Torturing History

A military historian abuses the past.


Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, by Victor Davis Hanson, New York: Doubleday, 320 pages, $29.95

You're in a crowded room, watching someone rail about some issue of politics or culture. He's loud, sloppy with facts. He's trashing his own position, discrediting the very thing that he believes. Which -- here's the problem -- is pretty much the same thing you happen to believe. He's a wrecking ball on legs, taking out the walls of his own house, and you live there too.

So let's talk about Victor Davis Hanson, the classicist and author of The Western Way of War, The Soul of Battle, and other popular military histories. Hanson has long served as a spokesman for "Western" values, a job that has taken on a new stature after 9/11. With a family farm, a teaching job at Cal State Fresno, and a column for National Review Online, he's positioned to be the voice we hear from the bedrock -- from down there in the real America, the place we apparently came from before we got lost in the thickets of cultural relativism and snarky academic trendiness.

Hanson's career argument, most recently advanced in the book Carnage and Culture, is that military forces are most likely to win wars when they are composed of free men with common values who are defending their own land, whether against a direct threat or against an ideology that creates a feeling of being threatened. "Freedom," he writes, "turns out to be a military asset." When I first reviewed Carnage and Culture for a newspaper a few months ago, I was so grateful to read some alternative to the usual nonsense about how military training turns men into unthinking cogs who only do what they're told -- which is always somehow supposed to be a good thing -- that I failed to notice how bad this book actually is.

To be sure, by approaching military history with an eye for the utility of freedom, Hanson is off to a good start. If you want to talk about free men taking up arms against a threat, we can talk about the Marines on Iwo Jima whose officer corps was ripped apart, who were separated from their units, and who fought on effectively, improvising and agreeing: I'm gonna try to get a grenade into that bunker -- you guys cover me. We can talk about the soldiers who were allowed to vote for their own commander-in-chief in 1864 -- not a common 19th-century event -- and who voted overwhelmingly for Abraham Lincoln, who had vowed to fight until the South capitulated. "The men who would have to do the fighting," writes the historian James McPherson, "had voted by a far larger margin than the folks back home to finish the job." Or we could talk about my own grandfather, who came home from Europe hating the army. My grandmother describes him sitting at the kitchen counter with a copy of Mein Kampf -- driving through it, determined to understand what he'd fought against.

So, freedom. Yes.

But not Hanson's. The definition of freedom in Carnage and Culture is derived not from any foundation of cohesive political philosophy, or even from the dictionary. Freedom, for Hanson, is defined by a particularly expansive reading of Mercator's projection. It's a Western value; wherever it can be found, then, that's the West: "Throughout this book I use the term 'Western' to refer to the culture of classical antiquity that arose in Greece and Rome; survived the collapse of the Roman Empire; spread to western and northern Europe; then during the great periods of exploration and colonization of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries expanded to the Americas, Australia, and areas of Asia and Africa; and now exercises global political, economic, cultural, and military power far greater than the size of its territory or population might otherwise suggest."

Six continents, 2,500 years: one culture.

The precision continues. Hanson offers a series of battle narratives, from Salamis to Tet, illustrating his view of freedom as a military asset. In so doing, he turns everybody's "freedom" into the same value, despite disclaimers to the contrary: "What frightened Cortes's men about the Aztecs, aside from the continual sacrificial slaughter on the Great Pyramid, is what frightened the Greeks about Xerxes, the Venetians about the Ottomans, the British about the Zulus, and the Americans about the Japanese: the subservience of the individual to the state."

You have to love the tossed-off, "aside from the continual sacrificial slaughter." Digging through all the errors of reasoning in that sentence alone would take a steamshovel and a deep well of patience. It's hard to believe that the British, who were ruled by monarchs, saw something they identified as "the state" when they looked at the Zulus, and harder still to believe that the Spanish conquistadors descended upon the Americas with fevered cries of "One man, one vote!" It's probably worth noting, too, that Americans contented ourselves with helping from the sidelines through a great deal of enforced subservience to the state, as embodied by the Axis powers, until the Japanese started dropping bombs on the U.S. Navy. Making soup out of all these different cultures and historical moments is bound to produce an ugly kind of indigestion.

Carelessness and overreaching aren't the only problems here. Hanson's attitude toward his material becomes clear if you read other accounts of the battles, or the cultures, that he's describing. Take Carnage and Culture's first example, the naval battle fought at Salamis in 480 B.C. It's safe to say that no credible historian fails to find that some notion of freedom was at stake in the Persian Wars. "What defined the reaction of the Greeks to the Persians was of course political evaluation," Arnaldo Momigliano wrote in his 1979 essay "Persian Empire and Greek Freedom." "They were reconfirmed in their faith in the law and freedom and consequently in their dislike of tyrants."

But what did freedom mean to the Greeks? Hanson sees it in clear and soaring terms, powerful as both a glue and a catalyst: "As Greek rowers closed on their enemy, they pulled with the assurance that they could air their concerns about the fighting….Second, the Greek rowers at Salamis fought with the belief that their governments at Athens, Corinth, Aegina, Sparta, and the other states of the Panhellenic alliance were based on the consent of the citizenry….At Salamis Greek rowers rammed their opponent's ships on the assurance that the battle was of their own choosing."

Note that here we purportedly have the thoughts of men at the very moment in which they are fighting against a violent death. They are thinking: I am glad my government is based on the consent of the citizenry. The problem here is not simply one of mind reading, but of banal distortion: Men in battle pull at their oars, consumed in thought, rapt with political theory. And then, if they have time, they think about not getting killed.

Beyond that remarkable bit of faux-omniscience, it's a bit of a problem even to describe "the Greeks," bound up by common ideals, each pulling an oar for the "consent of the governed." In his Life of Lycurgus, the ancient biographer Plutarch gave a mixed accounting of those supposed Jeffersonians at Sparta, one of the Greek city-states represented at Salamis: "First and foremost, Lycurgus considered children to belong not privately to their fathers, but jointly to their city." At birth, Spartan children were brought to a community council that decided whether each was fit to live. Boys left home for military training camps at the age of seven. "Spartiates' training extended into adulthood, for no one was permitted to live as he pleased." It's true that the Spartans had "abundant leisure," since "the helots" -- slaves -- "worked the land for them." Other writers, such as Momigliano, find in Greece an idea of freedom against outside influence, against foreign imposition of an alien way of life. Hanson finds "the consent of the citizenry."

He isn't only guilty of conceptual distortion. He fails even at the level of events, at offering the blow-by-blow account of what simply happened. When context would harm his argument, Hanson slices history narrowly enough to exclude it -- making discrete moments mean something alone that they don't mean in the company of their neighbors. Inconvenient events are handled vaguely; facts vanish from their chronological place when they seem inopportune, then show up in later pages so they can mean something else.

Take the problem of why there was even a battle at Salamis in the first place. Hanson fudges the issue, suggesting that the Persians were "perhaps fooled by a ruse of Themistocles," the Athenian naval commander. Hanson acknowledges that the leaders of the assembled Greek city-states "shouted and screamed at each other" over "whether to stake all at Salamis." He shades the disagreement down into a debate over tactics, something "raucous and not pretty, but when the battle itself got under way, the Greeks, and not the Persians, had discovered the best way to fight in the strait of Salamis."

Herodotus would disagree: "At this point Themistocles, feeling that he would be outvoted by the Peloponnesians, slipped quietly away from the meeting and sent a man over in a boat to the Persian fleet….This man -- Sicinnus -- was one of Themistocles' slaves….Sicinnus made his way to the Persian commanders and said…'The Greeks are afraid and are planning to slip away….They are at daggers drawn with each other, and will offer no opposition.'" And so the Persians moved to block the strait, forcing the reluctant Greeks to fight. Herodotus reports that Themistocles has this to say: "It was I who was responsible for this move of the enemy; for as our men would not fight here of their own free will, it was necessary to make them, whether they wanted to or not."

"Over the long haul," Hanson writes about Salamis, "men fight better when they know that they have had the freedom to choose the occasion of their own deaths." Of course, it's possible that he has a clearer understanding of the events at Salamis than Themistocles did.

And so on; there is no shortage of misstated fact and falsely applied analysis in this book. Let one more example stand in for the rest: At the battle of Roarke's Drift, Hanson tells us, 139 British soldiers held off 4,000 Zulus with a storm of rifle fire, "all predicated on a strict adherence to formal British military practice and discipline that would keep men at the ramparts shooting continuously without respite." The British troops were probably helped in their decision to stay at the ramparts and keep shooting without respite by the fact that 4,000 Zulu warriors were trying to breach those ramparts and kill them. As he does with Salamis, Hanson finds cultural and political motivations in the actions of men who are fighting simply to stay alive.

Hanson describes "British redcoats methodically blasting apart Zulu bodies at close range" and tallies as many as 800 Zulu dead -- although only 381 bodies were found. After the 10-hour battle, he notes, "the British counted more than 20,000 cartridges expended." Hanson draws this conclusion about the superior Western military culture of the British Army: "Strict firearms training guaranteed that they would usually hit what they aimed at." Quick: Divide 800 by 20,000 -- and remember all of that "blasting apart" at "close range." Do you get something that can be described with the word "usually"?

Hanson decides what he wants history to say. And then he tortures it until it complies. "There is something seductive about political historiography," wrote Christian Meier in 1993's Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age. "When you trace a sequence of events, it often seems that each development gives rise inevitably to the next. Reasons for what transpired at a certain time are extracted from preceding events. Partial explanations seem sufficient even for major turning points. This kind of historiography obeys 'the law of the narrative sequence,' which is, as the writer Robert Musil said, 'the most time-honored perspective for curtailing understanding.'"

Historians owe history more respect than this.