What Is It Good For? 

These authors say military history has more to teach us than many Americans want to know.

A few months ago, Publishers' Weekly forecast "a high-water mark for book tie-ins to a single news event" this fall. The event should be obvious; the exact number of titles remains uncertain -- they keep coming -- but was declared in advance to be "astonishing." The motives for publication would range, PW predicted, from "plucky optimism" to "cannibal instincts."

True enough. America's capacity for making books about war has grown in direct proportion to its capacity for making war; any reader of conscience, patriot or not, can't help but feel a little frightened and queasy at the sheer productivity in either case. And the books, most often alleging to crusade for context, make their own wars on each other.

A few old saws that should help us cut through the heap of written history: First, that it is written by the winners, second, that journalism is its rough draft, and third, that war is its powder keg. All of these ideas are manifest in the politically incorrect writing of Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford-educated classical scholar and military historian now teaching at Fresno State. Hanson's Culture and Carnage: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, a best-seller in hardcover last year, came out last month in paperback as a supplement to his new essay collection, An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism. That last subtitle is a little slippery, because the book is more about what Hanson wants to teach America than what it has actually learned. Unless, that is, his arguments are sinking in.

So long as nations make war, war makes nations. Hanson posits that militarism is essential to civilization, and that military superiority is essential to a superior civilization. Actually, it's not his idea, but rather a durable product of the ancient Greek mind, demonstrably remarkable for having imagined both democracy's greatest potential and the greatest threats to its security -- both in play even now. With nimbly dispensed dashes of Hellenic history and mythology among other examples, Hanson very reassuringly disempowers today's specter of terrorism, illustrating it as unoriginal and ineffectual. He writes of Greek heroes as "protectors of order through the tools of civilization" and, more directly, of "an affluent democracy, which, as the historian Thucydides tells us, is at first fickle and prone to self-doubt. Yet ... democracies eventually prove the most resourceful and resolved in war, as they slowly marshal their enormous arsenal against the unfamiliar, and answer the mythology of terror with the reality of power."

In a section of Carnage and Culture called "How the West Has Won," Hanson energetically anticipates, defuses, and tosses back the arguments likely to be hurled at him by readers who reflexively bristle at those titles alone. He grinds his axe with methodical grace.

All of this should make many progressives uncomfortable, not merely for its rousing intentions but for the assumption it serves: the very notion of a superior civilization. War, Hanson knows, offends, among other things, the basic tenet of multiculturalism -- namely, the inherent equal value of all cultures. He knows plenty about war, actually, to the extent that most ordinary joes wouldn't presume to debate him: "War, as Sherman said, is all hell, but as Heraclitus admitted, it is also 'the father of us all.'" He acknowledges that the prospect of a superior civilization is open to debate, but only within civilizations that meet the criteria for superiority. Hanson -- who is also a sixth-generation grape farmer and thus not entirely a dweller in ivory towers -- hastens to point out the scarcity of liberal democracies in the Islamic world, and equates that fact with the certainty of its subjugation.

His ideas correlate to those of Francis Fukuyama, the Johns Hopkins University political economist whose contentious The End of History and the Last Man, originally published in 1989, became even more contentious after 9/11. His new book, Our Posthuman Future, is sure to raise hackles as well. Where Hanson looks back into history, Fukuyama looks forward, but they see the same vanishing point.

"The way in which I used the word 'history,'" Fukuyama answered his critics in The Wall Street Journal last year, "referred to the progress over the centuries toward modernity, characterized by institutions like democracy and capitalism." He avowed "nothing else towards which we could expect to evolve," pointing out the discredited noncapitalist alternative suggested by the original sophists of history's end, Marx and Engels.

As Fukuyama asserts that "Anti-American hatred does not translate into a viable political program for Muslim societies to follow," Hanson writes: "Rampant capitalism, radical equality between the sexes, secular rationalism, and unbridled freedom are not merely antithetical to Islam but appeal to the senses, appetites, and aspirations of millions of Muslims far more effectively than Islamic traditionalism can repress them." Will we allow ourselves to hope so? Time and letters to the editor will tell. Patterns of immigration seem to bear Hanson out, notwithstanding the hopefully negligible skew from those who educate themselves in America only to prepare for attacking it.

Another historically compact but hugely resonant episode in recent military history is Israel's preemptive strike against its enemies in June 1967 -- what Israelis call the Six-Day War, Arabs call the June War or "the setback," and Michael B. Oren calls "the making of the modern Middle East." That, in fact, is the subtitle of his book, Six Days of War, an engaging and comprehensive history, unprecedented if not for its balance of dutiful scholarship, narrative craftsmanship, and equanimity then for the newly declassified material from Israeli, Arab, and Soviet archives on which it relies.

Oren's account reiterates a kind of symbiosis between war and civilization, and illuminates the cycles of modern violence with needed breadth and nuanced complexity. The fallout from those six days is directly relevant to Americans today, not merely because Israel is America's ally, and not because, as Oren points out, the fire of Arab anti-Americanism was stoked during the war when Egypt and Jordan conspired to blame fictitious American aggression for their casualties, but because Oren's summary, at the outset, could be used verbatim to describe America's current conflict: "Rarely in modern times," he writes, "has so short and localized a conflict had such prolonged, global consequences. Seldom has the world's attention been gripped, and remained seized, by a single event and its ramifications. In a very real sense, for statesmen and diplomats and soldiers, the war has never ended."

Oren does not refute Hanson and Fukuyama; he agrees with them. If unstable non-Western regimes can't get with the program of liberal democracy, these authors tell us, they are doomed to subjugation, repression, and costly denials of their fate: namely, hapless attacks against Western powers whose very nature demands a response with lethal and superior force.

Is it a consolation that your enemy doesn't have the resources to produce real weapons when he instead makes them from the instruments of your First-World leisure? That you have what some scholars would call a superior civilization, and the enemy's inferior one will always encourage him to hate you for it, to attack you even despite having no hope of real victory? Is it a relief to hear among the chatter about new kinds of war an argument that its fundamental rules have not really changed?

These books, at least, offer the limited solace of context and impassioned discussion. Plucky optimism or cannibalism, they are not.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Books

Author Archives

  • Stuck-Up

    All over Emeryville
    • May 25, 2005
  • Was That a Joke?

    Today's irreverent humor - it's irreverent, but is it humor?
    • May 25, 2005
  • More»

Arts & Culture Blogs

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation