Monday, March 27, 2006

Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power

Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power is a great look at the rise of the West's "style" of military culture and why it has been, to this point at least, essentially undefeatable (ok, maybe not a word).

It starts in the preface with a look at the march of the 10,000 back to Greece following the battle at Cunaxa and ends in the epilogue with a rather gloomy portrait of the future with genuine battles of West v. West (battles/wars that have generally produced the most brutal and horrific results).

The key elements of the brutal way Western cultures wage war include:

Relatively free soldiers, at least compared to the non-West.
Decisive or Shock Battle intended to obliterate the opposition.
Citizen soldiers.
Landed soldiers.
Technology and Appreciation of Reason (scientific method).
The Economy that can produce the Decisive or Shock Battle (my favorite chapter is entitled The Market--or Capitalism Kills...about the Battle of Lepanto in 1571).
The Discipline of Western soldiering.
(and the seemingly opposite of the foregoing Discipline) Individualism of same.
Finally, the Dissent and Self-Critique of the so-called loss of Tet.

There are great reviews at the amazon site so I won't try to give a real review here (a problem with reading a book five years following its publication.

Rather, I'll just excerpt a few passages that piqued my interest and made me want to read more of the author's work.

The first:

The great hatred of capitalism the hearts of the oppressed, ancient and modern, I think, stems not merely from the ensuing vast inequality of wealth, and the often unfair and arbitrary nature of who profits and who suffers, but from the silent acknowledgment that under a free market economy the many victims of the greed of the few are still better off than those under the utopian socialism of the well-intended. It is a hard thing for the poor to acknowledge benefits from their rich moral inferiors who never so intended it. (pp. 271-2; Lepanto)

It will come as no surprise to my reader that such a passage would be one of my favorites. It comes from the Capitalism Kills chapter.

The second:

For good or evil, few Westerners believe that a sacred cow is more important than a human, that the emperor is superior to the individual person, that a religious pilgrimage is the fulfillment of a human's life, that in war a suicidal charge is often required for an individual's excellency, or that a combatant must risk his or her life to save the emperor's picture. (p. 387; Midway)

The third:

How odd that the institutions that can thwart the daily battle progress of Western arms can also ensure the ultimate triumph of its cause. If the Western commitment to self-critique in part caused the American defeat in Vietnam, then that institution was also paramount in the explosion of Western global influence in the decades after the war--even as the enormous and often bellicose Vietnamese army fought for a regime increasingly despised at home, shunned abroad, and bankrupt economically and morally. (p. 439; Tet)

The fourth:

Buying and selling is a human trait, but the abstract protection of private property, the institutionalization of interest and investment, and the understanding of market are not. Capitalism is more than the sale of goods, more than the existence of money, and more than the presence of the bazaar. Rather, it is a peculiar Western practice that acknowledges the self-interest of man and channels that greed to the production of vast amounts of goods and services through free markets and institutionalized guarantees of personal profit, free exchange, deposited capital, and private property. (p. 445; Epilogue)

And finally:

Nope, can't reproduce that one...the last paragraph of the book...that's VDH's. You should read it.

I wish this reader had been more able to resolve the conflict between Discipline of Western infantry (including the ability to fight and march in what had always seemed ridiculous rows of infantry shooting, kneeling and reloading that we see in the movies of the Revolutionary War...that just seem nuts to me though it makes much more sense to me in its origins of the phalanxes after reading Gates of Fire) and the Individualism of the pilots that led to victory at Midaway.

Though not excerpted, my favorite chapters (probably because I had so little knowledge of their subjects) were about the battles at Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) by Cortes and the Conquistadors and Rorke's Drift by the British over the Zulus.

I have tried to diligently reproduce VDH's paragraphs but my typing ability is less than stellar.
To the extent of any errors, I accept full responsibility. [Note: I've been up since 5:00 so I reserve the right to make extensive edits. Dang, big post, but at least none of the thoughts were original.]


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