18 December 2007

Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq

Washington is an echo chamber. One pundit, one senator, one reporter proclaim a snazzy “truth” and almost immediately it reverberates as gospel. Conventional wisdom about Iraq is rarely questioned. A notion seems to find validity not on its logic or through empirical evidence, but simply by the degree to which it is repeated and felt to resonate.
Victor Davis Hanson, “Conventionally Ignorant: The same old simplicities about Iraq,” National Review Online

Thanks to Spinning Clio for highlighting Victor Hanson’s article. He takes issue with the predictions, analyses, and pre-historical assessments of spinsters whose perceptions change from day to day. It would be difficult to counter the truth of his opening shot above, or in the final paragraph:

In conclusion, we do know of one assertion about Iraq that really is true. The conventional wisdom of pundits, reporters, and politicians is predicated on their own daily perceptions of whether we are winning or losing the war—and thus what they say is true today they may well say is not tomorrow.
Hanson, “Conventionally Ignorant”

However, Hanson also echoes a common element proclaimed by supporters of President Bush’s policies. He begins his article with a caution against “snazzy truths,” but ends in the penultimate paragraph putting forth a snazzy line written by the spinsters in the White House public relations mill.

That we haven’t had another September 11th, while bin Laden’s popularity has plummeted in the Islamic Middle East—if both trends continue—will factor positively in any analysis.
Victor Davis Hanson, “Conventionally Ignorant”

September 11, 2001 was a momentous event with no precedent. There should be no reasonable expectation that it would happen again in the near future. The point that it has not been repeated clarifies the nature of the event rather than the success or failure of the actions it catalyzed.

Among the few events akin to the significance of 9/11, we might include the unprecedented use of nuclear weapons by the United States in August 1945. The Bomb was a new weapon, and it has not been employed since. But the deployment of nuclear devices came to dominate international relations through the next forty-five years, and remains a vital aspect of issues today. Do we assess the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the basis that cities have not again been laid waste in the same manner? (Apologies to the sailors on the Lucky Dragon, residents of Paiute villages in Nevada, Karen Silkwood, ...)

A Note on Method

Yesterday, I gave my money to Victor Davis Hanson and a big box retailer. While doing some holiday shopping at the mall, I bought Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001) for myself. Hanson’s book has earned mixed reviews, but rose to the top of my reading list due to its centrality in an argument put forth by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen in A Patriot’s History (2004). I noted several days ago:

Schweikart and Allen offer an explanation of the success of Cortés, and by extension all Europeans, that emphasizes mobility (horses and ships), the economic power of Europe ("wealth made possible the shipping and equipping of large, trained, well-armed forces" [7]), and social organization. This third factor, "the glue that held it all together" (7), they argue is novel and interesting, and of central importance to their conservative ideology. It merits a separate post.
Stripes, “Practicing Objectivity,” Patriots and Peoples

Schweikart and Allen explain the factor that I summed as “social organization” thus:

But these two factors were magnified by a third element—the glue that held it all together—which was a western way of combat that emphasized group cohesion of free citizens. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Cortés’s Castilians fought from a long tradition of tactical adaptation based on individual freedom, civic rights, and a “preference for shock battle of heavy infantry” that “grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes,” and other distinctly Western traits that gave nemerically inferior European armies a decisive edge.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 7.

The quotations in this extract, as well as the argument itself, originate in Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture. At the very least, my assessment of A Patriot’s History requires me to study Hanson’s first chapter, wherein he lays out his thesis in detail; chapter six, which explains the success of Cortés in Tenochtitlán; and the epilogue.

Reading Footnotes

I cannot read a book straight through except on the first reading, which is really skimming even when I read every word—something I tell my students is rarely needed with the history texts that I assign. Merely getting through the story an author puts forth is not reading except in the most general sense of the term. Rather, reading is rereading. Rereading requires probing, questioning, digging, and the piggybacking of additional texts. Every book or article opens more texts that must be tasted, chewed, savored, and swallowed or spat out (see Francis Bacon, “Of Studies”).

In terms of my reading practice, this distinction between the first reading (skimming) and the perusal called rereading is an artificial one. In the aisles of the bookstore, I start with the footnotes.

1 comment:

Robert Pearson said...

I read (and reread) Carnage and Cultrue and it seems to me that whatever the worth of Hanson's basic argument, Cortés had some unique circumstances in his favor, not related to the "Western way of war," as in lots of local support from the groups who supplied the sacrificial fodder for the rulers.

Lepanto seems a better example of where a decisive factor was the group cohesion of the freemen of one side versus the slaves of the other.

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