Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson; Anchor Books (August 2002); ISBN-13: 978-0385720380

What happens when different cultures clash on the battlefield? More to the point: Do different societies with different worldviews conceive of both the ultimate goal and the conduct of war in the same way; and if they do not, are their different approaches to armed conflict — other factors being comparable — equally effective? One prominent and iconoclastic student of military affairs argues that the answer, at least to the last two of these questions, is a resounding: no.

In Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, California State University professor and classical historian Victor Davis Hanson puts forward the original theory that there is an explicitly Western approach to battle (a classical paradigm), and that this approach has been, and still is, the most effective one ever devised. Moreover, he also posits that the extraordinarily successful form of warfare practiced by the West throughout most of its history is primarily the product of cultural rather than technological, class conflict, or other ‘materialist’ factors. In fact, every one of the characteristics, he suggests, that now define the modern Western paradigm of ‘total’ war: extreme lethality, a ‘mechanical’ ruthlessness, command flexibility, organizational discipline, individual initiative, and technological and doctrinal innovation, can trace their origins all the way back to an Ionian culture that first rose to prominence almost three thousand years ago. Needless-to-say, this hypothesis directly contradicts both popular wisdom and orthodox ‘materialist’ scholarship. In place of the conventional historical view of war as a technology-driven, undifferentiated social phenomenon, Dr. Hanson proposes that the type of war-making that has come to dominate military clashes in the modern era actually traces its roots directly back to the citizen-soldiers of Ancient Greece.

The Battle of Cannae

This is an intriguing proposition, but it is also — in this age of reflexive ‘political correctness’ and ‘multiculturalism’ — a controversial one. None-the-less, the author forges resolutely (if insensitively) ahead and supports his provocative thesis by analyzing nine different, but epochal battles: Salamis (480 B.C.); Gaugamela (331 B.C.); Cannae (216 B.C.); Poitiers (732); Tenochtitlán (1520-21); Lepanto (1571); Rorke’s Drift (1879); Midway (1942); and Tet (1968). Each of these selections is, in an historically descriptive sense, unique in its own right; yet all of the military clashes detailed in this work still share at least two common features: they were all militarily decisive; and, although widely-separated by time and place, they all pitted adversaries with strikingly different worldviews against each other on the battlefield.

The Battle of Salamis

Dr. Hanson’s collection of narratives — once the inevitable introductory niceties are out of the way — begins with an historical analysis of the important factors that led up to and shaped the massive naval battle between the Hellenic City States and the vastly larger Persian Empire, 2,500 years ago in the straight of Salamis. In this deadly clash between triremes, a fleet of some 300-370 ships, under the Greek admiral, Themistocles, attacked and routed a combined Persian, Phoenician, and Egyptian armada of between 600 and 1,000 vessels. In the course of an eight-hour battle, hundreds of Persian triremes were sunk with the loss of as many as 100,000 seamen and marines; those few Persians who survived their ships’ sinking and did not drown immediately, were slaughtered as soon as they reached dry land; exact Greek losses are unknown, but probably numbered only a few dozen vessels. The magnitude of the Hellenic victory, interestingly, apparently even came as a bit of a surprise to the Greek commander, Themistocles.

Now standing firmly rooted in the present, but looking back at this startlingly lop-sided outcome, the first and most obvious question that presents itself to the modern military historian is: What combination of factors led to this decisive Greek victory and Persian catastrophe? Attempting to answer this fascinating question is the central project of “Carnage and Culture.”

The Battle at Gaugamela

At the Battle of Salamis (September 28, 480 B.C.), Victor Davis Hanson observes, the individual Hellenic oarsman, marine, or hoplite was probably no braver than the Persian who faced him. However, unlike his Persian adversary, Dr. Hanson argues, the Greek — whether he was an influential politician, an ordinary seaman, a rich merchant, or a subsistence farmer — fought not only for his city, but also to preserve both his own home and his own way of life; the Persian, on the other hand — whatever his individual station; slave or free — fought for his King. In plainest terms: the Greek believed that he had a personal stake in the outcome of the battle beyond his own survival, while the Persian did not. Moreover, while the individual Persian oarsman or infantryman, even if compelled to render service, might perform with as much energy and valor as his foe, the individual Greek voluntarily trained and fought as part of a disciplined unit. In the case of the navy, the Greek served as a member of a crew of relative equals. In the case of a hoplite, he marched and fought as an integral part of a mass infantry formation, the phalanx. And the well-ordered cohesion of either of these types of units, whether trireme or phalanx, was valued above all else; the pursuit of individual glory was not encouraged; but steadiness at the oars or in the ranks was. Also, an Hellenic admiral, like Themistocles, always led his fleet from the front, and a Greek general, unlike his Persian counterpart, almost always took a position in the very first rank of his phalanx; a position from which he could both more effectively control his formation, and better inspire his men by personal example. Finally, because the Greek sailor or hoplite was a citizen first, and a warrior second, war was considered to be a necessary, but inconvenient distraction from his day-to-day affairs. For this reason, the Greeks typically sought direct and decisive actions with the enemy; subtle maneuvers and elaborate stratagems were usually abjured in favor of quick and bloody, head-to-head battles. The Greek goal was, in almost every instance, not merely to defeat the enemy, but to destroy him in a single massive action. Thus, the attitude of the classical West was inelegant and direct: an enemy that had survived a battle, even if defeated, could always return; an enemy that had been annihilated, on the other hand, could not. These qualities, then and now, are what makes the Western approach to war unique.

The Battle of Lepanto

By choosing the naval action at Salamis as his first example, the author is able to contrast two successful, but utterly different cultures, each with its own distinctive approach to the conduct of war. And, in the military triumph of one over the other, the author claims to find the origin and cultural underpinnings for a specifically Western form of warfare. This foundation, he argues, relies on a collection of broad societal characteristics that are unique to Western civilization. These cultural traits include: personal freedom; a desire for decisive action; citizen soldiers; land-holding infantry; technology and rationalism; a free market for goods and ideas; discipline — soldiers instead of warriors; individualism; and a tolerance of dissent, coupled with the capacity for self-criticism. All of these characteristics, of course, are contextual: the ordinary Greek rowers at Salamis, for example — although, more often than not, seriously disadvantaged by today’s standards — would none-the-less have considered themselves free men compared to the Persian seamen against whom they fought. And so it has always been; the classical characteristics of Western culture have ebbed and flowed over time, but they have never ceased to exist completely. Fittingly, the historical description of Salamis in “Culture and Carnage” introduces virtually all of the basic themes that later serve to tie the rest of Dr. Hanson’s battle narratives to one another. By design, all nine military engagements chosen by the author represent historically unique clashes between competing worldviews; and each battle description, in its own way, also illustrates the influence of the classical approach to violent conflict on the long-term ascendancy of the West.

The Battle of Poitiers, painting by Charles Auguste Steuben

Although “Carnage and Culture” has been described as a pro-Western apology or polemic by more than a few critics, it is not a triumphalist celebration of the innate superiority of Western over other civilizations. Rather, this work is a thoughtful consideration of those characteristics intrinsic to Western culture that have produced a consistent pattern of victories in war over the last two-and-a-half millennia. Dr. Hanson, although clearly disposed to favor those values of Western culture that first emerged during the Classical Age of Ancient Greece, none-the-less is mainly concerned with those particular aspects of life in the West that have translated directly into success on the battlefield. And it should be noted that those factors — given the historical context in which they operated — were just as significant to the European armies of the Middle Ages, and to those of the Renaissance, as they are to the armed forces of contemporary Western democracies, today.

The Battle of Tenochtitlán

Not all criticism of “Carnage and Culture,” of course, has been in response to the author’s disregard for either ‘political correctness’ or for its pernicious cousin, ‘multiculturalism’. More than a few critics have also challenged Dr. Hanson’s classical paradigm in a more oblique way, by pointing to the similarities between European dynastic warfare, particularly from 1337 (the start of the 100 Years War) through 1786 (the end of the reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia), and the dynastic wars of other non-European cultures such as China and Japan. The form of war-making in all three cases, these skeptics argue, was very similar: military campaigns during this period — whether in Europe, China, or Japan — were positional ‘chess-like’ contests between opposing armies that, with only a few notable exceptions, typically focused on maneuver and siege, rather than on achieving decisive battle. Thus, say the skeptics, these similarities convincingly show that genuine cultural differences did not actually translate into noticeably different approaches to warfare in any one of these three cases. This argument, on its face, seems plausible; but it fails to withstand serious scrutiny. Putting aside the extraordinary emphasis on subterfuge and treachery that typically characterized the dynastic conflicts in the East, this criticism, given the actual historical record, still seems feeble at best, and groundless at worst. The reasons for this weakness are several. First, and most obviously, none of the examples usually cited by this band of critics actually involved clashes between fundamentally different cultures or worldviews. Second, and perhaps more intriguing, those innovative European commanders that most closely adhered to the basic tenets of the classical Western form of warfare: Henry Vth of England, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Frederick the Great of Prussia; are all three still remembered today for their often lop-sided successes on the battlefield. And third, the classical Western paradigm for war, as Dr. Hanson repeats throughout this work, does not depend for its success on the perfection of its various parts, but only on their underlying presence. In short, the Western way of war finds expression both in the specific military circumstances of a battle, and in the historical context in which the battle is fought.

Stand Firm, the 24th at Rorke's Drift, painting by Chris Collingwood

Those readers with an historical bent should find the descriptions of the famous battles in “Carnage and Culture” comfortably familiar, and hence, interesting from a purely narrative standpoint. And for those who find the author’s arguments persuasive, proofs of the advantages of the Western approach to war can be found in other historical settings, even where direct clashes between different cultures are not present. Thus, almost anyone with a reasonably broad knowledge of military history will be able to pick out a number of valid, less obvious historical examples — in addition to those offered by the author — that could, if the work were wider in scope, also have been included to support Dr. Hanson’s central thesis. For instance, when one considers — taking just two examples — the major changes that occurred in the armies of the Great Monarchies of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars or the German doctrinal and technological improvements that were adopted following the Central Power’s defeat in the First World War; it becomes abundantly clear that concerns about tradition, class, religion, or national pride have seldom prevented the military institutions of the West from either adopting new technologies or from correcting past failures with innovation and change. And in the final analysis, this openness to change could well be the single greatest strength of the classical Western approach to war, and the cultural characteristic that most makes it unique.

The Battle of Midway

“Carnage and Culture”, at 468 pages, is obviously not a short book; none-the-less, it is still both an enjoyable and a reasonably fast read. And considering the work purely from the readers’ standpoint, all of the battles and campaigns that Dr. Hanson chronicles in this work are clearly and succinctly detailed, and citations from original sources are plentiful. Also, for those not familiar with this author’s other books, Dr. Hanson writes gracefully and with a distinctively American voice; a writing style that makes all of his works a pleasure to read. As an added plus, the book is nicely illustrated with a sizeable number of plates and photographs; it even includes a short, but useful glossary. Finally, this work also contains a reasonable collection of maps; which, although not abundant, are well-chosen and helpful. One possible nit, however, should be mentioned: because of the inter-connected nature of Dr. Hanson’s core arguments, the text can occasionally seem repetitive, and the non-linear organization of the various battle sections can also be a little distracting.

The Battle of Tet

Victor Davis Hanson presents an original and very provocative thesis in “Carnage and Culture.” Moreover, the thrust of this work is generally persuasive, and although no single battle can perfectly illustrate every element of the Western heritage he examines, the examples offered in support of his thesis are well chosen. In short, Dr. Hanson offers both the student of military affairs, and the reader with a broader interest in history, a clearly-reasoned and even elegant, counter-materialist theory of the origin and development of the Western form of warfare. And for this reason, I strongly recommend this book.


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