War and the West, Then and Now: Part I

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

This is a transcript of a recorded talk of about 50 minutes before an audience on February 11, 2004 at the University of Oregon.

Part One

Military Dynamism: Freedom, Civic Militarism and Decisive Battle

I would like to talk tonight about what I would call Western military dynamism, but before I start, I would like to make perhaps three preliminary and cautionary remarks. The first is — to make a supportable and, I think, fair generalization — that across the past 2,500 years of time and space, the West has been able to exercise military power beyond its shores in a way that is not commensurate with the small size and population of Europe. And that dynamism is not a result of germs, or guns, or steel, as argued, but of a particular manner of social, political, and economic organization. Now when I say dynamism, I don’t mean that Hannibal didn’t run wild for over a decade-and-a-half in Italy; or that Xerxes didn’t burn down Athens (not once, but twice in fact); or that the Mongols didn’t get into Eastern Europe; or that there weren’t Ottomans in Vienna for a season; or that there were not Arabic Islamicists coming into Tours/Poitiers in 732. I simply mean that in general, the core of European civilization was pretty much immune from attacks from outsiders in a way that other societies were not immune from Western intrusion. That fact would mean — and these realities are things that we usually do not like to talk about — that Cortez, for example, was in Tenochitlán, and Montezuma was not in Barcelona. Or that Lord Chelmsford and the British were in Zululand, but the Zulus were not sailing up the Thames. There is this Western propensity to exercise power that is in some ways nearly inexplicable.

I want to elaborate the other two cautionary remarks as well. First, I am not interested tonight in talking about Western military dynamism in a moral sense. Some of you may have ethical questions about this, and might want to locate the discussion in those terms. I am happy to talk about it if you want to frame this dynamism in ethical terms, either good or bad, such as war-making abroad was wrong, or it was colonialist, or it was exploitive, or it was great, or it was civilizing. But that is not the question I am interested in tonight. Rather, I would like to try to look back at history to see if it gives us any warning or any cautionary advice about the plight we are in today. So Western military prowess in the didactic sense is not a moral question entirely.

The other point is that when I use the term “West,” I realize there is not an absolute continuity from Greece to Rome, and onto medieval Europe, to the Renaissance, to the Enlightenment, to the Colonial period, or in the geographical sense, to Australia, to the British Commonwealth, to America, etc. But that being said, there is a greater propensity to find certain institutions that reappear again and again, whether it is Swiss Pikemen under the Swiss Confederacy of the Middle Ages, or the Magna Carta, or the Enlightenment, or democracy in Greece, or republicanism in Rome. The West has a greater propensity — despite regressions and valleys — to empower the individual; to champion personal freedom (even in its excessive forms); to adhere to constitutional government; to tend towards secular government (this does not mean that there wasn’t a Christian government in the Middle Ages or a near-theocratic one during Charlemagne’s period); a greater propensity towards the separation of religious and political spheres of influence; and propensity towards chauvinism of the middle class (rather than towards a pyramidal society, with a few elites at the top and a group of peasants necessarily at the bottom); and towards civilian control over the military. I cannot think of one ancient Greek general who at one time or another was not fined, executed, exiled, or had his property confiscated, whether Spartan, Theban, or Athenian; whether it was Lysander, Demosthenes, Epaminondas, or Pericles.

These protocols, then, tend to characterize Western civilization as we know it. It grew up in the small valleys of Greece, a miraculous experiment, an incredible discovery. We do not know quite how it happened, but somewhere in the 8th century BCE, this civilization burst upon the scene. In a Greek-speaking environment — remember, this is the same territory, with the same language and the same agricultural crops that the very different Mycenaean Greeks had flourished in for over two millennia — but under the new protocols of the Greek city-state that marked the founding of the West, these ideas suddenly gained influence in a way that had not been true for the Mycenaeans. It was not a society that had affinities with other earlier Mediterranean societies, such as the Mycenaeans or Near Eastern peoples, as much as it was anti-Mediterranean. There were words in the new vocabulary for citizen and freedom and constitution, in a way that was not true of the Persian or Egyptian languages.

So this society evolved as something quite new, and some elements of it were incorporated by Rome. And even though there came to be after seven centuries of republicanism an imperial, autocratic system in place, still at the local level there was always something consensual going on in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4thcenturies in Roman territory: local councils; a familiarity between slaves and foreigners (as anybody who reads Petronius’s Satyricon can see); a multi-racial society. Indeed, imperial Rome is a very strange society that has affinities with our own in its open economy and hyper-individualism. And through the Christian period and the medieval period, even though there was not institutional democracy in the 8th century, there is still a greater likelihood that the individual has been freer in the West than in the non-West. There is not the same ability of overarching religious or philosophical systems to put power or ideology in the hands of the few.

That system, then, when it is applied to the battlefield, led to spectacular results. It allowed dynamism, flexibility, all sorts of strategic and tactical prerogatives, opportunities: Protecting the interior of Europe while exercising power abroad — whether you are Alexander the Great with 50,000 men (the army was rarely larger than 50,000 men) and you’re on the Indus River; in a way that a Persian empire of a million square miles and 70 million subjects could not destroy Athens; or whether you are Caesar, or Crassus, and you are exercising power in the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys, in fact at places not very far from where the war is going on today. Or in the case of Xenophon and The Ten Thousand you are at Cunaxa, which a Marine Division passed not long ago. Or you are at Arbella, which is the modern-day Erbul, where Alexander the Great destroyed the imperial army of Xerxes.

So these East-West episodes seem to reverberate again and again and again, and the question is why? Is there a god up there that says, “the West gets to have these opportunities”? The answer, of course, is that history is amoral; it doesn’t really care. Western military prowess has nothing to do with race, or genes, or skin color, or geography, but rather everything to do with these strange protocols that grew up in Greece and were incorporated, and transformed, and evolved into what we now loosely and somewhat sloppily call Western culture.


So what are these protocols? What made Western armies so good? Not morally good, but good in the cold efficiency of killing people? One of them is freedom. There was a greater propensity in Western armies for the individual to feel that he had a stake in his army. Nothing provides a better or more clear illustration of this than Herodotus’s description of Thermopylae, where [soldiers] in the royal army of Xerxes were being whipped to fight, whereas Leonidas and the Spartans said they were there because they were following the law that they themselves had created. What kind of army, ancient or modern, would name their triremes “Free Speech” or “Freedom” like the Athenians did at Salamis, or have a play by Aeschylus that says, “We rowed into battle saying ‘freedom, freedom, freedom.’” It is very strange in comparison to what motivated other armies of the era.

If you look at the Spanish analyst who talked about Hernan Cortés (who in many ways was a really awful person), when Cortés was on his way from Vera Cruz to Tenochtitlán, he was a served something akin to a writ of indictment, a lawsuit, wherein other rival Spaniards — in a way that would be unthinkable at Montezuma’s capital — thought that they could use a constitutional framework to abrogate what he was trying to do, because even in 16th-century Spain there were still those fumes of earlier freedom. So it has been very important for Western armies, throughout the history of civilized warfare, that the individual felt that he had a modicum of freedom — or at least greater freedom than the adversary that he was asked to kill.

Civic Militarism

Closely related is another element called “civic militarism,” and that is the idea that a citizen has particular rights as an individual that transfer into battle. It explains why, for example, between 219 and 216 B.C.E. in Rome, you could probably argue that the Roman army lost over 100,000 people. We are worried at this stage in early 2004 about losing 500 people [in Iraq], and rightly so, but just think of a society not of 300 million, but of 4 million, that in a series of disasters at the Trebia, the Tricinius, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae, lost over 100,000 men in three years. Yet at the end of the decade they had more men under arms — after losing 100,000 men (600 people a minute were killed at the Battle of Cannae) — than their Carthaginian adversaries, because in Rome, there was the idea that they had the ability through the Republican avenues of government and civic protocols to empower people to feel that just because they put on a uniform, they did not lose their status as a free voting citizen. It is true that this notion of a nation in arms can sometimes best be manifested as a draft, but it doesn’t have to be. In the West it means that as a Macedonian professional soldier, you can be playing kickball alongside Alexander the Great, even though you are merely one of the Macedonian phalangites, and be a quasi-mercenary, and have destroyed constitutional government. Still, you probably have a greater degree of freedom than someone in the imperial army of Darius. Or to put it another way, in modern terms, you can be a draftee in the army of Saddam Hussein, or a draftee in the army of China today and have fewer rights than a professional (if we can use that harsh term) mercenary in the American or a volunteer European army. You can be a Green Beret professional soldier and serve for pay, and yet more a representative of civic militarism, because you still have the rights of habeas corpus, follow an adjudicated code of conduct, enjoy a military standard of justice, appeals, and lawyers in a way that draftees that are inducted into levies and masses in other autocratic societies do not. And that ultimately has been of tremendous advantage to Western armies, not that they always enjoy all these aspects of civic militarism, but they have a greater likelihood of having some of them.

Decisive Battle

Another element is this weird nexus of what I would call decisive battle and the primacy of infantry. If we look back at Greece and Rome, they are especially weak in archery, javelin throwing and cavalry. That lapse will actually serve them ill at particular times. But societies evolved in the West as property-owning citizenries. Property-owning is really the basis of constitutional government. I wish it wasn’t true in the sense the impulse is self-interested rather than idealistic. We created constitutional government in the early West to protect individual liberty, but it usually started out as a prior means of protecting the rights of property, the right to own property, to pass property down. That was the origin and reason-to-be of the early city-state. Property owners then would vote as free citizens — in the fashion of civic militarism — to fight or not, and usually the way to fight for and to protect land was through heavy infantry: shock battle among armored columns. It seems to be a proclivity of the West to notify [your adversary] that you are coming, and then to use massive amounts of firepower to shock, defeat, and destroy the enemy, ideally through annihilation rather than attrition. It reminds me of when President Reagan told Moammar Khadafy something to the effect that, “We are going into the Gulf of Sidra” — a very bellicose thing to do — “with an aircraft carrier.” And people wondered, why is he [Reagan] notifying everyone that he is coming? It was almost like that phrase in Greek (ex omologou) ‘battle by convention.’ He [Reagan] lost much of the element of surprise.

When we were looking at the Kuwaiti theater of operations [March 2003], it was very strange that we had a third of all frontline military power of the U.S. in a very small place in Kuwait. Everybody knew where they were; everybody knew where they had to go; and everybody pretty much knew when they were going to go. And yet the confidence in these foot soldiers and in their ability to shock and awe the enemy, or to bring decisive firepower to the fray, was such that they were willing to give up the idea of surprise, even fighting during daylight sometimes. But the downside of this commitment to conventional showdowns is that we thought — as did the ancient hoplites and legionaries — that the battle was over when the enemy either collapsed or avoided such a doomed clear-cut confrontation; we had won in three weeks and we could go home. We did not understand “asymmetrical warfare,” that is, warfare by people who do not believe in shock, or who have a tradition that might have originated in the Steppes such as Scythian warfare or Thracian warfare — “hit and run” — that indeed is predicated on the fact Westerners will view losses, extended fighting, and the blurring of civilian and combatant in far different terms.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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