War and the West, Then and Now: Part II

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 Two

Military Dynamism, cont’d: The Market Pull, Technological Superiority, Discipline and Dissent

The Market Pull

Another example of Western military advantage is what I would call the pull of the market. There seems to be a morality in the West that says that how one makes and creates capital is not necessarily at odds with religion. There are no cultural prohibitions in the West, like there are in Islam, against charging interest. Whether such gain usury or not is highly controversial, but in the pre-Christian West people felt that that making money was not at odds with pagan religion, and Christianity very quickly adopted an idea that even though the poor were “blessed,” people might even be more blessed if they were wealthy. The battle of Lepanto, for example, was a very instructive reflection of 16th-century Italy. Venice probably had no more than 200 square miles and 100,000 people within the confines proper of the city — I imagine it was much bigger than today; I think there are only about 50,000 people there today, and yet they were fighting an empire that had 20 million people and probably almost a million square miles in the Ottomans. And yet the arsenal at small Venice, if it had to, could turn out one galley per day, and they could create more galleys and more quality artillery than could all of the states under the Ottomans combined. In fact, they could create such a market and attract such talented people to come and work for them, that the quality of cannon that was used at the Battle of Lepanto — where they were outnumbered was simply unmatched. In contrast, after the battle the Venetians scavenged Ottoman cannons that were often built by skilled foreign workers — even European workers — but found them mostly inadequate. They didn’t use them; they melted them down.

In other words, if—now going back to Cortés — you were Cortés, and marching on Tenochtitlán, how could you supply an army of 1,500 men, 7,000 miles away from Spain, other than to just declare a free market at Vera Cruz, where any enterprising trader in the Spanish Empire who wanted to make a dollar could go in and start selling things in exchange for the gold that was looted from indigenous people.

Technological Superiority

Another military advantage that we all associate with Western society is the technological superiority. There is something about this combination of free-market thinking and secularism, this firewall between religious activity and intellectual curiosity, that tends to be stronger in the West. This secularism even allows for disruptive “amoral” weaponry like the crossbow. Think about that: all of a sudden a knight who wears two years’ worth of labor on his back with a horse can be taken down by a peasant with a crossbow! This free-market thinking and this secularism thus allow Westerner people to steal, to adopt, to take innovations in design from elsewhere. Remember, the West has no monopoly on brainpower or genetics, it just simply enjoys a system that has fewer inhibitions about using things for particularly profitable purposes. A good example — going back to Cortés once again — is that Hernan Cortés ran out of gunpowder in 1521. Although Montezuma didn’t realize it, but he was sitting on some of the richest deposits of sulfur and saltpeter in the New World. So what happened when the Spanish ran out of supplies? Cortés hired people to go out and make gunpowder and cast bronze cannons, not because he was a ‘nice’ person or a singular genius, but because he had money and he paid people and there was a competition of ideas to fill that need.

You can really see the insidious nature of Western military dynamism in the case of gunpowder, something Westerners did not invent. Gunpowder was probably invented by the Chinese sometime in the 10th to 12th century. But it was a prerogative of a Mandarin class—where it was used for ritual events, or sporting events, or even for entertainment—and was not made available to the masses, where it could not be controlled, but instead its designs might be improved, adopted, or rejected. And the result was that almost every major development in the history of firearms — whether we are talking about corn gunpowder, or rifle barrels, or flints, or percussions, or repeating rifles — took place in the West, and was then exported back to places like China, as it is today. You see that model today throughout the West — that Chinese military weaponry and weapon development are usually imported from the West, or if it is not imported from the West, it is produced in China by scientists who were trained in the West. So the West gives us superior weaponry, whether it is through the theft of gunpowder or stirrups, and then they improve them, because there is money to be made and there is no religious prohibition against the end result that can be quite disruptive. A weapon is not the prerogative of a particular class, so it is thrown into the arena of ideas, and the result is very scary. Every major weapon development in the history of civilization is almost entirely a Western phenomenon.


There is another advantage that Western armies have used to kill people that is not explicable by their numbers, and that is our strange idea of discipline. Aristotle talks about this in his Politics. He says that it is very odd that most people reward bravery in battle on the basis of kills, so in the case of the Carthaginians, or the Thracians, or the Macedonians, or I think the Spanish — these tribal peoples outside the sphere of the polis will either require an initiation rite of so many kills; or one can be buried in a particular place only based on so many kills; or one can wear a certain number of leather loops. Or Greeks will talk about foreign peoples who have souvenirs of kills gained. Again, the emphasis is on the individual in battle; but as we see again from Herodotus, the people who win the aristeion, the award for bravery, at the Battle of Thermopylae (excuse me, as I should say Plataea) are precisely those who stay in the ranks and do not leave. And those who go outside the ranks are punished, even though they show enormous bravery.

Bravery, in other words, in the West has a greater tendency to be defined as staying in rank, keeping in time, advancing on order, retreating on order — whether you are in a Greek phalanx or a Roman legion, or a Swiss column, or a Spanish tercio, or Napoleonic columns, or what we see in the West today. The best example I know of this trait is the battle of Rourke’s Drift (1879) where fewer than 112 British soldiers held off 4,000 Zulus, killed 400, and lost 19, after being surprised and wiped out the day before at Isandhlwana. And if you look at how this could be possible, it is really baffling, because just the day before, the Zulus had captured over 1,000 Martini-Henry rifles, and they had over 10,000 cartridges. You might think, well, maybe they weren’t experienced with Martini-Henry rifles or firearms. Yet they had been importing firearms from the Portuguese for over 60 years, and yet when they surrounded the Fort at Rourke’s Drift, they [the Zulus] only killed 19 British soldiers, who killed 400 of them and fought them off. Why was that? The difference simply is that in the few minutes before the onslaught, British soldiers went out with stakes and hammered them into the ground every 100 yards and they had sometimes three lines of personnel lying, kneeling, and shooting, and they fired in cadence and through careful control. Again and again they let down a volley of fire, and they knew the exact calibration of the drop of a 50-calilber shot over 1,000 yards. And they hit people, we know, even at about 1,000 yards. They knew exactly the six inch, one foot, two feet drop based on wind conditions and the caliber of the powder charge. They knew that order and control of firing because they were the inheritors of a tradition of mass fighting that went back to Napoleon, that went back to the Swiss, that went back to Charlemagne, that went back to Rome. A Victorian soldier was defined as being brave or cowardly or stupid or smart not based on number of kills, but on how he had behaved during the battle.

There were 19 Victoria crosses awarded after the Battle of Rourke’s Drift. Not one of them was given for the number of people they killed. In contrast, even though the Zulu warrior culture was a very disciplined, impressive culture, the primary basis of combat heroism was how many people you killed. What were the 19 Victoria crosses given for? “Saved his comrade in battle.” “Went into the hospital and brought out the wounded.” “Carried somebody on his back.” “Went out beyond the line of fire and brought in the water can.” “Made sure that everybody had shells.” The whole emphasis, the whole mentality was on the group or survival of the formation.


And finally there is another, more ambiguous element of Western warfare, and that is the idea of critique or dissent. Although I don’t know why he said it (it seems to me that the Athenians did pretty well in supporting their troops in Sicily), Thucydides claims that the Athenians lost because of lack of support and bickering at home, where people were arguing over the primacy of that expedition versus other things that were going on, whether it was smart morally, tactically, or strategically. Think of the plays of Aristophanes. If you really want to criticize Athens, do not go to another city-state, go to an Athenian writer, whether it is Aristophanes, or Euripides’s Trojan Women, written after the massacre at Melos. The same is true of Roman commentators from Sallust to Tacitus. “We make a desert, and call it peace” — bitter invectives, even in the Imperial period. Some of the worst critics of Cortés are people like Bernal Dias [or Díaz? Bartolemeu Dias was a Portuguese explorer. Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote The True History of the Conquest of New Spain], the 16th-century Spanish essayist who wrote that it was a very amoral thing to do what the conquistadors often did.

At first glance, this harping seems to be a disadvantage; after all, I think you could make the argument that whatever Tet was in January of 1968, by any classical military definition, at the time of a New Year’s truce, the Americans were attacked. Yet they killed 55,000 of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the South, and they lost 1,500 people. To read the description of Khe-Sahn will make you vomit. It was as absolute bloodbath, but on the other side, a horrible defeat for the North Vietnamese. And yet, the battle victory was reinterpreted as something closer to defeat, because the military had said prior to the surprise attack that they had seen the light at the end of the tunnel; we were going to win. And people had real questions about whether it was in the United States’ best interest, at that time and at that place, to be fighting so distant, sandwiched between nuclear China and nuclear Russia, trying to stop the so-called domino effect from overtaking government that you were not quite sure you could make into South Korea-like capitalist country. And so there was a conundrum, and we decided it was not in our interest, and we went home. Maybe you could say that was bad, but you can also make the argument that, as we can see in the present war, that American forces are always under scrutiny, they are always subject to a free press, and people are always going to be accountable, eventually. And that does have some advantages in the way that people conduct war. We fought much better after 1971 once we came under constant scrutiny. I can tell you that the people in the military and the few I have talked to in the present administration are very sensitive to the New York Times and the mainstream press. The actual tactics on the battlefield have reflected that — and, I think, more in a good fashion (for all the critics of conservatives) than in a bad fashion.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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