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Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power

by Victor Davis Hanson
492 pages,
ISBN: 0385500521


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Old Formula for Staving off the bin Ladens
by Robert Sibley

In the film "Lawrence of Arabia," there's a scene in which the British military adviser, Col. Brighton, tells Prince Faisal how his nomadic Bedouins can be turned into soldiers. "Great Britain," says Col. Brighton, "is a small country, poor compared to some, but yet it is great. And why?" "Because it has guns," says Prince Faisal. "Because it has discipline," says Col. Brighton, thumping his fist on the sand.

This scene came vividly to mind when I heard U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld's response to a reporter who had asked why the United States was being so vigorous in its pursuit of Al-Qaeda terrorists. "To kill them." Bang on, I thought, imagining Rumsfeld thumping his fist on the reporter's obviously thick skull.

In Carnage and Culture, author Victor Davis Hanson delivers a similar 'thumping' to everybody still too naive and nervous to confront post-Sept. 11 realities. He provides a sorely-needed corrective to a half-century of self-indulgence, which has left largely forgotten the sterner virtues that produced and sustained western civilization against barbarous assault.

After all these months of the war on terrorism, people are still whining about the need to show restraint, and oozing wobbly sentiments about the need to "understand the context" or grasp the "root causes" of terrorism. Indeed, among our intellectual elites it's fashionable to empathize with the Third-World Faisals; the West, they say, is dominant only because it lucked into technology.

But Professor Hanson, a military historian at the University of California in Berkeley, agrees with Col. Brighton. The real reason for western success is discipline, he contends. A military culture, derived from (but also influenced by) a particular political philosophy, has allowed the West generally to prevail in armed conflicts against non-West challengers for 2,500 years. As he states: "Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works, a rationalist tradition that alone allows us material and technological progress, the sole political culture that ensure the freedom of the individual, a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind, and the most lethal practice of arms conceivable."

How so? Perhaps the phrase "discipline of freedom" best encapsulates Hanson's argument. He asserts that western cultural and political tenets of social organization, free inquiry, economic self-interest, democratic liberty and individual freedom¨concepts unique to the West¨are rooted in the discipline of war-making that emerged from the city states of ancient Greeks. It was the Greeks who originated decisive or "shock" battle. Before then, war consisted of generally inconclusive engagements. The large numbers of slaves, conscripts and mercenaries, which comprised massive armies, under the command of aristocratic elites, were not inclined to fight to the bitter end. Victory in battle usually meant merely swapping one elite ruler for another¨not sufficient reason for the ordinary trooper to sacrifice his life. Who'd want to face charging spears so that the aristocrats could continue to enjoy their harems? The Greeks changed all that. As free men, they went to war by consent to defend their cities and privately-owned farms. They tended to be highly motivated, willing to stand their ground against the slave armies of Asian invaders.

This sense of themselves as egalitarian social units, bound together by friendship and common interests, was reflected in their phalanx-style of fighting. Free man, as Hanson observes, make the best soldiers because they are willing to temporarily subordinate their freedom to the practical requirements of military organization, precisely in order to safeguard the liberty of their society. Such disciplined commitment combined with superior training enabled the Greeks to defeat the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., arguably the most significant battle in western history. Had the Greeks lost that battle, there would have been no West.

Alexander the Great, benefiting from the legacy of Grecian war-making, used it to conquer Asia. The Roman legions copied it to carve out an empire from the Euphrates to the British Isles. Medieval foot-soldiers in their chain-mail used it to beat the Muslim hordes at Poitiers in 732, thereby ensuring that Europe stayed Christian. Indeed, this willingness to engage in shock battle has been a common aspect of Western History.

Hanson recreates in a vigorous and concrete style nine landmark "shock" battles between the West and the Rest, in which discipline was often the determining factor. Such battles include the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., where 50,000 Romans died in a single afternoon while driving back a Carthiginian army; the Spanish defeat of the human-sacrificing Aztecs in 1521; a 19th-century battle in which a few dozen British soldiers fought off thousands of Zulus at Rourke's Drift in South Africa; and the Battle of Midway, where the initiative of American navy pilots defeated a superior Japanese fleet.

Hanson sums up the battle at Rourke's Drift this way: "On January 22, 1879, the garrison at Rourke's Drift proved to be the most dangerous hundred men in the world. For every redcoat killed, more than 30 Zulus fell." But perhaps the efficacy of the western way of war was best demonstrated at Midway. As Hanson describes it, the Japanese carriers were "a showcase of power, grave and undefeated energy at 10:22 a.m. on June 4, 1942, and six minutes later blazing infernos of charred bodies and melting steel."

The Hanson thesis presents us with a paradox, however. This disciplined freedom, which for two millennia has enabled us westerners to defeat our enemies, has also allowed us in the last half-century to become undisciplined, weak-willed, self-indulgent and self-deluded. Prof. Hanson would likely characterize the current terrorism of Osama bin Laden and his Islamofascist supporters as lacking a self-sustaining purpose beyond sensational displays of anti-western hatred. Their efforts will eventually collapse because they lack the will and determination of a free people.

Nonetheless, a free people must move decisively against these terrorists and the regimes that support them to prevent short-term devastation such as a nuclear or bio-chemical strike would bring about. Thus, the question becomes: Do we possess the discipline of our forefathers to fight for our freedom? Or, as Prof. Hanson puts it: "Will the West always ... possess persons of the type who fought at Midway, or citizens who rowed for their freedom at Salamis, or young men who rushed to reform their battered legions in the aftermath of Cannae?"

Hanson offers this uncompromising response to his own question: "As long as Europe and America retain their adherence to the structures of constitutional government, capitalism, freedom of religious and political association, freedom speech and intellectual tolerance, then history teaches us that westerners can still field in their hour of need brave, disciplined and well-equipped soldiers who shall kill like none other on the planet." In other words, only if we have the discipline, fortitude, and willingness to abide by Rumsfeld's formula for war-making can we defeat terrorism and remain free.

It is a salutary message for us westerners as we embark on the opening skirmish of the wars of the 21st century. ˛

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