Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 16, 2006
HISTORY: Ripples of Battle
Over my recent vacation I finally caught up to reading Victor Davis Hanson's 2003 book Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think. Though I was intimately familiar with Hanson's work from his National Review Online columns, this was my first introduction to his books, of which he has written many, several of them examining his thesis that Western Civilization has a distinctive "Western way of war" whose superiority is not coincidental to but rather determined by the liberal aspects of Western culture - individual freedom and initiative, free thought, free markets - that combine to produce superior technology, superior tactics, and the flexible, fast-adapting soldiers who can use them.
I highly recommend "Ripples of Battle." What Hanson does in the book - a brisk, page-turning 258 pages in paperback - is to look at three battles of the past - Okinawa, from World War II in the Pacific; the Civil War battle of Shiloh, Tennessee; and Delium, a battle between the ancient Athenians and Boetians (a region led by Thebes) - and examine the many impacts of the battle. What is unique about Hanson's analysis is that he mainly focuses on effects other than just the battle's strategic impact on a particular war, although Shiloh in particular was a pivotal battle by that reckoning. Instead, he works through the myriad other marks left by the battle. He starts with the shattering effects of Okinawa on his own family as a result of the death of his father's cousin and his namesake, Victor Hanson, and expands to examine the death of journalist Ernie Pyle at Okinawa and the loss of the men of an entire town, Thespiae, on the winning side at Delium. This contrasts with the legacy of ordinary infantrymen who survived, most particularly Socrates, who fought at Delium. Left unsaid is how many others who had as much to give humanity as Socrates perished in these and other battles. Hanson contrasts the military and political careers raised up by these battles - Grant, Sherman, and Nathan Bedford Forrest at Shiloh, Alcibiades at Delium - with those who were slain or ruined, like Simon Bolivar Buckner at Okinawa, and Albert Sidney Johnston and Lew Wallace at Shiloh. Hanson shows how the later careers of these men left many marks - on the decline and fall of Athens, the rise of the American popular novel, the growth of the Klu Klux Klan, and the development of modern total war as a two-pronged strategy of attrition of men and destruction of economic infrastructure.
The most relevant parts of the book, to the 21st century reader, are in Hanson's analysis (written against the backdrop of 9/11, but before the unfolding of the post-conquest insurgency in Iraq) of the kamikaze attacks at Okinawa - how they arose (not always voluntarily, as with today's suicide bombers), how the Americans fought and defeated them, how weak was their military impact, and yet how strong their long-term impact in two ways: because they were critical to convincing American war planners (along with the general to-the-last-soldier-and-civilian defense of Okinawa) that Japanese fanatacism required the use of the atomic bomb to prevent a staggering bloodbath of an invasion of the mainland, and because they showed weaker or technologically backward forces the world over that suicide attacks could help level the playing field against the superior Western way of war. Hanson makes the persuasive case that Hiroshima and Nagasaki can not possibly be understood without Okinawa, and ties it to his larger theme that suicide attacks tend to make the Western response only more deadly by weakening our moral scruples about unleashing the deadly power of the West to lay waste to its enemies.
Hanson's writing style is, as always, bracing and eloquent. He tells impossibly exciting stories, such as the superhuman bravery and only-in-Hollywood (you would think) escapes from death of Sherman and Forrest at Shiloh, yet he doesn't romanticize or glorify war; he sets the tone of the book by mourning the loss of Victor Handon, and along the way savages General Buckner's battle plan on Okinawa, highlights the blunders of both sides at Shiloh, and argues that Delium was basically an unnecessary and pointless battle. I learned a lot from this book - among others, about the orgins of military tactics, the career of Wallace (who wrote Ben-Hur as part of his campaign to salvage his reputation in the decades after Shiloh), and the coalition politics of Greek armies (in which is contained an implicit lesson about multilateral command structures: Hanson notes that the Thespians perished in such great numbers precisely because their more powerful coalition partners chose for them a particularly vulnerable section of the battle line. Coalition-style forces are also shown to fail in his account of the diffuse command structure of the Confederate Army before and after Shiloh).
The book is not without flaws. The coda, tying the lessons of these battles to the post-September 11 world, will sound familiar to readers of Hanson's columns, but seems artificially forced and tacked-on. Hanson doesn't trace all the battles' ripples explicitly; for example, because of its effects on the careers of Grant, Sherman, Garfield and others, Shiloh can probably be singled out as the moment when the Ohio Republican party became a dominant force in American politics, as it would remain for many decades afterwards. His discussion of Delium's impact on the career of Socrates spends too much time hammering home the point that Socrates' career after the battle was the source of his impact on Western civilization (Hanson also argues that his heroism in battle - contrasted to the capture of Plato's stepfather - may have made Socrates a particularly attractive role model to Plato), but even for all that counterfactual speculation he only glancingly discusses what effect the battle itself may have had on Socrates' own thinking, which Hanson suggests took a turn from a focus on natural science to moral philosophy after Delium. Also, he mentions that the only account of Socrates written by someone who knew him before Delium is a brutal satire by Aristophanes that was presented a year after the battle - but he misses the obvious point that even that account would likely have been lost to history because Aristophanes is unlikely to have put on a play lampooning a man recently killed in battle defending the city.
Nonetheless, it's a tremendous read, and one of continuing relevance in a world still feeling the effects of battles as ancient as Delium and as recent as southern Lebanon.