It is hardly surprising, given the ubiquity of war and its importance in shaping the history of our species, that for the last two and a half millennia man has made war the subject of thousands of manuals, books and articles. Students of war have analyzed the arms, armor, technology and methods of warfare for virtually every historical period since the Greeks. Military historians have written volumes about major battles, the wars of which they were a part, and the soldiers who fought them. And yet, for some time now, war as a subject of academic inquiry has been largely relegated to second-class status. During roughly the last two decades, academic elites have marginalized the study of warfare at our universities as part of a misguided attempt to offer more politically correct but vacuous courses on gender and pop culture. One result is that the number of books written about warfare each year now amounts to a mere handful.
Fortunately, Victor Davis Hanson=s book Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, is among the handful of recent publications on the subject. In it, Hanson tackles the rather unpopular subject of Western military superiority. His main premise is that for centuries the method of Western warfare has made Europeans "the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization." Yet Hanson, a classics professor at the University of California, Fresno, steps beyond the boundaries of conventional military history. He is concerned not only with the military hegemony of the West, but also its economic and geopolitical hegemony, and he attributes all three to the West's unique culture and exceptional sociopolitical institutions. Hanson explores the notion that warfare and culture are inextricably related, that the culture of the soldier has a clear and direct impact on the outcome of battles: "My curiosity is not with Western man=s heart of darkness, but with his ability to fight - specifically how his military prowess reflects larger social, political and cultural practices that seemingly have little to do with war."
He traces the West's military ascendancy to the cultural institutions and traditions of the post-Mycenaean Greek world and the rise of the Greek city-state or polis (circa 800-600 B.C.). The Greeks of this period created a brand of warfare that was unique both in its objective and destructive capacity. Thus when Hanson states that "The Greeks fought differently from their adversaries," that they instituted a "peculiar practice" of war that forever transformed the face of battle, and gave rise to the West's long military supremacy, he seeks to demonstrate how this difference arose from the unique culture and institutions of the Greeks.
The hallmark of this new type of Greek warfare, what distinguished it from its predecessors and from that of contemporary armies was "shock battle." By this he means a full-on collision of heavy infantry armed with pikes and short swords that were used in close-quarters, face-to-face combat, with the intention of driving an opposing army from the battlefield. "Hoplite fighting through shock collision in the tiny valleys of early Greece," Hanson explains, "marks the true beginning of Western warfare." Later, decisive shock battle, which originally involved small armies of yeoman farmers bound by tradition and strict protocol, would be developed by King Philip of Macedon and subsequent Europeans into Aan instrument of ambitious state policy." Thus once a "conservative Greek institution to preserve the existing agrarian community," this Greek invention would evolve into a new Western concept of "total war."
Hanson credits those fundamental values usually associated with the Greeks - the ideal of individual freedom, a fervent belief in rationalism and free inquiry, a reliance on empiricism and the dissemination of knowledge - as the main impetus for this development. However, he emphasizes the two practices of property ownership and consensual government - in a word, citizenship - as central to the transformation in Greek warfare. Hanson maintains that this Hellenic tradition of citizenship survived the fall of Rome, and later merged with free markets and capitalism that was responsible for creating the vast cultural divide between Western and non-Western societies, a divide manifested in the West's superior arms, armor, tactics, military spirit, and unparalleled capacity to wage war for roughly the next 2,500 years.
To make his case, Hanson analyzes nine landmark battles as individual case studies. The battles - Salamis (480 B.C.), Gaugamela (331 B.C.), Cannae (216 B.C.), Poitiers (732), Tenochtitlan (1520-21), Lepanto (1571), Rourke=s Drift (1879), Midway (1942), and Tet (1968) - recall major clashes between European and non-European armies or navies over the last 2,500 years. Devoting a chapter to each, Hanson provides a good overview of each battle, including pertinent details about arms, armor and technology, tactics, size and composition of the opposing forces, events preceding a battle, and final outcome - the usual fare for a military historian. But this is not merely an encyclopedic rendering of historic battles, and the narrative never gets bogged down with pedantic facts. Moreover, the battles were chosen not simply for their geopolitical or historical impact, or merely to extol the West=s superior technology. Rather, each is a snapshot in time that highlights key attributes of the West's evolving military machine and demonstrates how and why the cultural milieu of Western combatants influenced not only the method of fighting but also a battle's outcome. The case studies also reveal a "shared legacy" or continuity through time of European military practice from the early Greeks to the highly mechanized wars of the 20th century.
While all the case studies provide good support for this argument, the chapter on Tenochtitlan offers a particularly lucid example of how Western military accomplishments must be viewed in an overall cultural landscape. Hanson explains how for centuries critics have offered a variety of explanations for Hernan Cortes's seemingly impossible victory against the numerically superior Aztecs. He argues convincingly why explanations like disease, the role of Cortes's Mexica allies, and the military genius of Cortes himself, are oversimplified and incomplete. While Hanson agrees these had a hand in the Aztecs' demise, he contends there were other underlying factors at work, factors related to the "long lethal Western military tradition," namely "its tactics of annihilation, mass assault, disciplined files and ranks, and superior technology."
Hanson succinctly describes the warfare of the Aztecs and other tribal peoples as a means for achieving social recognition or cultural status, as “anything other than the dismemberment of the enemy on the battlefield.” The Aztecs, we are told, emphasized capturing enemy warriors for later use in ritual sacrifice, rather than killing them outright in battle. And it was this objective of prisoner taking that resulted in warriors’ preference for individual club- and sword-play over “mass tactics of shock assault in disciplined ranks and files.” Aztec warriors may have been hampered by a lack of steel and inferior weapons, but they were also severely restricted militarily by their peculiar worldview. Cortes’s men, in contrast, fought with fewer cultural impediments. Hanson states: “The Western way of war is so lethal precisely because it is so
amoral, shackled rarely by concerns of ritual, tradition, religion or ethics, or by anything other than military necessity.” Here is where Hanson makes an important contribution to the discourse on warfare. By refocusing attention on ultimate factors to understand Cortes’s accomplishment rather than on narrow proximate ones, he successfully reveals the depth and complexity of the relationship between cultural values and military prowess.
Though not intended as a scholarly work or a reference for academics, the book is
nonetheless well researched and well written. Hanson puts forward a serious and on the whole
convincing argument, despite a tendency to paint history with broad brush strokes. By no means
a revisionist, Hanson does not attempt to rewrite history or disparage the work of other
researchers. He does attempt to expand the current approach to the study of warfare by obliging
students to understand the culture-warfare relationship as one of synergy. Soldiers are not easily
separated from their cultural milieu, nor should they be. Though he acknowledges that
technology, tactics, terrain, battlefield valor—what we might call proximate factors—influence
the outcome of battles, Hanson concludes that a society’s political and economic institutions,
i.e., ultimate factors, are equally if not more important in separating the conquerors from the
Hanson is not the first to explore the connection between social institutions and warfare.
Military historians and some cultural anthropologists have investigated this important topic, and
Hanson’s argument draws heavily from the work of other scholars. But if the book is derivative
in its larger argument, it is unique in its approach. Hanson uses warfare as a vehicle for directly
comparing—albeit superficially—the fundamental values of Western and non-Western cultures,
something most researchers, particularly anthropologists, are loath to do. Thus the book stands
out for its candor and ingenuous style. At a time when cultural relativism and ethnic
hypersensitivity are the norm, investigations of the West’s ascendancy—whether economic,
political, military or otherwise—are often colored by the fear of appearing chauvinistic or
culturally biased. As the author laments, “Few scholars…can disconnect the question of morality
from energy.” Hanson, however, has successfully done just that. By deliberately eschewing
questions of the morality of European warfare, he has written a work that is both intellectually
honest and informative.