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on 22 April 2002
Hanson's "Carnage and Culture" is worth reading for its vigorous style as well as its thought-provoking thesis. Books about military history are often fairly dry, but Hanson writes clearly and in the active voice, perhaps unconciously emulating the Western military tactics he describes.
He argues that Western success on the battlefield is a cultural phenomenon, not just the result of good fortune in the allocation of resources or the serendipity of technology. Free nations produce leaders and soldiers who take the initiative. Citizens who are protected by law against arbitrary action feel free to "audit" battles and criticize soldiers, leading to improved strategy and tactics. Western military commands are heirarchical, but not unduly so, so that they adapt well to changing circumstances. The result is an approach to battle that has been evolving since the time of the ancient Greeks, and that now involves applying maximum disclipline and violence at the point of engagement in order to annihilate, not merely defeat, an opponent.
Hanson discusses a series of battles to illustrate the differences between the "Western" style of war and the practices of cultures that he deems to be "non-Western": Salamis (480 BC); Gaugamela (331 BC); Cannae (216 BC); Poitiers (732); Tenochtitlan (1520-21); Lepanto (1571); Rourke's Drift (1879); Midway (1942) and Tet (1968). Each of these struggles illustrates a Western preference for decisive battle that inflicts enormous and disproportionate casualties on the loser.
Throughout, Hanson is very careful to stress that the losers are brave, smart individuals--he is not a racist and goes out of his way to explain that, person for person, the citizens of the West are no better than their non-Western counterparts. He does, however, argue that Western culture, for better or worse, produces better results on the battlefield than non-Western culture does. This position is sure to be viewed as politically incorrect, but it is certainly worth pondering.
"Carnage and Culture" is particularly interesting in these troubled times... A wounded republic, like Rome after its horrendous defeat at Cannae, is a determined and ruthless enemy. As the historian Ross Leckie wryly observed in "Hannibal": "The Romans were a thorough lot, and Carthage is a memory."
Having said all this, Hanson's book leaves almost untouched some fairly important questions. If freedom and initiative are so critical to Western military success, how do we explain the performance of totalitarian Germany's military in the early years of World War II and its quick defeat of the French democracy in 1940? Why were the Soviets, who endured purges and arbitrary executions in the 1930s and throughout World War II, ultimately successful against the more "Westernized" Germans? I suspect that Hanson could offer cogent answers to these questions, but it puzzles me that he did not volunteer them in his book.
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on 12 July 2002
Although Hanson logically explains the world domination by European powers for the past 500 years and foreseeable future, his brilliant basic argument is seriously undercut by his right-wing nonsense. He attributes military success to the inherent individualism of a free society; he ignores the fundamental element of a free society, the ability of people to trust each other without the need for police and other regulatory enforcers.
It's worth reading, nonetheless.
Basically, he argues that individualism, rationalism and personal initiative of a free people are the keys to European success. It's an absolutely valid thesis; unfortunately, he didn't include the equally vital discipline, personal responsibility and willing obedience. Yet, it's easy enough to overlook his flaws and focus on his main theme that specific cultural traits make the vital difference.
Basically, Hanson argues that European individualism has its roots in classical Greek democracy. His weakness is not knowing why such democracy arose in Greece, just as a similar fierce democracy arose in Scandinavia. Not knowing "why" matters, but it doesn't take away from his basic emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility.
Actually, two key factors explain European success. First is the willing acceptance of discipline needed for a united cause; second is the personal initiative to come up with aa good alternative if the first element fails. These principles apply to all elements of a free society. Great warrior societies perish, great commercial societies vanish, and great religions die. Enduring societies produce guns, butter and prayers.
Freedom works, because people with free choice volunteer to vigorously defend their societies. People who are free to choose achieve far more than those who are coerced or drafted. This applies to war as well as economics, religion, politics, the arts and justice. Hanson limits his examples to war, which is the great weakness of his book.
Strangely enough, Hanson laments ". . . some key ingredients of traditional Western warfare appear to be all but gone. Mercenary armies in America and Europe are the norm." It's an odd comment on today's voluntary, well-paid and highly professional US military, compared to the conscription of draftees in the past.
However, the fundamental basis of a free society is trust. It applies to business, which is why Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Halliburton are such distressing symbols of greed over honesty. In analyzing the Tet Offensive of 1968, Hanson blames "liberals" for the American loss of Vietnam. He doesn't seem to understand that it was the public loss of trust in the military and political leadership of the 1960s that brought defeat. In 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was a similarly rude shock for Western society which expected the war to be over before Christmas - - - but, in those days politicians and generals were trusted.
Ignoring such elements of a free society constitute major flaws in this book. But, it doesn't undermine the basic premise that certain basic cultural values give Western society an unprecedented military and economic advantage for the past several hundred years. Ours is a confrontational society based on competition in business, an adversarial legal system, a win-lose political debate rather than compromise and mediation, and a system of checks and balance on the use of political and economic authority.
Those qualities made Western society into the world's superpower. It's time to look at 5,000 years of history to examine qualities that created earlier dominance in war, economics or religion. We tend to think of Western society as the pinnacle of material and spiritual achievement, as all previous societies thought of their accomplishments. Surely one lesson of history is that the qualities which create success are not those which sustain it.
Hanson is well worth reading for his one-note theory of modern power -- he says it is the Western knack for killing. It is much more. There is a whole quilt of qualities, not merely one little blood-soaked patchwork piece. He offers a nice first step in understanding the worldwide acceptance of current European values -- but, he ignores many other elements that create the whole patchwork quilt.
The greatest danger to our freedom comes from absolutist dogma such as Hanson's assertion, "Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works . . . . . " Egypt under the Pharaohs was the longest surviving and wealthiest society of its era -- which collapsed because it could not accept change. Our society is scarcely the only one that works -- though it may well be the best for modern times. Hanson needs to look beyond his own cloistered little ivory tower to see the beauty of other societies.
Fortunately, a free society is a process of continual change. Unlike past nations, which enshrined a conservative heritage of tradition rather than accept change, Western society will likely continue to evolve to meet and match ever-changing conditions. Hanson aptly shows one reason why. But, there are many more reasons it is so.
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on 28 January 2015
A bit repetitive in places; I think Hanson ought to credit his readership with the intelligence to understand his points more quickly, but an interesting thesis nonetheless. His analysis of several ancient battles and the societies that were involved seems sound. I am less sure of his predictions of future western military domination in an era where technology trumps discipline and ideals. I rate the work heavily because it is interesting and thought-provoking.
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on 16 May 2016
A fabulous and thought provoking piece, by one of the worlds foremost intellectuals. Most criticisms of it him merely reflect individual biases and not the breadth of knowledge contained within this worthy tome.
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