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. “
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
Hanson was a professor of classics at
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
Greeceand . 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. Rome
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
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 “
Initial Assessments and Reviews
I started reading Carnage and Culture while pursuing the footnotes to a novel interpretation of Spanish colonization of the
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.
Bob Bateman brought
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
Even Hanson’s treatment of Jane Fonda’s 1972 visit to
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 [
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.