Carnage and Culture

I read Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture last year, coincidentally soon after reading Creasy’s Victorian-era survey book Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World

The earlier book consisted of relatively brief descriptions of the various battles that Creasy believed shaped history, the pinnacle of history being (of course) the British Empire of the 19th Century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, half a dozen of these battles involved the British (though not all were victories), from Hastings to Waterloo. Hanson notes that in the 150 years since Creasy’s book was published, these sorts of survey histories have fallen out of favor in relation to far more detailed studies of particular events, institutions and movements. But this is still a useful book to get a quick summary of, well, various events, has made it onto Rep. Skelton’s National Security reading list, and has allowed Dan Rather to make bizarrely obscure references to the Peloponnesian War. It’s a fairly good read.

Hanson’s book is a similar survey discussing nine battles, but the survey is used to provide examples illustrating a particular argument the author is making, rather than being a presentation of these battles in their own right. Hanson’s argument is that Western military culture, perhaps from an accident of Greek geography, has been uniquely lethal on the battlefield compared to other military cultures, and that Western society in general has spread globally because it uniquely provides the foundations for this military culture.

Interestingly, Hanson makes a point in comparing this argument to the one he believes is presented in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I read Diamond’s book a long time ago, and don’t remember him making the strong statement that Western preeminence was due to global geographic factors of climates and animal herds roaming longitudinally. I do remember the weaker statement that global geographic factors make it far, far more likely that a Eurasian society would be dominant rather than an African or American society, which doesn’t really contradict Hanson’s arguments that unique traits lead to dominance by a particular Eurasian culture. Bringing up Diamond in this fashion gives the impression of a strawman of geographic determinism being erected for pummelling. Hanson’s book is interesting in its own right, and doesn’t need this digression.

So, what makes Western military culture so lethal on the battlefield compared to other military cultures? Hanson uses exemplar clashes between Western and non-Western militaries to illustrate the differences based on the notions of individual freedom and initiative, free inquiry and self-audit, and a preference for decisive battles of annihilation. Most of this originated with the Greeks, who also provided the concept of heavy infantry as the primary element in these battles of annihilation. In the discussion of Salamis, we see the victory of free citizen-soldiers over the slave soldiers of Xerxes after a night of debate among the Greek generals on courses of action. At Gaugamela, we see the heavy Macedonian phalanx (a formation that embodies the Greek desire to fight closely with the enemy to decisively destroy him) aimed at and crushing the relatively lighter and looser formations of the Persian emperor, despite being grossly outnumbered. At Cannae (where a badly led Western army was lopsidedly defeated by a brilliantly led non-Western army), we see an example of civic militarism where the Romans basically refused to be beaten and therefore rallied all its national resources to eventually defeat the Carthagians. Creasy also covers battles from these wars, but, beyond arguing that Marathon, Gaugamela and Metarus were pivotal, does not delve into the factors that contributed to Western victory. The varying discussions of Cannae and Metarus are perhaps illustrative. Creasy points to Metarus as the point where Hannibal was stopped because his brother, bringing reinforcements from Spain, was defeated by brilliant Roman generalship. Hanson argues that Cannae was more like Pearl Harbor, where the nation-at-arms resolved that the defeat would be avenged, no matter how long it took. This anger and resolve allowed the Romans to call up legion after legion that made good the losses at Cannae and other battles, something that Hannibal and his mercenary army could not easily do: Hannibal would have to replicate Cannae half-a-dozen times to achieve victory, whereas the Romans had to defeat him once, and not necessarily crushingly.

The legacy of the phalanx is the Western tradition of heavy infantry, seen in the Roman legion and Renaissance pikeman. That these formations were already well-developed helped Western militaries take advantage of firearms when these became available: early gunpowder technology required mass volley-fire to be effective, and formations already trained to form lines naturally lent themselves to this new discipline. The other cultural attributes of individual freedom, inquiry and initiative, expressed in society at large, would eventually lead to the capitalist economies that could arm these formations with the latest weapons and keep them supplied far from home. And so we have Tenochtitlan and Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, Lepanto and the defeat of the Ottoman navy, and Rorke’s Drift and the one-sided slaughter of the South African colonial wars. With the conquest of Mexico, Hanson makes a point of how Cortez used locally available materials to restock his gunpowder supply and build a small but overwhelmingly powerful navy to take control of the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan. This use of raw materials was a consequence of Western tradition and scientific know-how. In contrast, Cortez’s native allies and Aztec enemies never were able to fully exploit the available materials in any way capable of challenging the Castillians on their own technological terms. Lepanto illustrates how the Ottomans, even though they had long-time access to Western military technology, never developed their own capability to produce more technology: the Sultan’s fleet was bought from Westerners or copied from Western designs. But, despite the bought technology, the Sultan’s fleet still lacked the initiative of the Western admirals and their desire for a decisive engagement; these are qualities that could not be easily copied or bought.

This adoption of the elements of Western military tradition by non-Westerners is the focus of the last two illustrative battles in Hanson’s book, Midway and Tet. At Midway, the Western-modelled Japanese fleet faced off with the American fleet. Hanson attributes this defeat to American scientific inquiry that led to the breaking of Japanese navy codes, to Yamamoto’s overly complicated but uncriticized plan, and to the initiative shown by the American pilots in finding and attacking the Japanese carriers. I think that the first part is true, but the last part was luck that the American strike happened when it did, with the Japanese carriers absolutely vulnerable. On the other hand, the American industrial advantage over Japan was such that the Japanese carrier force would eventually be sunk and not replaced, if not at Midway in so dramatic a fashion, then elsewhere, so perhaps this is a moot point. Hanson notes that the Japanese commanders tended to go down with their ships because of the loss of honor in having their ship shot out from underneath them; it would be shocking if American admirals did the same thing. This is perhaps an example in the culture of self-audit and the lack of this culture with the Japanese. Hanson implies that Yamamoto’s plan may have been vetted more thoroughly if produced by an American admiral with the flaws pointed out, though I’m not sure if this would be the case, as Western armies are not immune to bad leadership.

Tet is Hanson’s example of the culture of self-audit and self-criticism gone awry. He falls back to the notion that overly critical, overly negative media coverage of the Vietnam War and Tet in particular strongly contributed to eventual American defeat, despite overwhelming American military victories during Tet. Such criticism exacerbated the poor generalship and political leadership of the Americans, who had thrown away the Western preference for decisive battle in favor of limited rules of engagement and prohibitions against a decisive invasion of North Vietnam. This doesn’t take into account that Vietnam was a part of the larger Cold War, and calculations about the results of even stronger American military action in that context cannot be dismissed. Hanson duly notes that domestic critics of the war are falling back on a long tradition going back to Pericles, and that these criticisms did help in eventually correcting serious flaws in the American military (today’s all-volunteer military is a result of the post-Vietnam reorganization). This is all illustrative of the paradox of self-criticism: it greatly strengthens the military’s effectiveness, but can also seriously hamper military operations of the moment. He finishes by contrasting what happened to the United States after Vietnam to what happened to the Soviet Union after Afghanistan, a closed society without freedom of debate, the imploded after the debacle was acknowledged. In the end, after the Cold War, Vietnam will eventually become more like the West than the West like Vietnam, largely because of the Western tradition of free expression and self-criticism. In some sense, these attributes win the war in the long term.

Hanson wrote Carnage and Culture before 9/11. How does its ideas apply to today and to America’s engagement in Iraq? We certainly see their elements play out: a Western army rolling over an army modelled on Western lines but without the essential qualities that would have made it effective; individual initiative shown by American soldiers in reacting to the insurgency; the open questioning and audit of war leadership, perhaps embodied by the townhall meeting where Rumself was questioned by the troops; the larger criticism (quite arguably overly critical and relentlessly negative) from within America. No one knows yet how this story will end, but the Iraqi elections are perhaps the beginning of that end.

The Iraq war also illustrates a deficiency in Hanson’s analysis of the clashes between the West and non-Western militaries, especially in the last two hundred or so years. These Western military victories through decisive battle tend to be only one part of any ongoing wars fought between these armies and the native militaries. In the case of Iraq, decisive defeat of the Iraqi regular army was the first, relatively easy phase. Defeat of the insurgency is the longer, harder, costlier phase of what has to be done there. Hanson’s analysis is incomplete in that regard: how are insurgencies met, with decisive battle is no longer in the cards? Arguably, Hanson’s Vietnam analysis is flawed if one considers Vietnam a counterinsurgency war. Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace provides some insight into this: it’s a history of America’s many “small wars”, where the military (usually Marines) is deployed in counterinsurgency fights and for operations short of war between states. Boot argues that the main failure of Vietnam was that it was fought like a “big war”, with the American leadership throwing out a century’s worth of hard-won knowledge about how insurgencies are fought and countries pacified. In this sense, the continually frustrated American preference for a decisive battle in Vietnam was a deeper mistake, being a failure to properly analyze the war in the first place. So far in Iraq, we see the great difficulties of counterinsurgency warfare, but at least the military appears to regard this as a “small war” and is fighting it appropriately.

One Response to “Carnage and Culture”

  1. lgallant Says:

    Your comments have been very helpful at evaluating this book. I do have a question about it, using only this book, can you see how military (“western”) power was monumental in the creation of the exisiting society? I dare say that in many ways it has made many contributions. Any thought would be appreciated.