Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Father of us All: War and History: Ancient and Modern by Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is one of the last of what seems a dying breed. He is a war historian. He wrote The Father of us All: War and History: Ancient and Modern because he believes that, “War is inseparable from the human condition...As an empiricist, I note only that war -- like birth, aging, death, politics, and age-old emotions such as fear, pride, and honor -- has never disappeared. This so-called tragic view concedes that depressing fact about the human condition, and yet it steels the individual to the notion that suffering is a part of our human lot, and unfortunately cannot be entirely eradicated by any amount of well-intended nurturing.” He believes that the long-neglected study of wars past “still best explain present conflicts.” It seems the changing nature of universities “ensured the decline of the formal discipline of military history. Race, class, and gender studies sought to deal with the anonymous masses of history, not its medaled grandees and deskbound planners.” What a shame.

Without a literacy about the conflicts of the past, the public can find itself easily confused when confronted with the dogs of war. We become ill-equipped to make informed judgments. Military history is important for many reasons. One of which is its ability to remind us of how often pre-war planning is futile. Military history also shows how often things go wrong. Our expectation would be very different if we had a good understanding of the wars that came before. 

To study the classic Greek wars is to understand why Muslims, feeling envious and despising our culture, would attack us on 9/11. We would learn that wars involving democratic countries must have the support of the people. We would see the futility of reasoning with enemies when war is in the air. Thucydides’ “description of the horrific plague at Athens is both scientific and gruesome, as he chronicles the social chaos in the manner of a physician reviewing symptoms, formulating a diagnosis, and offering a bleak cultural prognosis.” These may be unwelcome lessons, but they are critical. 

Hanson gives us a bit of the military history we are missing through a series of essays he has written over the years and edited for this book.

He starts with what to read. His first essay is “Thallatta! Thallatta!: the timeless attraction of Xenophon.” He describes Xenophon as a man who “traveled, fought, wrote, and hobnobbed more than almost any other Greek of his age. He also had a multi-faced ability to relate such a rich life through the art of storytelling __ and nowhere better than in his gripping tale of thousands of greek mercenaries abandoned and trapped in hostile Persia.” 

His second essay recommends “The Old Breed: The brilliant but harrowing narrative of E.B. Sledge.” “Sledge, a previously unknown retired professor, late in life published his first book, which was originally drawn from contemporary notes taken during battle and intended only as a private memoir for his family. Yet within two decades of publication that draft became acknowledged as the finest literary account to emerge about the Pacific war.”

He next recommends Professor Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War in his essay “The War to Begin All Wars: Athens Meets Sparta.” Kagan has related this most famous of battles to our contemporary Great War. “It was a tragic event, a great turning point in history, the end of an era of progress, prosperity, confidence, and hope, and the beginning of a darker time.”

Next is Niccolo Capponi’s The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. Seeing as we face this battle again, it’s helpful to have some history for perspective.

Next his essays enter into modern warfare and how often, even in our days of nuclear arms and AK-47s we can still learn from the past. 

He asks, “Have we seen in our time the end of decisive battles between conventional armies and navies in the long tradition of Cunaxa, Lepanto, and Okinawa?” For the foreseeable future, it appears that we will not have large decisive battles. Terror and small skirmishes have replaced them. The stakes are simply too high and large battles could do too much damage. But with an apocalyptic Iran, that may change. The horror of large decisive battles may yet return. 

My favorite line in the whole book was in an essay titled, “The American Way of War -- Past, Present, and Future.” He states, “We concede that American success in fostering democracy in post-war Germany, Italy, and Japan was predicated by age-old, rather dark assumptions that the Nazis, Fascists, and Japanese militarists had to be defeated, humiliated, and only then helped -- and in that order. But whereas we now welcome the latter step of aiding a former enemy in the building of democracy, we loathe the first two requisites of inflicting a level of damage to ensure its success.” So true. We want to nation build our enemies without first defeating and humiliating them. Even saying those words sounds foreign. But our military and political leaders in the past knew that unless the enemy was soundly defeated and subsequently humiliated, helping would only give him time to rearm. They must be taught to NEVER attack again. Or they will attack again.

Hanson makes a great statement when he discusses how wars are lost, “But perhaps the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. Present generations of unprecedented leisure, affluence, and technology no longer so easily accept human imperfections. We seem to care less about correcting problems than assessing blame ... We fail to realize that the enemy makes as many mistakes but probably addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Rarely are we fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.” We have accepted defeat as somewhat inevitable. Wow.

As far as current warfare, he finds the West hold itself to an impossible standard and therefore makes actually winning wars all but impossible. We must suffer no casualties, we must have an exit strategy, we must not go into poor third-world nations, we must build up before we defeat, and certainly we must not humiliate, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold the enemy to, the war cannot be led by a right-wing war-monger, we must force democracy on nations with no institutions to support it or prior experience with it, we must make no mistakes, we must respond proportionately, and it goes on and on. All of this gives a huge advantage to insurgents and terrorists who have no such obstacles.

In short, because we have no sense of the history of war, we seemed doomed to continual failure in current conflicts. Sigh.

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