Friday, April 16, 2010


Edited by Victor Davis Hanson

Princeton University Press, $27.95, 278 pages


Victor Davis Hanson has concluded that the strategic landscape of the post-Cold War world looks less like the 19th and 20th centuries than the age of classical warfare, when actors that resembled today’s nation-states regularly dealt with non-state actors ranging from giant tribal alliances to small-scale insurgencies. In “Makers of Ancient Strategy,” Mr. Hanson has asked his contributors to draw lessons from classical experience ranging from the Persian Wars to the fall of Rome. The result is an often uneven but very provocative work.

When Edward Mead Earle edited the first version of “Makers of Modern Strategy,” World War II was still raging and the contributors were still struggling with attempting to understand the impact industrialization had upon the art of strategy. In his introduction, Mr. Earle stated that Hitler had grasped the rising impact of industrialization on warfare better than his adversaries. We know now that the Allies learned quickly and eventually buried Hitler through industrialization.

Likewise, Peter Paret’s 1986 update of “Makers” tried to factor in the threat of nuclear warfare and the reality of “Peoples’ Wars” into the strategic equation in what seemed like the height of the Cold War. In reality, within three years of the publication of both “Makers” iterations, the world the volumes discussed had passed. Mr. Hanson appears to be more fortunate. The strategic landscape today resembles more each day the one faced by the Romans and Greeks, and this trend likely will continue.

Mr. Hanson asked his contributors to examine the potential relevance of classical experience to such seemingly modern developments as nation building, urban warfare, counterinsurgency and the effects of mass immigration (legal and otherwise) on seemingly stable great powers.

Some essays accomplish the objective better than others. Mr. Hanson’s examination of the dangers implicit in pre-emptive warfare is riveting, as is John W.I. Lee’s explanation of why the specter of urban warfare was as despised by ancient strategists as it is today by modern warriors. Those of us who agitated in the later part of the last century to increase our ability to conduct urban combat would have faced the same resistance from Pericles of Athens and Epaminondas of Thebes as we did from many U.S. military leaders in the early post-Cold War period.

However, Ian Worthington seems to struggle in his essay on the attempt of Alexander the Great to do nation building and maintain an empire. Mr. Worthington concludes that Alexander’s attempt to factor in acceptance of local cultural norms and religions among the nations he conquered was offset by his sometimes genocidal actions in other situations. The final conclusion seems to be that Alexander might have done an overall better job. That is logical but hardly helpful to the modern strategist trying to draw conclusions that might be useful in a modern context.

Likewise, Peter Heather’s essay on holding the line in the later Roman era misses an opportunity to examine the impact of both legal and illegal immigration on the decline of the Western Roman Empire in its later centuries. The subject matter was handled much better in Arther Ferrill’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Mr. Hanson is a distinguished and prolific author. His skills as an editor are still emerging, but his is a useful and needed volume. The reviewer is left wishing that he might have expanded his field to include Edward Luttwak, whoserecently published “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire” also explores the lessons the ancients might hold for us today, and an essay by Mr. Luttwak on the art of superpowers’ dealings with non-state actors might have been a useful addition to the overall discussion.

Even with its weaknesses, the book is a great idea. For too long, the assumption that meaningful history started with the Peace of Westphalia dominated the landscape of strategic study. The lessons of relations between nation-states were the only ones that counted in most strategic thought from the end of the Thirty Years’ War until the termination of the Cold War. Martin Van Creveld was the first to suggest a paradigm switch a few years after the Berlin Wall came down in “The Transformation of War.” Likewise, Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” suggested that something very new was afoot.

Mr. Hanson and Mr. Luttwak have begun the serious study of what the ancients might have to teach us about a world where traditional nation-states not only have to coexist with armed non-state actors but must negotiate with them on nearly equal terms or sometimes fight them.

Gary Anderson lectures on alternative analysis at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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