Author: Victor Davis Hanson

Published: Doubleday

Year: 2001


Professor Hanson, a military historian and Professor of Classics at the California State University, has written a classic Eurocentric account of the history of warfare that ends with the chilling observation that when the ‘West’ declares war, this is pursued till the enemy is destroyed outright.  The Western military tradition is one of “decisive battle to annihilate the enemy”.

Hanson observes that non-Western cultures allow their efficacy on the battle field to become subservient to demands of faith and ritual.  In Zulu culture for example, a battle was an encounter between warriors in which it was not deemed honourable to pursue a defeated enemy, or even to fight at night.   Chief Cetshwayo envisaged that his army would fight ‘one one day only’ and then come to terms with the British. “The Zulu warrior lived in a world of spirits and and witchcraft that was antithetical to the rather godless European emphasis on sheer military efficacy governed by abstract rules, regulations, and the technology of brutal rifles, Gatling guns and artillery”.

Though the author ridicules the Zulu rituals, the West too has its own pre-battle rituals. How else to understand the ritual incantation of grievances held against the enemy before blowing him up to bits?  In October 2001 the charge sheet drawn up against Afghanistan included diverse complaints such as the treatment of women, drug trading, the destruction of archaeological monuments and controls over TV.

Hanson also maintains that the West has never been defeated by an external enemy in its heartland – the crusades and Ottoman campaigns were along the borders. “The real hazard for the future, as it has always been in the past, is not Western moral decline or the threat of the Other, now polished with the veneer of sophisticated arms, but the age-old spectre of a horrendous war inside the West itself, the old Europe and America with its full menu of Western economic, military and political dynamism”.  That is, a Western power can never be defeated by a non-Western one, because it does not possess the ruthlessness and discipline to pursue a quarry to annihilation.  

Professor Hanson’s book was published prior to September 11, but in the aftermath of the Afghanistan campaign and the impending war in Iraq, it makes sobering reading.  Of particular relevance is his account of the naval battles between the USA and Japan in World War II:

“In 1941 no one in the Japanese high command seemed aware that a surprise attack on the Americans would in Western eyes lead to total war, in which the United States would either destroy its adversary or face annihilation in the attempt.  But, then, it was a historic error of non-Westerners, beginning with Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, to assume that democracies are somehow weak and timid. Although slow to anger, Western constitutional governments usually preferred wars of annihilation – wiping the Melians off the map of the Aegean, sowing the ground of Carthage with salt, turning Ireland into a near wasteland, wasting Jerusalem before reoccupying it, driving an entire culture of Native Americans onto reservations, atomizing Japanese cities – and were far more deadly adversaries than military dynasts and autocrats. Despite occasional brilliant adaptation of trickery and surprise, and the clear record of success in “the indirect approach” to war – Epaminondas’s great raid into Messenia (369 B.C.) and Sherman’s march to the Sea (1864) are notable examples – Western militaries continued to believe that the most economic way of waging war was to find the enemy, collect sufficient forces to overwhelm him, and then advance directly and openly to annihilate him on the battlefield – all part of a cultural tradition to end hostilities quickly , decisively, and utterly.  To read of the American naval operations in World War II is to catalogue a series of continual efforts to advance westward toward Japan, discover and devastate the Japanese fleet, and physically wrest way all territory belonging to the Japanese government until reaching the homeland itself”.  

In the author’s view Viet Nam was not a military defeat for the US, but rather a campaign abandoned because of a failure of political leadership at home and an unreliable and corrupt ally abroad.  His account of the 1968 Tet offensive provides further insights into the US military mind that have contemporary relevance.  The historic city of Hue was blasted apart in order to remove cover used by the Viet Cong snipers: “Often the Americans’ choice was either to be picked off at random by well-ensconced snipers or to blast apart entire – and often historic – buildings by using howitzers and aerial bombardment”.  Hanson includes the reportage of the veteran journalist Peter Arnet interviewing an American officer fighting at Ben Tre, a village in the Mekong Delta: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”. 

Hanson repeatedly traces Western military prowess to its market economy roots. “It is one argument of this book that the Western way of war is grounded not merely in technological supremacy but in an entire array of political, social, and cultural institutions that are responsible for military advantages well beyond the possession of sophisticated weapons.  Superior technology cannot merely be imported; if it is not to become immediately static and therefore obsolete, the accompanying practices of free inquiry, the scientific method, unfettered research, and capitalist production must be adopted as well”.  He also sees Western military superiority rooted in the values of ancient Greece two millennia ago:”Western ideas of freedom, originating from the early Hellenic concept of politics as consensual government (politeia) and from an open economy that gave the individual opportunity to profit (kerdos), protected his land (kleros), and offered some independence (autonomia) and escape from coercion and drudgery, were to play a role at nearly every engagement in which Western soldiers fought”. 

This eurocentric bias gives a mean-spirited edge to an otherwise erudite work of military history complete with maps examining nine important battles, two involving Muslim forces – Poites (732) and Lepanto (1571). The latter describes the famous naval battle that occurred off the western coast of Greece. It was a confrontation between an Ottoman navy of 10,000 seamen headed by Admiral Muezzinzade Ali Pasha and the combined arms of Spain, Venice and the Pope. Hanson brings it to life vividly:

“As the battered Turkish ships approached the armada of the Holy League, priests scurried the decks, blessing the crews in the final seconds before the collision of galleys…the sleek standardised designs resulted in a galley achieving twenty-minute bursts of speed of eight knots and more, its low sides allowing marines to scurry through out the ship and leap onto a captured vessel. The overcrowding of the rowing crews and the proximity of man to sea, however made the ships wretched in transit and a charnel house in battle. Galleys and their crews rammed, peppered with cannonballs and grapeshot, torched by fire grenades, and raked by small-arms fire and arrows.  The absence of high decks, armour, and heavy roofing guaranteed terrible fatalities with almost every barrage.  The contemporary historian Gianpertro Contarini said the waters around Lepanto were “tutto il mare sanguinoso” – a sea of blood – as thousands of Christian and Turks bled to death in the water.  Thousands more of the wounded clung to the junk of battle among the bobbing corpses.  Eye witnesses record that the trapped Janissaries – easy targets due to their size, gaudy clothing, and bobbing plumes – were huddling and seeking shelter under the rowing benches as the Turkish galleys were smashed apart by cannon fire and raked by harquebuses from the higher Christian decks.  Finally, out of ammunition, the Janissaries resorted to throwing anything they found on deck, including lemons and oranges, at the murderous Christian gunners.”

The Venetian’s technologically superior galleys gave them victory. Though the Ottomans were able to reconstitute their navy and in the next two centuries overwhelmed Crete, entered Hungary and stood outside the gates of Vienna, Hanson’s case is that there were inherent institutional barriers within the Ottoman system that prevented technological innovation.   He notes that within twenty years of Lapento, two or three British galleons alone could mount as many iron cannon as the entire Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean.

In an interesting thesis, Hanson attributes this decline to the inability of the Ottoman system to develop financial instruments. The state-sanctioned capitalist economy of Venice allowed for liquidity and investment. There were private shipwrights and specialised production lines that allowed a galley to be “assembled, launched and outfitted” in the space of an hour!   Hanson notes that 150,000 gold sequins were found in the captured flagship of Ali Pasha:

“Without a system of banking, fearful of confiscation should he displease the sultan, and always careful to keep his assets hidden from the tax collectors, Ali Pasha toted his huge personal fortune to Lepanto.  There it was plundered after the battle when the admiral was killed at sea and his ship sunk. If a member of the highest echelons of Ottoman society – he was brother–in-law to the sultan, and on a great jihad for his ruler – could neither safely invest nor hide his capital in Istanbul, then thousands of less fortunate subjects could scarcely hope to. Wealthy Ottoman traders and merchants often stealthily invested money in Europe and chose to import costly European luxury items; or they hid or buried their savings rather than risk seizure of their stored coined money in the future. There result was a chronic shortage of investment capital in the Ottoman Empire for education, public works and military expenditure”.

‘Why the West has won’ has a triumphalist ring and is a warning of bloodbaths to come. Hanson states that “the Israeli, British and American military shared a common cultural approach to war making….Nothing that has transpired in the last decades of the twentieth century suggests an end to Western military dominance, much less to war itself”.  How prescient.

M A Sherif