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06 April 2008

Carnage and Culture: Overview

Victor Davis Hanson offers an ambitious thesis in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001). He writes with force, conviction, and style. His central concern is for the “core elements of Western civilization” (11). These elements have made Europeans the world’s most lethal killers, and has made “the history of warfare … often the brutal history of Western victory” (24). His conclusion highlights the cultural superiority of the West, and its danger.

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 structure that ensures 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.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 455.

We need not fear wars between Western civilization and Others, he suggests, for the West will prevail. But, when Western states fight, the carnage is astounding. “Gettysburg in a single day took more Americans than did all the Indian wars of the nineteenth century” (453).

Superiority of Western Civilization

Hanson’s implicit argument appears to be the main point: Western military victories reveal the superiority of Western culture. Although he claims disinterest in “contemporary cultural debates” (xv), he takes several shots in these battles. He lauds the work of colleagues he considers “custodians of our cultural heritage in often scary and depressing times” (xvi). He casts aspersion upon Kirkpatrick Sale, Michel Foucault, Tzvetan Todorov, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and others on the Left, labeling their work “anti-Western criticism” in opposition to “the traditionalists’ defense of Western Civilization” (470). Hanson takes issue with the “biological determinism” of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), to which his book offers a general counterpoint. He directly addresses Diamond’s book in only a few pages (15-19); Some reviewers have noted the inadequacy of this brief critique (Fred M. Blum), while others find it compelling (Association for Renaissance Martial Arts). Both Hanson and Diamond eschew racial explanations for the preeminence in global affairs of Western Europe and its former colonies, especially the United States.

Hanson was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno when he wrote Carnage and Culture, and is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. This book on war and culture must be understood in terms of arguments made more explicit in Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (1998), which Hanson coauthored with John Heath. Their perspective is stated succinctly an essay adapted from the book for Stanford Magazine in 1998.

The demise of classics means more than the implosion of an inbred academic discipline, more than the disappearance of one more bookosaurus here and there. For chained to this sinking academic bureaucracy called classics are the ideas, the values, the vision of classical Greece and Rome. These are the ideas and values that have shaped and defined Western civilization, a vision of life that has ironically come under increasing attack here in the elite universities of the West just as its mutated form is metastasizing throughout the globe. Very few in America now know much about the origins of the West in ancient Greece—and our citizens are moving further from the central philosophical and ethical tenets that are so necessary if we are to understand and manage the leisure, affluence and freedom of the West.

This ignorance of Greek wisdom should be of crucial interest to every American—not because the West is being supplanted by some global multiculturalism (as so many academics proclaim), but quite the opposite: because its institutions and material culture are now overwhelming the world. The Greeks—and the Greeks alone—bequeathed us constitutional government, individual rights, freedom of expression, an open economy, civilian control of the military, separation of religious and political authority, private property, free scientific inquiry and open dissent. And for better or worse, these are the things most on this earth now desire.
Who Killed Homer?Stanford Magazine

These arguments are carried forward in the rhetoric of the final sentence where Hanson declares that our civilization tracing its core elements to the ancient Greeks carries “a weighty and sometimes ominous heritage that we must neither deny nor feel ashamed about” (455). They are argued more persuasively through abundant references—including the epigraph to every chapter—to a wide range of Greek and Roman texts—including histories, philosophy, and drama. The ancients and their writings—even their disagreements—are his point of reference whether discussing Charles Martel’s halt of the advance of Islam into Europe, the end of Japanese expansion through the Pacific in their defeat at Midway, or even Jane Fonda’s 1972 trip to Hanoi.

His argument by reference is effective. Hanson’s book has been driving me into the texts of Thucydides (and he wrote the introduction to Robert Strassler’s The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War) and those of Plato; I appreciate the provocation. I regard it as tragic that my formal education included no study of Roman classics and few Greek texts: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in high school English, Plato’s Republic and Phaedrus in conjunction with Jacques Derrida in graduate school. On the other hand, I learned to chase footnotes and other such references early on, and courses as wide ranging as introduction to psychology, philosophy of religion, history of the Renaissance, and seminar in seventeenth and eighteenth century American literature were full of references to the ancients. In consequence, I did a lot of self-directed reading. Still yet, although all true education is self-education, there are many benefits from reading the Western canon in company with others: benefits that are largely absent from my schooling. Although my students and colleagues know me as a multiculturalist and some see me as a postmodernist, I deplore these gaps in my knowledge.

On the other hand, I would not urge cancellation of my course in American Indian History in favor of more study of Aristotle, while it seems that Hanson would. On his blog, Works and Days, he reduces the academic reform that led to such courses as declarations that “America was singularly racist.” I disagree vehemently with his caricature of courses, books, and other phenomena traveling under the label of multiculturalism. His reasoning in such editorials relies upon straw man arguments and bad history. He states for example, “[f]or forty years critics have attacked Western culture … the charge was that our culture was inordinately dominated by white, heterosexual Christian men, … the solution was to enact affirmative action, …”. President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, which coined the term “affirmative action” goes back a bit more than forty years, and was not rooted in attacks upon Western culture. Moreover, Native American Indian preference hiring in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which serves Native peoples, dates to its implementation by Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier in 1934. Of course this preferential employment policy is not really part of Affirmative Action, although it bears similarity. Hanson’s blanket statement is the sort of rhetoric that appeals to neoconservatives, but it falls short as accurate history. Education in the classics without deeper study of the history of one’s own nation will not serve “constitutional government, individual rights, … free scientific inquiry and open dissent.”

Initial Assessments and Reviews

I started reading Carnage and Culture while pursuing the footnotes to a novel interpretation of Spanish colonization of the Americas (see the note on method in "Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq"). I tried to keep my foray into his text brief, but failed. I found his writing engaging and his arguments provocative. I could not stop with the few select chapters that initially seemed adequate to my purpose. Hanson’s text also drove me to read Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993)—one of his key sources for the chapter “Technology and the Wages of Reason.” Thomas offers explanations for the success of Cortés from which Hanson departs (see my “Carnage and Culture: Tenochtitlán”—forthcoming here).

Hanson’s book deserves critical attention and critique, as John Lynn notes in Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2003).

In his provocative volumes, The Western Way of War and Carnage and Culture, the noted classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson maintains that the Greek manner of fighting established a pattern that has endured for 2,500 years in the West. The implications of his thesis are profound. If it is correct, then a form of combat that appeared no later than the seventh century B.C. can explain the European conquest of the globe and the continued military preeminence of the West to the dawn of the twenty-first century. Hanson’s thesis challenges us to examine what is essential and distinctive about Western warfare, and we gain by the effort even should we ultimately find its bold conclusion wanting.
Lynn, Battle, 3.

Bob Bateman brought Battle to my notice through his declaration, “Carnage and Culture is one of the few works of history to ever prompt an entire book written in rebuttal almost immediately” (“But the dawn is breakin’”). Bateman’s multi-part review of Carnage and Culture finds little of merit.

Some other reviewers find Hanson’s arguments convincing. Hal Elliot Wert, Journal of Military History (2003), celebrates “gems of information that repeatedly challenge the short-sighted contemporary view of history” (546). Other favorable reviews are more balanced, such as John Hillen’s Joint Force Quarterly (Autumn 2005) assessment, “Hanson’s provocative thesis is more right than wrong … [his] enduring contribution is to reintroduce the power of culture to the debate about military effectiveness” (118). Publishers Weekly predicted “Hanson’s direct, literate style and his evenhandedness should appeal to the liberalist middle of the left and right alike” (16 July 2001, 176).

At least one celebration of his book trots out the clichéd binary that constructs a world of “anti-Western radicals” and “pro-Western conservatives” (David Rodman, Journal of Strategic Studies [September 2002], 213). However, Rodman’s praise does disservice to Hanson’s book. Many of those that comprise the bloc of “pro-Western conservatives,” particularly significant numbers that are influential in American politics, do not favor “politics apart from religion” (Hanson, 4). Not all conservatives in America agree that core elements of the Western values they embrace include “free inquiry, the scientific method, unfettered research, and capitalist production” (Hanson, 361).

Even Hanson’s treatment of Jane Fonda’s 1972 visit to Hanoi differs from that of some conservatives. Henry Mark Holzer and Erika Holzer, for example, in their “Aid and Comfort”: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam (2002) build a case that Jane Fonda could have been tried and found guilty for treason. They summarize key points of their book on their website in an article written in response to Fonda’s My Life So Far (2005).

Fonda’s transparently crude attempts to provide the Communists with a famous American voice to mouth their propaganda and undermine our war efforts in Vietnam could have had only one purpose: to provide aid and comfort to our enemy.
An American Traitor: Guilty as Charged

Hanson agrees that Fonda’s actions “may have been treasonous” (434), but locates these actions in context of similar acts of protest back to 480 B.C. “Plato’s thoughts on the battle [Salamis] were near treasonous” (59).

The strange propensity for self-critique, civilian audit, and popular criticism of military operations—itself part of the larger Western tradition of personal freedom, consensual government, and individualism—thus poses a paradox. The encouragement of open assessment and the acknowledgement of error within the military eventually bring forth superior planning and a more flexible response to adversity.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 438.

I am still struggling to understand how Plato's criticism of the unleashing of democracy was treasonous, but this struggle has me reading The Laws. Such provocation speaks to the importance of Hanson's book, if not the merits of his arguments. The highest praise I can offer Carnage and Culture is that it sends me in new directions of inquiry. I expect to write more in the coming weeks (or months) about antiwar protests during the Sixties (a term that embraces the years 1958-1974), the relationship between Hanson’s military history and cultural history, and the contrast his book offers to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

1 comment:

Erik Carter said...

Whose Democracy is it Any Way?

Conflation of the Ancient Greek and Present American Democracy in a Contemporary Classroom by contemporary freshman leads me to the following speculation connected up to your blog:

In addition to accepting the notion that “might makes right,” students in my mythology class at Washington State University have frequently conflated "our" current Democracy, that is American democracy, with the democracy of Athens. I have pointed out recently that this is a dangerous conflation because it assumes a superior status based upon a somewhat monolithic ideological quality to that democracy. “Our” democracy has been written about with evolutionary fervor as the pinnacle of governmental development along a linear trajectory of “improvement.” Taken in by our present faith in the institutional superiority of our own, we have constructed and naturalized democracy as more evolved, less oppressive, more like ourselves and our daily lives. This democracy is not the democracy of either Aeschylus war propaganda or Athenian design. Fifth century Athens was not representative democracy but rather a democracy of male citizens only. If a member of Athens was not a citizen, then he didn’t have the basic “inalienable rights” of citizens, namely he wasn’t able to vote in the form of participation in the senate. Particularly relevant to my classroom mini-drama, they weren’t able to testify in Athenian court either.

Women and barbarians were excluded from participation in this machinery of Athenian democracy because they were denied a voice on the grounds that they were either inferior or incapable of giving reliable testimony. While reading the Oresteia, I found myself faced with the daunting task of both introducing college students to Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, and conveying an interesting more scholarly way of reading the play. In doing so, I was drawn like a moth to the radiant flame of the last play in the trilogy by Aeschylus. In the first play, the dialogues between Clytemnestra and the Chorus engage in an interesting series of dismissal and reminder that women, barbarians, and anyone excluded from citizenship in Athens, were dismissed as inferior to men—and Athenian men at that. By the third play, this was re-introduced in the courtroom where Apollo debates with the Furies about among other things whether or not Orestes is related by blood to his mother or his father in the context of revenge. The stakes in the drama seem innocently enough to be whether or not Orestes is guilty of justifiable homicide. The resolution of the drama, where the jury represents citizens of Athens, solves the conflict with a hung jury, very likely, because the mercy of the court is embodied by its’ judge, Athena as the divine symbol of Athens institutions themselves.

One of my students, having taken a course on Ancient Greek history, assured me that the word “barbarian” was only meant to describe the strange sound of languages spoken by the other people to the Greeks. He explained that Greeks highly respected the people who they labeled barbarian, they just couldn’t understand their language. The ethnocentrism expressed by this student is blatant to some, but to his own perspective he still can’t see it. By particularizing the democracy he is referring to, he is swallowing the ideology at the expense of history.

Aeschylus writes an etiological myth of the creation story of the first Athenian Court. While this is interesting, it also situates the starting point of knowledge and myth and story in a western humanist miasma. Students exposed to these stories for the first time react like it is all new and simply the way it is. They naturalize human experience to be recognizable only through the lenses of a canon of written literary texts.

While it is noteworthy that most of these texts are in translation, the imbedded racial assumptions and ethnocentrism continue to reproduce. This is not a natural process like evolution. It is ultimately a structural and ideological process. While it is useful to get a common ground of material to be understood as a part of the western tradition it is hardly a tradition that most students have not already been exposed to simply because they have not read the primary sources. In point of fact, it is hard enough to get my own students to read the texts for themselves, but they clearly gravitate to material that conforms to their presupposed idea of what a good story or history is. Since they only have to read these dominant Greek mythological texts for ¾ of the material in the required intro humanities class I currently teach on mythology, that leaves ¼ of the rest of the class time devoted to some other tradition or set of stories.

My students have found ways to avoid buying books, as many will find college students doing. This has ultimately backfired on them for the standard reason (the book store sells back books that have not been purchased by the mid-term). Another new and unexpected reason has also cropped up. The fact is that the textbook I am using for Navajo Creation [Zolbrod, Paul G. Diné Bahané: Tha Navajo Creation Story. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press 1984] is under copyright and not available in the public domain through e-text collections. Computer literate students can find any number of classical texts online, they may find many older translations of Navajo stories online as well as current tales (with a little help), but they can’t find the full book that I am using because it is simply not available in written form online, for free or fee. They can buy other books, but these books often tell stories differently because they have been recorded from different oral story-tellers, with different compilers, and different editors. They don’t have the same kind of access to these stories that they do to the building blocks of our imagined history of democracy.

This last digression matters. It is clear that without multiple sources on Democracy that are historically rigorous in the sense that they acknowledge the unavoidable differences over history, over time, and in different locations, they construct a simple minded democracy that can’t even see its’ own imaginary structure. This concept of democracy bespeaks a mindset whereby these students also construct imaginary Indians based upon scientific racialism of the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the absence of the textbook, students seem to construct all manner of positive cultural stereotypes: closer to nature, more religious, more interesting, less patriarchal. However, by being pushed to examine the Navajo creation stories alongside the Greek and Roman sources that have served as the beginning of western “history” and “civilization” I hope that my students will eventually apply the same critical evaluation of their own values and assumptions about both “our” history and “other” histories.

Erik Carter

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