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02 December, 2010

Historical Smack-down

Last month Zenpundit brought to my attention an interesting debate between military historian  Lt. Col. Robert Bateman and classicist Victor Davis Hanson. The topic up for debate was Carnage and Culture, the magnum opus of Mr. Hanson's career. For those unfamiliar with the work, the thesis of Carnage and Culture is stated eloquently on its fifth page:   

"for the past 2,500 years…there has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare, a common foundation and continual way of fighting that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization.
--Victor David Hanson, Carnage and Culture (New York: 2001), p. 5.

According to Mr. Hanson, Western societies possess a unique cultural affinity for rationality, free enterprise, civic militarism, individual initiative, and decisive, winner-takes-all engagements. This set of cultural dispositions have shaped the way Western armies wage war since the time of the Greeks - and since the time of the time of the Greeks Western armies have been the most lethal on the battlefield. Those asking why "the West has beaten the Rest" need look no further than the battlefields where the Rest were beaten.

According to LTC Bateman, this is all nonsense. His critique of Carnage and Culture (along with Hanson's response) can be found below:








I do not recommend reading the opening or concluding remarks of either gentleman, for they consist of nothing more than vile attacks ad hominem. Their assaults on the others' character serve only to degrade their own; I am afraid that any sense of respect I once had for either man has been lost. However, parts II and III of each man's argument do not suffer from these deficiencies. Found therein are the arguments worth reading.

I found the arguments penned by LTC Bateman far the more convincing. This may be a case of confirmation bias; when I first read Carnage and Culture I came to very similar conclusions. I read the book as a member of a long-distance reading circle that had chosen the book for that month's group discussion; the review I submitted to the group is perhaps the most savage I have ever written. I subsequently posted it to Amazon.com; those interested in my critique of Mr. Hanson's work can find it here.

In the discussion that followed another member of the reading circle offered a rather insightful observation on  the book's major shortcoming, and his point is worth repeating here: Mr. Hanson's dogmatic insistence that Western armies have always been the most lethal is not only impossible to defend, but is not necessary to prove Mr. Hanson's broader thesis. As my review notes, any claim that Western kingdoms and powers dominated the battlefield between the fall of Rome and the rise of Imperial Spain is fantasy. Yet Western powers did not just lose military preeminence during the Middle Ages - they also lost most of the cultural and societal  values Hanson claims are necessary to maintain this eminence! When the Roman Empire fell it was defended by mercenaries and barbarians, not yeoman citizens. The armies of the Byzantines and feudal kingdoms were dominated by cataphracts and mounted knights, not massed infantry. Byzantine commanders were famous for eschewing decisive battle in favor of diplomatic stratagem; the campaigns of feudal kings are marked by limited sieges designed not to annihilate, but to convince other Lords to switch their allegiance. The Middle Ages can be called many things, but a high point in the history of Western reason and enterprise is not one of them. Mr. Hanson's dogmatism forces him to make just such claims. Were he willing to admit that Western commitment to these values varied with time and place, his thesis would be much easier to defend. Alas, Hanson is unwilling to grant such concessions, and his entire work suffers for it. 

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