This post is part of a series highlighting books on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List in an effort to promote the study of military history and other professional subjects. This month’s selection is “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.” Next month’s feature is “The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It.”
For the last 2,500 years Western military forces have held the advantage when confronting non-Westerners in battle. From the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th Century B.C. to the modern era in which the industrialized nations of the West project military power into any corner of the world, Western military forces win far more than they lose. Some scholars, such as Jared Diamond in his landmark Guns, Germs, and Steel attribute Eurasian dominance to accidents of geography, others to technology or even morality, but in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, Victor Davis Hanson puts forth the premise that Western military dominance springs from the cultural traditions of the Greek city-states dating back to the 7th Century B.C.
Hanson, a noted historian, begins his work by exploring the creation of the Western cultural tradition in the rugged hills and sparse valleys of ancient Greece. He examines the Greek concept of infantry-centric shock battle in which disciplined rows of hoplites fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the great battles of Xenophon’s 10,000 and Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire. How was it that men, often outnumbered and far from home, could keep in disciplined ranks and advance in unison when confronting fierce warriors charging from every angle? Hanson believes the answer lies in the concept of individual and political freedom coupled with rationalism; that free citizens in a constitutional government give the West its advantage on the battlefield. From this basis comes other qualities addressed throughout the book: democracy, property rights, free speech & markets, the rule of law, individualism, dissent; all of which provide the people of a political entity, be it a city-state or a modern nation, with the belief that they make the decision to go to war and willingly send their citizens to fight in it with inherent rights and norms agreed on and adhered to throughout the conflict.
It’s an abstract idea, but Hanson strives to show a correlation between an army of free citizens and success in war. He goes on throughout the book to link the Hellenic cultural tradition to other societies and battles throughout the ages. From the Battle of Tenochtitlan through Lepanto and Rorke’s Drift to the modern clashes at Midway and the Tet Offensive, Hanson attaches offshoots of the Greek tradition to each engagement: the discipline of professional soldiers, the effect of capitalism on fielding the great weapons of war, and the role of dissent on pressuring governments to change failing strategies. These concepts are contrasted well against losing armies who fought as slaves to an emperor or with weapons based on ritualistic form instead of rational science. It would seem easy to dismiss Hanson’s work as deterministic or even racist, but he strives to avoid leveling judgment, although he certainly leaves room for one to draw the misguided conclusion that all nations should embrace the Western cultural tradition and perhaps by extension that the U.S. should crusade for that end as a matter of policy.
While Western nations have a strong record of military dominance, it is not immune from disaster (the Anglo-Afghan War, the Russo Japanese War and of course Dien Bien Phu just to name a few). Nation-states and non-state actors across the world study and adapt not just the Western way of war, but many are moving towards the Western cultural tradition, or like China’s blend of socialism and capitalism, are displaying a hybrid of both Western and Eastern traditions. Hanson believes that these traits are both enduring and universal; therefore they can be used or discarded by any military force or society. Therein lies the reason that military professionals need to read and study this book. Marines should ask themselves if they are emulating the qualities that Hanson notes as decisive in enabling victory in battle. Is constructive dissent within your unit encouraged or viewed as a threat? Is discipline applied with room for individual initiative to be applied in the fog of war? These and other points raised in the book are worth considering for leaders of Marines. A study guide is posted at the MCU website and a debate between Victor Davis Hanson and Jared Diamond is on YouTube and will add to your understanding of the central ideas in their works. Please leave a comment if you do or do not recommend this book for others to read.