Monday, May 16, 2011

Victor David Hanson on Western Military Dynamism

This past Thursday The Ohio State University hosted Victor David Hanson who spoke on “Western Military Dynamism and its Antidotes.” Hanson, in addition to being a conservative commentator, is one of the leading classicists of this generation. His presentation was a bit of both. I must admit that some of his comments made me uncomfortable and I suspect that I was one of the more conservative people in attendance. While I am willing to use the terms "West" and "East" for convenience, I think there is someone rather arbitrary about them and do not see them as reflecting hard reality. Here are my notes from the lecture; I am curious as to the thoughts of my readers. As usual all mistakes are mine.   

This talk is about the “western way of war.” When the term was first used twenty five years it brought numerous objections. Today it seems there is a problem with even using the term the "West." Until 1950 it simply was a geographic term. The Romans used it in an expansive sense. It was enriched through the adoption of Judeo-Christian values, the Renaissance and the spread of Colonialism. After 1950 the West became a state of mind. Japan and South Korea are Western in ways that Egypt is not. A Western can be of any race, but has an allegiance to constitutional government, freedom of the press and religion. The claim is not that one can draw a straight line between ancient Athens and the present. There were detours like the Inquisition.

Jared Diamond argues that there are no values just geographic determinants. He argues that the Greeks and Romans had a head start and even today Europe has an advantage. Hegel and Schopenhauer believed that there was a West but that the Romans were contaminated by other cultures. It was only in Germany that Western values were maintained.

There something intrinsic to this notion of the West; it is something cultural, but its relevancy extends even to military matters. From the Greeks onward ,when these larger protocols were applied to battle, we begin to see a paradigm of superior technology. This is not merely finding a technology; gun powder, triremes and stirrups were invented outside the West. The key issue is figuring out how to best use it. After the battle of Lepanto in 1571, many of the best Ottoman galleys were taken from the West. The Ottomans stormed Constantinople in 1453 with guns manufactured in Germany. In contrast Hernan Cortez was able to make gun powder out of ingredients he found in Mexico and even forge cannons. The Aztecs had access to this same material, but were unable to make any use of it.

The West has been able to find a way to employ capitalism. Natives flocked to Cortez to sell him necessary supplies. The U.S. coalition in 1991 had more bottled water than the Iraqis. Instead of defining bravery in terms of personal kills (Homeric values), starting from the Greeks Western countries defined bravery in terms of units. An extension of this demotion of individual military heroes, is the ability to remove generals. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was sacked during the Korean War. All the leading generals in ancient Greece were at one point audited or even sacked by their home city.

(This does not apply to the medieval warfare, which focusd on individual knights. I guess Hanson views the Middle ages as a "detour" in western history. While I agree that there is something important to this notion of a military tradition of an "esprit de corps", it contradicts the notion of Western "individualism." If the West values the individual then how did it come to take a more collective view when it came to the military? No matter how one answers this question, one would have to give up either individualism or military collectivism as "western" values.) 


Other systems needed to find ways to counter the West. This was often done by turning to asymmetrical warfare, where you change the ground on which you are fighting. The West seems less able to take casualties. We can see this in the ancient battles of Salamis in 480 BCE and Gaugamela in 331 BCE to the modern day war in Iraq. Another check is parasitism where one uses lethal weapons which one did not have to invest as a culture. This goes for Native Americans or Zulus with guns to Iraqi insurgents being able to nullify an Abrams tank. One does not have to understand the ballistics behind these weapons or even how to repair them. One can just fire these weapons until they break down.  A third check is the ability to challenge the notion of a monolithic West. In truth there is no monolithic anything. It is certainly hard to unite western cultures. You can resist a western power with the help of another western power. Persia was willing to interfere with Greek city states. More French and British soldiers died in Verdun and Somme than in ninety years of colonialism. Americans lost more soldiers in the final year of the Civil War than they ever lost in conflicts with Native Americans. Finally opponents of the West have been able to rely on the empathy of some in the West. Long before Michael Moore compared the Iraqi insurgents to the minutemen and said that Bin Laden should have attacked a red state, you had Lysistrata and Euripedies’ Trojan Women, which was a damning portrayal of the Greeks.

War is the same, regardless of the technology. Modern war is change speeded up. The issues remain the same. Why is this true? One turns to Thucydides, that the nature of man is the same. We are in a situation in which those who oppose the West do not wish to counter us on the battlefield. We are discovering ways to check those who wish to check us even as we desire to fight a more conventional war. Where does this lead us? There are certain disciplines that are invaluable in times when others are losing their sanity in this speeded up world. If you want to understand why people want to kill there is no better discipline than history.

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