- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Victor Davis Hanson
Doubleday, $44.95, 492 pages, illus.

Victor Davis Hanson, the military historian and scholar, has a far roving mind. In "Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power," his latest book, Mr. Hanson attempts to prove Western military dominance by exploring the intricacies of nine battles involving European and American powers against their non-Western opponents. Such an undertaking is ambitious and bound to be controversial.
Mr. Hanson's notion of a seamless 2,500 year period of European military supremacy is admittedly "a broad generalization." He recognizes the possible pitfalls and seems to relish the role of provocateur. A work that begins with the naval battle of Salamis (480 B.C.) and ends with the Tet Offensive (1968) can only strike one as being extremely broad in scope. In less than 500 pages, the reader learns that both the Persian king Xerxes and the American actress Jane Fonda did their best to halt Western military victories, and a lot that happened in between.
Much of Mr. Hanson's book will definitely please the philhellene. As the military might of ancient civilizations ebbed and flowed, the emergence of the Greek polis permanently changed the geopolitical balance of power. The lofty and revolutionary ideals that came out of Athens produced millennia of Western dominance. The concept of freedom, capitalism, individual property ownership, and elected legislatures were all part of a unique Hellenic identity that began to form around 700 B.C. At the same time, these seemingly benign and egalitarian philosophies would create a radically sophisticated method of slaughter on the battlefield. In every Western victory, Mr. Hanson sees a road leading back to classical Greece.
The book has some very fine moments. The opening sentence describing the naval battle of Salamis is dramatic: "It must be a terrible thing to drown at sea — arms thrashing the waves, lungs filling with brine, the body slowly growing heavy and numb, the brain crackling and sparking as its last molecules of oxygen are exhausted… ." Salamis was one of the first examples of a smaller and divided European force succeeding over an Asian foe with superior methods rather than sheer manpower. The free citizens of the squabbling Panhellenic navy were blessed with a "sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, matchless weapons, egalitarian camaraderie, individual initiative, constant tactical adaptation and flexibility."
The Greek sailors fought because they chose to. They were protecting their property, honor, and democratic ways. Had the Greeks squandered their inherent cultural advantages, Western culture would have been shattered by the dictatorial Persian juggernaut. Instead, it was their enemies that drowned in the blue Aegean.
Along with Mr. Hanson's description of events at Salamis, the battle of Tenochtitlan (June 24, 1520 to Aug. 13, 1521) stands out. It is a tale of a small invading European force, with less than a thousand men, defeating an enormous indigenous army. Hernando Cortes and his conquistador companions entered a highly centralized Aztec empire that boasted a population of 25 million. When Cortes finished his adventures, constant warfare and illness had decreased the Aztec nation to less than 2 million people. Ethical concerns notwithstanding, the Spanish military dominance was overwhelming. For every conquistador that died, 250 Aztecs were killed.
Tenochtitlan, is a powerful reminder of what Western-style technology and tactics can do against a non-European opponent, and the conquistador victory is one of the high points of the book.
Mr. Hanson's portrait of Alexander the Great, the victorious Macedonian in the battle of Gaugamela, (Oct. 1, 331 B.C) is one example of writing that suffers by comparison. In the book, the questionable actions of the Spanish in Mexico and the British in Africa are examined in a nonjudgmental way, but there are plenty of venomous words hurled against Alexander. In a remarkable passage Mr. Hanson pairs the Macedonian king with Adolf Hitler in "a sickening comparison that will no doubt shock and disturb most classicists and philhellenes."
Readers will survive the shock of that analogy, but they may remain puzzled by some of the book's other surprising assertions. Mr. Hanson makes the claim that Europe did not lose its dominance during the Dark Ages. Similarly, he portrays the naval battle of Lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571) as the definitive defeat of the Ottoman Empire signaling the beginning of its decline. Lepanto marked the checking of Ottoman sea power in the Western Mediterranean, but on land the Turks fought their way to the gates of Vienna over a century later in 1683. The sultans of the 15th and 16th centuries were not believers in Western dominance, and neither were their sometimes defeated European opponents.
In a book with many fine moments these are significant flaws. Salamis and Tenochtitlan are the battles most effectively depicted by Mr. Hanson, and perhaps it would have been even more effective to devote a whole book to them. Both can be used to prove a Western domination thesis in a clear precise way. But a survey of nine battles, spanning thousands of years, risks uneveness.

Matthew Fontaine was an editorial intern on the book pages this summer. He has now resumed his studies at Valparaiso University, Indiana.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide