Victor Davis Hanson: His work dissected (ongoing series)

[Robert Bateman is an author, historian and Army infantry officer. He was stationed in Iraq from January 2005 until February 2006. His most recent book is "No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident."]

... [Victor Davis] Hanson's basic contention is that face-to-face infantry battle is a cultural legacy exclusive to the"West." In Carnage and Culture, he sets out to demonstrate this by resurrecting the hoary old 19th century model of"Decisive Battles" and claiming that the study of battle is the One True Way. Here is how he lays out the reason for his focus upon individual battles:

In an analysis of culture and conflict why should we concentrate on a few hours of battle and the fighting experience of the average soldier - and not the epic sweeps of wars, with their cargo of grand strategy, tactical maneuver, and vast theater operations that so much better lend themselves to careful social and cultural exegesis? Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing, which is ultimately found only in battle. (pg. 7)


There is an inherent truth in battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory.

Just a short while later Hanson rams home the point ... again:

We owe it to the dead to discover at all costs how the practice of government, science, law, and religion instantaneously determines the fate of thousands on the battlefield - and why. (pg. 8)

A few lines later he repeats himself, and at this point you are starting to think,"Hmmmm, maybe he's serious about this focus on battle as being what matters thing":

War is ultimately killing. Its story becomes absurd when the wages of death are ignored by the historian. (pg. 8)

In case you weren't listening, he keeps up the same drumbeat throughout the book.

Hanson is saying that the study of battle provides the evidence to support his main idea. Hanson outlines his overall thesis in a section subheaded"The Singularity of Western Military Culture." In that section Hanson puts it this way:

All armies engage in mass confrontations at times; few prefer to do so in horrendous collisions of shock and eschew fighting at a distance or through stealth when there is at least the opportunity for decisive battle ...

And then:

Foot soldiers are common in every culture, but infantrymen, fighting en masse, who take and hold ground and fight face-to-face, are a uniquely Western specialty ... (pg. 445)

In other words, only Western armies seek out shock battle and short, sharp, hard fights. Others try to avoid battles, using movement, misdirection, deception, and other stratagems so as not to fight.

But there is one big problem with that thesis: One of the most famous battles in all of history runs 180 degrees against Mr. Hanson's thesis. It is a battle so famous that Hanson cannot ignore it or pretend that it didn't happen, as he does with many other battles (which we will see in later weeks). But more than that, it was not just one battle, but a whole string of battles, all of which ran counter to his idea that the cultural legacy of the"West" generates an inclination for head-on battles, and that inclination leads to victory. Even worse, what eventually led to an overall victory for the Roman ("Western") side in the war was not battle, but actually the active avoidance of battle! Those last two points, however, Hanson has concealed.

The short version of what happened in the Punic Wars runs something like this: Rome and a North African city called Carthage fought a series of wars that spanned almost 120 years. During the second war, a Carthaginian leader named Hannibal marched his army from Spain, across what is now the south of France, over the Alps, and into Italy. During those marches he confronted small Roman detachments and Roman allies. He beat them all. Then, once he invaded the Roman homeland, he defeated several Roman armies in a row.

In the first major battle, Hannibal and his army directly confronted an equally sized Roman army and wiped out about 20,000 of perhaps 36,000 Romans on the field. In the next battle, he again offered direct combat with his army, again on equal terms, and in that battle his army killed 30,000 Romans while capturing the remaining 10,000. So, in two battles, Hannibal's non-Western army killed or captured something like 60,000 out of almost 80,000 Romans sent against them, while barely losing any of their own strength. Hanson, of course, never talks about these numbers or battles in any detail. He grants them light, one-sentence asides and concessions, but generally brushes past their meaning. With the addition of Cannae, these three fights are examples that run counter to Hanson's thesis. One battle might have been an exception to the rule. But when the historical record shows battle after battle where the"Western" way of war is shown up, on home turf, when the Westerners outnumbered the enemy, the thesis begins to lose air. Hanson, however, brushes this aside by admitting that Cannae"was not a fluke." But he does so in just one sentence.

But back to the narrative: Finally, the series of pitched battles culminated in the absolute destruction of the largest Roman army yet thrown against the Carthaginians. Out of an estimated 70,000 Roman legionnaires who arrived in the vicinity of the battlefield at a place called Cannae, Hannibal's army killed about 50,000 of them in a few hours. The Carthaginians did this by pretending to pull back in the middle of their line, until they sucked the Roman army into a three-sided trap, which their cavalry then closed from behind. It was the definition of a historic battle, but the really interesting stuff came later. More on that in a moment.

Now, to give the devil his due, Hanson's description of the battle that occurred in 216 B.C. is generally accurate, in the broadest outlines. He does go pretty far, however, in trying to twist the language around to suit his needs. So, while he takes no liberties with the specifics of what happened on that day, he is tricky with his use of language. Hanson tries to minimize the impact of the horrific Roman defeat at Cannae by making it seem like the actual size of the massive Roman army did not matter. Instead, he suggests, the Romans that lost there were effectively the second-stringers.

For example, he mentions, how at Cannae the African troops in the Carthaginian army were"veterans." Then he conversely describes many of the 70,000 Romans as,"adolescents who filled the Romans ranks, depleted by the thousands butchered earlier at Trebia and Lake Trasimene" (pg. 101). In another part of the text, while Hanson says that Hannibal"arrayed 10,000 skilled horsemen," he goes on to describe the opposing Roman cavalry as"6,000 poorly trained mounted Italians." (pg. 102) Now, the problem with that is that the sources do not describe the Roman cavalry as"poorly trained." It is true that the Romans generally did not have the best cavalry. But in this specific case, Hanson is just making an assertion. He does this because it fits his thesis. He does not know what training the Roman cavalry had, any more than he knows how many"adolescents" were in the Roman army that day. The historical record is, effectively, silent on those specific points. In other words, Hanson is merely guessing, but writing his guesses in such a way as to make them appear authoritative.

But all of this is small fry compared to his greatest offenses.

How, one might be asking themselves at this point, can Hanson defend his thesis of the supremacy of the Western Way of War given the facts of these battles? How can he continue to assert that the West is supreme in infantry shock battle, when all major Roman battles of the Second Punic War mentioned in this chapter show the Romans being beaten in direct head-to-head shock battle by non-Westerners? Well, the answer is moderately simple. Hanson tries to save his thesis by saying something like,"Uh, battle matters ... except when it doesn't." In fact, this is what he says:

Cannae, like so many of these landmark battles, is the exception that proves the rule: even when Roman armies were poorly led, foolishly arranged, squabbling before battle over the proper deployment, and arrayed against a rare genius, the catastrophic outcome was not fatal to their conduct of the war. (pg. 105)

What is remarkable about Cannae is not that thousands of Romans were so easily massacred in battle, but that they were massacred to such little strategic effect. (pg. 111)

Students of war must never be content to learn merely how men fight a battle, but must always ask why soldiers fight as they do, and what ultimately their battle is for. (pg. 131)

So, you see, despite Hanson having written over and over again that battle is what matters, when confronted with irrefutable historical evidence contrary to his thesis that the"West" is supreme in infantry-centric shock battles, Hanson becomes a flip-flopper. In these quotes above he is saying, because he must, that it actually does not matter who wins the battle!

But what about what happened afterward? If what really matters, according to this new Hanson formulation, is the bigger picture, then what happened next? What happened after the Romans were crushed, for a third time, on their home turf? Hanson writes:

Marcus Junius was appointed dictator, with formal directives to raise armies in any manner possible. He did so magnificently. More than 20,000 were recruited into four new legions. Some legionaries were not yet seventeen. Eight thousand slaves were purchased at public expense and given arms, with a proviso that courage in battle might lead to freedom. Junius himself freed 6,000 prisoners and took direct command of this novel legion of felons. (pg. 127)

Huh? Wait a second. In an earlier passage Hanson wrote,"Western armies often fought with and for a sense of legal freedom." (pg. 21) This, in fact, was a foundation to his hypothetical motivation for the Western soldiers. According to Hanson, it was because of their freedoms that men in the West fought so hard and so well in infantry shock battles.

Yet here, of 20,000 new troops Hanson is lauding the Romans for raising in the wake of the disaster at Cannae, a full 14,000 of them are either slaves or prisoners. (And I thought our recruiting difficulties in the U.S. Army were rough.) How can one be a slave and at the same time fight due to a sense of one's civic responsibility to the Roman state? This is an especially difficult question since most Roman slaves were from foreign sources in the first place, and so would have had no allegiance to Rome.

But the legions were raised, and by the end of the chapter Hanson's logic has become so twisted around that this fact, not the facts of what happened in the battle, is what Hanson contends matters. But then what did the Romans do with those legions? Perhaps this line might help. (Primer: Hasdrubal is another Carthaginian leader; Metaurus was a battle that took place in 207 B.C., nine years after Cannae.) Here Hanson is offering a hypothetical and comparing the strategic levels of war by talking about the Carthaginian political leadership vice that of the Romans.

After Hasdrubal's catastrophic setback at the Metaurus, there was no likelihood that the Carthaginian Assembly, as Rome had done after the far worse slaughter at Cannae, would have ordered a general muster of all its able-bodied citizenry -- a real nation in arms arising to crush the hated resurgent legions. (pg. 9)

Now, from that sentence one gets the impression that after the battle of Cannae, the Romans did, in fact, arise as a"real nation in arms" and that they subsequently immediately sought battle and then" crushed" the Carthaginian army under Hannibal, right?

Wrong. Though Hanson makes only one slight mention of it, the fact is that Hannibal stayed in Italy for the next 14 years. He stayed on Roman soil, moving with near impunity, year after year. How could Hannibal do that?

Well, completely contrary to Hanson's thesis about how Western armies seek battle, hold ground, and strive for short and sharp shock conflicts, the reality was that the Romans, for the next 14 years, deliberately avoided shock and pitched battles with Hannibal. (Remember these Hanson lines?"All armies engage in mass confrontations at times; few prefer to do so in horrendous collisions of shock and eschew fighting at a distance or through stealth when there is at least the opportunity for decisive battle..." and"Foot soldiers are common in every culture, but infantrymen, fighting en masse, who take and hold ground and fight face-to-face, are a uniquely Western specialty..." (pg. 445))

What the Romans actually did was exactly the opposite of the Hanson thesis. They broke up their armies into smaller forces and harassed Hannibal indirectly. They gave ground, regularly, and lived to maneuver another day. They sought to wear him down, while preserving their own forces. They avoided pitched battles on any large scale. In short, they followed the direct advice of one of the other most famous generals of all time, one who is only mentioned by name a single time in the entire chapter (and then without noting his actions). That man was Quintus Fabius Maximus, called"Cunctator" (The Delayer), and it is from him that we have the term"Fabian Strategy," which was so magnificently put into play by a fellow named George Washington a couple of millennia later.

How Hanson missed that extra 14-year part where the Romans avoided major pitched battles in Italy is curious.

Folks, this is just one chapter, and it was a chapter dealing with events within Hanson's specialty. It gets worse from here.

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