Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson

Over the past several months I’ve had the pleasure of reading Victor Davis Hanson’s stellar Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the History of Western Power.

Sold in the U.K. under the more accurate (and more provacative) title Why The West Has Won, this book explains the incredible dynamism, ingenuity, and brutal destructiveness of Western armies across history. Hanson doesn’t seek to explore the morality or justness of any cause or culture, instead he examines nine important battles across history (from the Greek victory at Salamis to the Tet Offensive) to draw lessons from them that might help explain the blunt-force effectiveness of Western forces against armies of the Other. He does so with a keen eye for the sickening details of war and while nimbly avoiding cultural chauvenism.

Hanson frames the book as his counterpoint to Jared Diamond’s celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond famously pointed to geographic and environmental factors as the great engines of history. Hanson argues in this book that culture is a far more potent force in determining the outcome of human events. No one people is any braver, tougher, or more intelligent than another, he asserts, but “[the cultures of the] West, ancient and modern, placed far fewer religious, cultural, and political impediments to natural inquiry, capital formation, and individual expression than did other socities” (19).

This is a compelling, unsparing, and important book. As always, Hanson doesn’t simplify war, glorify it, or shrink from it. I’ve enjoyed Victor Davis Hanson’s books in the past, but Carnage and Culture is my new favorite.

A few items of note from the text:

-Hanson traces the impact of firearms across Eurasia to make his point. Gunpowder is, of course, a Chinese invention, but it did not reach it’s world-changing potential as a new technology until it reached Europe. Western culture was more receptive to new technologies and allowing free markets and rational inquiry to fan the flame of further improvement and mass fabrication. Furthermore, guns are a radically democratic form of destruction – a mailed knight or samurai with a lifetime of grooming can be blown apart by an ignorant commoner. Centralized societies like China and Japan outlawed or tightly regulated these weapons for that very reason. The West perfected firearms, produced more of them, and mastered the use of them far better than any other society because its way of war was less concerned with religious, cultural, or ethical mores and more interested in what works.

-Hanson points out that what ruined the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal was not so much his lack of skill, bravery, or audacity but his society’s inability to produce great numbers of citizen-soldiers as Rome could. Also, they forgot their swords back in Africa.

-Hanson’s exploration of Alexander the Great’s climactic battle against an enormous Persian army at Gaugamela is swift and compelling. He uses the narrative to illustrate how armies of the West are more egalitarian than non-Western ones. While Alexander’s elite cavalry unit of (aptly-named) Companions launched themselves recklessly into the pikes of the Persian army alongside their king, the slave army of the Persians got distracted by the cache of booty when they broke through the lines. The composition of Alexander’s army encouraged staying in ranks for endless rounds of face-to-face killing, while the Persian army, enormous though it may have been, was built to fall apart when the going got tough.

-The great generals Themistocles and Hannibal had beards (like mine), but Victor Davis Hanson is clean-shaven (like Timothy McVeigh).

-An illuminating theme that Hanson often returns to is the Western emphasis on rank and defensive cohesion in battle. In this tradition, dating back to the Greeks, wars are fought at close quarters with close ties of dependency to fellow soldiers. Bravery is measured by staying in position and maintaining group integrity rather than through the individual accumulation of kills as it was in countless other cultures. This ethic, when tied with ordered volley firing (another Western specialty) would again and again allow dramatically outnumbered forces to hold their own against repeated charges by the enemy. This is perhaps best illustrated by the British victory over the Zulu army at Rorke’s Drift (South Africa) where a seriously beleagured force of 139 Redcoats withstood waves of attacks and survived, killing twenty men for every defender lost.

-Hernan Cortes and his marauding conquistadors were appalled by the Aztec practice of ritual human sacrifice and, to a lesser degree, making burritos.

-Hanson’s examination of the U.S. victory at Midway over Japan during World War II is a striking example of how the ingenuity and individual initiative encouraged in Western ways of thinking tilts the outcome of history. The Japanese model of governance and military culture was autocratic to its core, based on blind obedience to the Emperor. The plans drawn up by Admiral Yamamoto on the eve of the battle were needlessly complex, yet none would dare to challenge him. On the American side, while discipline and duty were certainly core values of the military, the enterprising nature of individual soldiers and improvised reactions to adversity were able to pull out an unlikely victory that stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific. Prior to the battle, U.S. crews worked a miracle in only a few days to jury-rig the heavily damaged U.S.S. Yorktown into something resembling a seaworthy battleship that could be used (far less-damaged Japanese ships remained docked for weeks, following protocol). After the initial stages of the battle proved an unmitigated disaster for the Allies, American pilots and officers improvised and innovated, while the Japanese demonstrated only orthodoxy and obedience.

-If the Persian king Xerxes had been able to witness the creative, cultural, and military power of the modern West that originated with the Greeks, he would have genuflected in humbled reverence and requested an iPod with a bunch of Kenny Chesney songs on it to help him chill out.

-Hanson ends the book on an ominous note about our global age: “Most see in the advance of rationalism, capitalism, democracy, and their ancillary values the seeds of perpetual peace and prosperity. Maybe, but we must remember that these ideas are also the foundations that have created the world’s deadliest armies of the past” (453).

-Western societies pioneered the revolutionary concepts of citizenship, consentual governance, and the Wendy’s dollar menu.

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7 Responses to Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson

  1. Sibling #4 says:

    this book sounds fascinating… you have made me desperately want to read something other than law school materials. happily, i will be virtually forced to read only that for the next three weeks. i believe i may steal the burrito comment to be a new facebook status in honor/horror of this situation.

  2. Sibling #5 says:

    I bet you weren’t expecting me

  3. Tim Hopps says:

    This Victor Davis Hanson guy sounds like a riot! I’ve GOTTA get him to come to my next party! Think he likes karaoke? I’ll have to see if I can rustle up a “Favorite War Songs” CD.

    On a serious note, I just finished a book by Neil McCormick entitled “Killing Bono”. Written by one of his lifelong friends, it’s a funny/insightful/sometimes pitiful tale of two childhood pals who shared the same dream of becoming a rock star, and how those two lives took very different directions. Bono’s Christianity vs. Neil’s agnosticity makes for an intriguing undercurrent throughout. A good read for those of you who don’t like books about war and presidents and stuff.

  4. peter says:

    Tom, I have that book and several times have thought of loaning it to you because it seemed like something you’d enjoy. Glad to hear you dug it, too. Could you relate to all the setbacks, or has your story been less depressing?

  5. Tim Hopps says:

    I can certainly relate to all the setbacks… for starters, in an ironic twist, I wrote out this long list of similar things that have happened to me, and when I hit “post comment” my computer glitched and I lost it. Now I’ll try to recreate it: In true Neil McCormick fashion, I’ve signed with two different managers who took lots of my money, including percentages of CD sales and performance revenue, only to do basically nothing for me; signed publishing contracts for several of my songs, only to have the songs not used after all; paid a promoter $2k, and they did get me lots of airplay… in places like Trinidad and Belgium (my last royalty check was for $4.28); won an online “favorite band” contest to play Sonshine, but found out that we weren’t on the main stage, but rather on a tiny stage at the back of the grounds (although I was somewhat honored that they asked me back for a second year… what the heck, we had fun and I got to meet people like David Crowder and Jeremy Camp); was even signed to a record deal with Above Records (CA)… the president flew out here to meet with me, wined and dined me at an upscale Mpls restaurant, took me into a top-notch recording studio to cut some demos, then cut me a check to write and record some more demos over the next weeks. I kept sending new songs in, only to hear, “I don’t hear a hit yet… I don’t hear a hit yet…” Finally he stopped giving me money and stopped taking my calls, but kept me on the roster for some reason. Finally I demanded to be released from my contract (to which they happily obliged) so I could court other offers… which never came. Sometimes, being an artist just has to be its own reward, my friend.

  6. Dan says:

    The Greeks invented free market soldiers who invented the everything. Gotcha.

    • peter says:

      You should check this book out sometime, Dan. I read history books and biographies religiously and I’m not sure I’ve ever read something quite as gripping and paradigm-shifting as this one. Also, because of its structure, you can read bits at a time alongside other books (which is a bad habit of mine…)

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