in Israel.

VDH: It’s like the Mohammad cartoons. People who mock Christianity or Buddhism aren’t courageous.

MJT: There’s no risk.

VDH: Israel poses no risk. If you go to an academic conference and say the Zionists are doing this or that, people applaud you. If you say fundamentalist Muslims are doing this or that, you can get into trouble.

MJT: Christopher Hitchens said something critical of Islam and the Koran at a talk in Beirut and got applause. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but he couldn’t have done it in the Hezbollah parts of the country, nor anywhere else in the Arab world.

VDH: I’m worried about Iran, and I think we’re asking some of the wrong questions. It’s not just about whether or not Iran can be deterred. Even if Iran can be deterred, leaders like Ahmadinejad are going to periodically issue these proclamations about killing the Jews. I’ve read polls where Israelis are asked if they’ll leave the country if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. Some of them say yes. There’s a real worry that Iran will place this Sword of Damocles right over their heads, and a lot of them will just leave.

MJT: It would have to be awfully demoralizing.

VDH: It’s like living next to a crazy neighbor with a house full of guns who once in a while yells over the fence that he’s going to shoot your whole family, but never quite gives you a good enough reason to call the police. Who wants to live next to somebody like that?

MJT: Nobody.

VDH: This is what Obama does not understand.

MJT: I don’t believe Iran will actually nuke Israel, but I don’t believe that in quite the same way I believe France won’t nuke Israel. I’m 100 percent certain France won’t, but I’m not 100 percent sure Iran won’t.

VDH: But you can be 100 percent sure they’ll talk about it.

MJT: Absolutely. Ahmadinejad talks about it right now.

VDH: And he’ll keep doing it.

MJT: They’ll ramp up the belligerence in general. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Why would they suddenly dial it down once they’ve built a nuclear arsenal?

VDH: The administration is immature. There are millions of reform-minded Arabs in Jordan, Egypt, and the West Bank. There are millions in Lebanon. To the degree that they can function and try to create a liberal community of nations in that area is dependent on the United States opposing radicalism and allowing Middle Eastern governments to be hypocritical. What I mean is, let the Arab states complain about the meddling United States with the private understanding that they want us to oppose Al Qaeda and Iran. I’m worried that Obama believes this anti-Western rhetoric, or at least thinks it’s legitimate, and by voting “present” he sold out all these people. They’ll just go back into their shell or make the necessary accommodations.

We saw this in the 1930s in places like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. People there accepted that hardly anyone would speak out against Hitler, that if they aligned themselves with Britain, Britain wouldn’t do anything for them.

MJT: Look at the Lebanese. They now have the United States “engaging” with the people who have been trashing their country and murdering their elected officials with car bombs. France is now “engaging” Damascus. Sarkozy was supposed to be an improvement over Chirac, but I’m beginning to doubt he really is.

VDH: This a confusing period. There’s a lot of irony. Look back at the period when Europe had it both ways, when we defended them while they mouthed off, when they undermined us and Bush pushed back.

Now compare that to what Obama is doing. He’s almost smiling while selling out Europe. He’s trying to become even more left than they are on foreign policy. On one hand, the Europeans are getting what they deserve, but they are Westerners, they are a positive force in the world, and what we’re doing is dangerous.

MJT: It seems to unnerve the Europeans now that Obama is to their left.

VDH: It does.

MJT: They seem uncomfortable being to the right of the United States in some ways.

VDH: I had an interesting conversation two years ago just before Obama’s election with some military people in Versailles. They were at a garden party, and everybody was for Obama. But an admiral said to me, “We are Obama. You can’t be Obama.”

Everybody looked at him. And I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “There’s only room for one Obama.”

I said, “So we’re supposed to do what? Take out Iran while you trash us?”

And he said, “Right out of my mouth. I couldn’t have said it better. Bush understood our relationship. We have to make accommodations with our public, which is lunatic. You don’t really believe there’s going to be an E.U. strike force, do you? Nobody here believes that. If you become neutral, what are we supposed to do?”

That’s what he said. I was surprised at his candor. And it’s worrisome. On the one hand I like it because they’re getting just what they asked for, but on the other hand, it’s tragic. And it’s dangerous. We shouldn’t be doing this.

©2010 Michael J. Totten

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