War and the West, Then and Now: Part III

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 Three

Can the West Be Stopped?

I am going to stop now, and give you time for questions, but I would just like to conclude by saying, if this Western military dynamism is true across time and space, what are the antidotes for this? Because there are setbacks: Little Bighorn, Aidwa, where the Italians lost to the Ethiopians. I mentioned Isandhlwana, where the British were wiped out. Think of Thermopylae: it might have been a glorious last stand, but it was surely a military defeat. Crassus lost at Carrhae perhaps 50,000 Roman legionnaires. So there have been times when the West has either been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or has been too far away from home and has lost.


Why is that possible? I think that we should keep in mind at least four means by which this tradition can be nullified or checked or defeated. The first is what I would called “parasitism,” wherein you have other cultures that do not want to embrace the whole nine yards of consensual government, freedom, self-critique, or civic militarism, but which like the idea of cherry picking capitalism or importing technology. So you can be the Ottomans, for example, and if you don’t want to have a Republic of Venice, perhaps you can get renegade Venetian engineers and build your own copied arsenal at Istanbul. It might not be quite as good, but it can give you galleys that will allow you at least to fight the West in rough terms. We saw this with gunpowder. The best example is 19th-century Japan, when Admiral Dewey sailed into Tokyo Bay. After the clampdown, there were probably not more than a 100 firearms registered in the entire country. Thirty years later, after the war of 1870, the Franco-Prussian War, the Japanese have suddenly modeled their whole army on French tactics, and then when the French are beaten, so now they are modeling them on German tactics, and they have 250,000 students in Victorian England to learn how to build ships. Again, by the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, they are building better ships than a semi-Western country, Russia, and by World War I, they are probably the fourth most efficient fleet, and by 1941, they have the best carrier force in the world. [All of this is] based on the premise that they do not like democracy, and they do not like individual freedom, perhaps, but they want to emulate Western technology and Western means of weapons procurement.

We see this today with China. It is a great experiment. The Chinese think that they can steal, borrow, and copy nuclear weapons and missile systems without having to embrace the entire Western experiment. I think history would suggest to us that that is a failed effort; that every society that has tried to match the West with technology alone, that is imported or grafted on, eventually is going to come up with a contradiction. The contradiction simply is that to improve those weapons and to keep them up-to-date, you need a secular, free society that has these warring minds that try to profit from one another by a superior weapon design. But in our age—and this is something to be careful about—you do not have that margin of error of seeing weapons’ obsolescence by those who merely import them. Somebody can get a nuclear suitcase and might not know how to build it. The entire country of Syria could not build a nuclear weapon without imported scientists, but if they can get one, they can create a sort of nuclear parity. So parasitism has been a popular way of nullifying Western military advantage.

Internal War

Another method is civil war. Just because you are Western does not mean you are not going to fight another Western country. More people were killed in the 27 years of the Peloponnesian War than all the Greeks that were lost in the Persian Wars. I can go even further. More Greeks were lost in the first two years of the Peloponnesian War, than in the entire Persian War. Between 49 and 31 B.C.E., more Romans were lost probably than were killed in the next three centuries of imperial conquest. More British people were killed in the first four hours of the Battle of the Somme than were killed in the last 50 years of colonial fighting. The American Civil War killed more people at Gettysburg than it lost in the entire totality of the so-called American-Indian Wars. Because when you take these two systems of decisive battle, and free soldiers, and civic militarism, and high technology, and capitalism, and group discipline, and self-critique, and you turn it loose against itself, then you have a bloodbath. And that can happen quite often. There is one caveat that offers us hope: it is it true that democracies are less likely to attack other democracies. Not since Imperial Athens invaded Sicily (both were democracies) have we really seen a full-fledged democracy attack another democracy. You can argue the Boers had an assembly, and the Victorians had an assembly, and they fought each other; or the Confederacy had a Senate and a House and they fought the Union; or Prussia of 1917 had a sort of Parliament, but it is always a degree of a sort of faux-democracy]. If you have a full-fledged, consensual society, and it is truly consensual, it is usually not going to fight another like democratic society. I do not think that Argentina today will fight Britain over the Falklands, simply because it is not a dictatorship that has to find moral capital to maintain its illegitimate government. That gives us hope; while we may be angry at France, we are not going to fight France. And there are more democracies now than there ever have been in the history of the world. So I’m not saying we are going to get to the end of history, and that we will all be watching Oprah, and lounging, and being friends with everybody, but there is some validity to what Francis Fukuyama was talking about. How long it might take us to get there, I don’t know. But that infighting is a second way in which Western military advantage can be nullified (besides another system or society copying it), and that is by a civil war.

Asymmetrical War

A third means—and we probably know this best—is what we would call today asymmetrical warfare, fourth-dimensional warfare or terrorism. Or the idea that because the West tends to use its military advantages across oceans, at great distances—whether it is the Crusades, or the Venetians in the Eastern Mediterranean, or the British colonial troops, or the United States in Vietnam or Iraq—it is vulnerable. That means that there are long lines of supply, and that a consensual government must continually ratify an often abstract military campaign, and the adversaries do not have to match Westerners in patience in conventional warfare, but can wear them down, through a method of terror, for example. So that means that a man who has only an 8th-grade education, and who has an imported RPG (that no one in his society could build), can shoot one RPG and die in the process by being shot as he shoots it, and still he can take out a $1.5 million Apache helicopter and the pilot from a wealthy suburban household who has a $250,000 bachelor’s degree. We might think, well, we took out an RPG shooter, or the person in the helicopter shot ten people; but it can be seen by our adversaries as a victory by the very fact that while they did not defeat the West, they at least attained momentary parity, or they were able to nullify our military advantage temporarily. A Palestinian can blow a tread off an Israeli tank, and that can be a success, and a success in real terms, psychologically. Because the West often tends to fight (other than 9/11) beyond its borders, even though indigenous people do not always support asymmetrical warfare or terrorism, they can have some sympathy for it. As an Iraqi dissident told me not long ago, “It isn’t that we don’t want democracy; we want it, we just don’t want you to give it to us.” And that has some resonance in war, and we are seeing that today.

Affluence’s Weakening Effect

And finally, besides asymmetrical warfare turning perceived advantages against the West through non-conventional means or untraditional methods, Western societies—because they are consensual and capitalist, and because they are highly technological—they have a tendency to create a citizenry that is better educated and more affluent than their adversaries. And this is not a new phenomenon. The Romans had this word luxus, and perhaps among that tetrad of great authors of the Roman Imperial period, Tacitus, Juvenile, Petronius, or Suetonius, a theme is that Romans are wealthy and affluent in Rome, but they are not up on the Danube or the Rhine, fighting with Germans in a way that would be necessary to preserve the Empire. It is very hard to convince somebody (I don’t know how we did it in Afghanistan or Iraq), an American, who gets up in the morning and has clean water and a three-bedroom, two-bath house, that he has to go and sleep outside when it is ten below, in the Hindu Kush, near the Khyber Pass, to stop the Taliban, which might seem to be, two years after 9/11, a pretty abstract threat, and often to die there, when what he is worried about is life insurance and braces for his kids. And he routinely turns on the television and sees Michael Jackson, or an ad for Botox treatments, or Britney Spears, or breasts hanging out at the Super Bowl. This is the type of affluent, secure, society in which it is very hard to convince people in advance that they must assume certain responsibilities or endure certain sufferings for their survival, when it is hard for them to see why they should. Because their society is so successful that it seems almost as if it works on autopilot.

Abraham Lincoln could talk about the terrible arithmetic, and convince an agrarian society that was in the midst of cruel industrialization that they could still lose 200,000 people, or they could lose 18,000 casualties at Antietam, and it would be worth it for the principle of freedom. But today it is very hard to convince a country of 300 million that they can lose 500 for an idea (as opposed to convincing a country of a 100 million that they should lose in toto 600,000). And it will be increasing more difficult, it seems to me in the future. And this challenge will only accentuate the difference between the West and non-West when it comes to defining victory and defeat, and only accentuate the power of asymmetrical and unconventional warfare, which is aimed at the hearts and minds of Western society that does not want to lose its youth for some abstract idea of freedom, or rebuilding the Middle East, or taking out al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan, when our memories are so short, our technology is so rich, and our lives are so diversely entertaining and pleasurable.

Where does all this leave us? Just to conclude, there is no ironclad rule that says the West always gets these advantages. They are tenuous protocols; they are passed on from one generation to the next, and they thus can be lost in one generation. They were almost lost with the fall of Rome; they survived only in fragmented forms until they were rediscovered in the 15th and 16th centuries. Civilization has to be passed on from generation to generation, and lives in some sense only through one generation. I once had a conversation with a very prominent person from the Kennedy School of Government and he said to me, “Well, if the neocons have their way, everybody is going to gang up on us, and we are going to be like Rome in the 4th century where they had the Visigoths and the Vandals and the Huns.” And I said, “You know, it is very funny that you said that, because by any fair measure of history, they had far more formidable enemies when they were a small agrarian republic in 216 B.C.E. The Huns might have been pretty formidable, but they weren’t Hannibal—and you then throw in the Macedonian phalanx of Philip the Fifth. In the period of 216, they were a very small country, and they were invaded, and they had two horrific opponents in the Macedonians and Hannibal. But the difference was—during that six hundred year period between the threat of Hannibal and the later Huns—that whether you liked all of what Rome stood for or not, in 200 B.C.E. a Roman knew what it was to be a Roman. He didn’t think it was a perfect thing; he didn’t think it was the best thing, necessarily, but he knew it was better than the alternative. And I am not sure that in 400 C.E. a Roman felt that. He wasn’t sure what it was to be a Roman; he wasn’t sure if it was any better, or if it was any different. And when that happens in history, there is no reason why it has to continue. And so for a long time, it didn’t. Thank you.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This