- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003


By Victor Davis Hanson

TK, $27.50, 288 pages, illus.


Battles have impacts long after the firing has died, but most of them are forgotten soon after they have been fought. Battles that appear to have changed history are the exception. There were far greater and bloodier battles in the Napoleonic Wars than Waterloo, but its outcome that resulted in the dramatic end of Napoleon’s career has made it immortal.

The Iwo Jima flag raising picture and statue have also immortalized that clash even though its death toll and strategic impact are dwarfed by other battles of World War II. Crecy was immortalized by a Shakespeare play although it was not decisive or overly bloody. Far greater battles have faded to the background if they are remembered at all.

In “Ripples of War,” Victor Davis Hanson has chosen several battles whose memory is fading and has demonstrated how their unanticipated impacts still linger with us. His premise is fascinating and well executed.

Mr. Hanson’s cousin and namesake died in one of these battles, Okinawa, and his curiosity about the surrounding events obviously inspired the book. Mr. Hanson begins with the most recent clash and moves backward in time in his examination of the battles of Okinawa in World War II, Shiloh in the Civil War, and Delium in the Peloponnesian War between the Athenian Empire and the allies of Sparta.

Regarding Okinawa, Mr. Hanson is at his best. His knowledge of the battle and its lost opportunities is superb. He points out that, although overshadowed by other events in World War II, the carnage of Okinawa forged the American resolve to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The fact that over 100,000 Okinawan civilians and nearly all of the Japanese military defenders died in the battle convinced American leaders that extreme measures were needed to save American lives.

Most Americans no longer remember it, but more U.S. lives were lost on Okinawa than the majority of the other Pacific battles combined. Okinawa also had the unfortunate effect of convincing most Americans that the Japanese, and most Asians in general, do not value human life the way Westerners do. In Mr. Hanson’s view, this had an adverse effect on the way we subsequently waged war in Korea and Vietnam.

Like Okinawa, Shiloh is a bloody American Civil War conflict on its way to oblivion in popular memory. It began the Southern legend of the “lost cause” because Gen. Albert Sydney Johnson died at the apex of what many Southerners considered to be a potentially decisive victory. After his death, the South blamed less competent commanders, notably Braxton Bragg for the subsequent Confederate defeat. Mr. Hanson credits this event for much of the lost cause myth that followed the war and led to many of the problems that plagued reconstruction.

This leads to the rise of the mystique surrounding Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was arguably the best cavalry commander of the Civil War; as Mr. Hanson points out, Shiloh began his legend. Unfortunately, he also became the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan; this has diminished his reputation outside of the most fanatic of Southern apologists.

On the Northern side, Mr. Hanson points out that Shiloh also made the reputation of William Tecumseh Sherman and damaged that of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace the author of “Ben Hur.” Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. Mr. Hanson points out that Wallace did not deserve the blame he got and that Sherman made several mistakes early in the battle for which he would have been held accountable had the Union forces lost. However, the case for the “ripples” in this battle on the part of Sherman and Wallace is less strong than the one for their Southern counterparts.

The weakest section of the book is the one Mr. Hanson will probably feel that he did the best job on. Delium is an obscure battle from the Peloponnesian war, long forgotten except by scholars and students at war colleges. It had significant ripples in history; unfortunately most general readers won’t care.

That said this is a great little book. A classicist, Mr. Hanson is a superb storyteller and a clear and concise writer. His recent essay in the National Review magazine on the implications of immigration and immigration policy on the future of California and the nation show his ability to transcend the field of classics scholarship. A more detailed argument is given in his recent book, “Mexifornia.”

As a former soldier, I saw and participated in a few battles. I’m not sure if I am reassured or disturbed by the fact that what we did on those fields could have an impact on future history. However, as Mr. Hanson points out, we mere participants won’t get a vote on how history is impacted by our actions.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer. He lectures on the Revolution in Military Affairs at George Washington University.

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