One of the important lessons of Victor Davis Hanson’s riveting new book, Carnage and Culture, is that the only civilization or culture that can defeat the West is the West.  “In the long history of European military practice,” Hanson writes, “it is almost a truism that the chief military worry of a Western army for the past 2,500 years was another Western army.”  In battles against non-Western powers, European armies have not only been victorious on most occasions but have inflicted horrendous casualties on their enemies while suffering relatively few of their own.  By contrast, battles and wars fought among Westerners (the Peloponnesian War, the Thirty Years’ War, the American War Between the States, World Wars I and II) have been bloodbaths, often with harmful demographic, political, and cultural consequences.  Hanson’s book is an exploration of why, for 2,500 years, Western armies and navies have achieved and maintained military and naval superiority over those of the East.  He argues that European invincibility has resulted not from favorable geography, climate, resources, luck, or even genes, but from the unique Western military tradition—which is itself a natural product of the uniqueness and superiority of Western culture.

Hanson, a classical historian and author of The Western Way of War (1989) and The Other Greeks (1995), has selected nine representative battles fought by the West against various non-Western enemies that demonstrate why Western cultures have been able to field armies and navies capable of routing numerically superior and equally brave enemies on every continent on earth.  Seven of these battles were Western victories.  Of the other two, one was the catastrophic and horrific Roman defeat at Cannae (216 B.C.); the other, the tactical American victory against the Tet Offensive (1968), which was, nonetheless, a political disaster at home and ultimately led to American withdrawal from Southeast Asia.  Three of the victories were fought in defense of the Western homeland—Salamis (480 B.C.), Poitiers (A.D. 732), and Lepanto (1571)—while five were fought to extend or preserve Western hegemony in various parts of the world: Gaugamela (331 B.C.), Tenochtitlan (A.D. 1520), Rorke’s Drift (1879), Midway (1942), and Tet (1968).

Seven battles either overthrew a non-Western empire or ensured the survival of European civilization.  The Athenian naval victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis saved Greece and, with it, Western civilization, then in its infancy.  Alexander’s crushing defeat of Darius at Gaugamela broke the back of the Persian empire and paved the way for the establishment of an Hellenic empire in the East.  Charles Martel’s bloody repulse of the Muslim Saracens at Poitiers saved not only France but Western Christendom itself and allowed a revitalized Western culture—a synthesis of classical civilization, Germano-Celtic culture, and Christianity—to continue its brilliant development.  Hernando Cortes’s annihilation of the Aztec army defending Tenochtitlan destroyed the largest and most magnificent city in the New World, overthrew an empire, and almost exterminated an entire nation.  The Spanish and Italian sinking of the Turkish navy at Lepanto saved Christian Italy from Ottoman oppression and Islamic terror.  And the brilliant American naval triumph at Midway mortally wounded the Japanese carrier arm by sending four of its finest flattops to the bottom of the Pacific in what proved to be the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Except for Cannae—where the Roman legionaries outnumbered Hannibal’s motley army of North Africans, Spanish Iberians, and Celtic Gauls—Western armies and navies decisively defeated numerically superior opponents, while inflicting horrendous and wildly disproportionate casualties on them.  At Salamis, 300 Greek triremes, facing a naval force twice as numerous, sunk over 200 Persian warships and killed 40,000 of the enemy, while losing only 40 ships and a few hundred sailors and marines.  At Gaugamela, Alexander’s 47,000 Greeks routed a Persian army of 150,000, killing at least 50,000.  At Rorke’s Drift, 80 British riflemen, outnumbered 50 to one, killed 600 Zulu out of an attacking force of 4,000, while only losing 15 of their own.  And in a little over a year of fighting at Tenochtitlan, 1,600 Spanish conquistadors and their Indian allies slew over 100,000 Aztec warriors, while losing 800 of their own men.  These victories in the face of overwhelming odds were not unusual: Hanson could have written the same book based on nine different battles selected from the same time periods and featuring the same or similar antagonists.

How can we explain such sustained and consistent military triumphs over two-and-a-half millennia?  Carnage and Culture attempts to answer this question definitively.  Hanson easily refutes the assumption, common among academics, that Western ascendancy dates only to A.D.1500 and was the consequence of the accidental invention of firearms.  As his careful delineation and description of landmark battles dating to the Greco-Persian Wars in the fifth century B.C. makes clear, Western preeminence precedes the age of firearms by almost 2,000 years.  Moreover, he demonstrates in his chapter on the eighth-century Frankish victory at Poitiers—as well as in his shorter
discussions of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and the successful centuries-long Byzantine defense of Eastern Christendom against Islamic aggression—that Western superiority on the battlefield was maintained throughout the Middle Ages.

Hanson also makes the telling point that the superiority of Western weaponry was itself no accident but the result of a unique cultural tradition that sanctioned intellectual, political, and economic freedom.  The Western cultural matrix of rationalism, free inquiry, the dissemination of knowledge, free markets, capitalism, private property, the sanctity of contracts, the freedom to profit, and the rule of law created an environment in which scientific discovery, application, and continual innovation were encouraged and rewarded.  Even where non-Westerners were responsible for a crucial discovery or invention (such as the Chinese discovery of gunpowder), the Europeans ultimately benefited the most because their cultural traditions and institutions allowed for both the practical application and further development of such scientific breakthroughs.  Western markets were capable of mass-producing the fruits (firearms, cannon, ships) of applied scientific engineering.  As a result, at every battle studied by Hanson (with the exception of Midway, where the Japanese had better planes and torpedoes), Westerners were better armed and protected than their opponents.  For the same reasons, Western logistics, a vital part of successful warfare, have consistently been superior to those of the East.  Western overseas campaigns (Alexander’s strike against Persia, the early Crusades, Cortes’s daring invasion of Mexico, and the later European colonization of Asia and Africa) would have been inconceivable without sophisticated Western logistical abilities and resources.

Hanson points out that having superior or more numerous weapons was not in itself sufficient to guarantee battlefield victories for vastly outnumbered European armies.  Without “the Western way of war,” which Hanson defines as a preference for decisive shock battles of heavy infantry on land and vast fleets at sea, such technological advantages would have been far less lethal—and, indeed, inadequate for the projection of Western power across the globe.  For example, it was not the mere possession of single-shot Martini-Henry rifles, but the training, discipline, and rapid sequential firing of the British garrison at Rorke’s Drift that saved them from annihilation.  Firing from behind a sturdy redoubt, their sustained volleys of deadly accurate rifle fire broke the Zulu charges and filled the ground with hundreds of dead and dying African warriors.

Hanson argues that a deadly and unique Western military tradition originated in the Greek city states between 800 and 500 B.C., was passed on to the Romans, and was adopted by the Germano-Celtic tribes of Northern Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.  The elements of this martial tradition were a preference for decisive shock battle, civic militarism, heavily armed infantry, well-protected warriors, tactical sophistication, discipline, and training.  The Eastern way of war, by contrast, relied upon overwhelming numerical superiority, envelopment, surprise attack, cavalry, missile troops, and individual combat.  Massed Western infantry formations with superior weapons and protective armor, when properly led and deployed, proved invincible against Eastern cavalry and greater manpower.  The continuity between the Greek hoplite formation, the Macedonian phalanx, the Roman maniples (long, horizontal lines of shield-bearing infantry), the impenetrable “wall” of Frankish infantry at Poitiers, the ordered advance of the Spanish marines across the decks of the Turkish ships at Lepanto “in dense lines and columns,” and the British infantry square is unmistakable.

By the term “civic militarism,” Hanson means consensual government, civilian control and audit of the military, declarations of war by elected assemblies, and the practice of mustering free, propertied males to fill the ranks.  The Greek hoplites were a landowning citizen militia.  The Franks at Poitiers were propertied freemen.  Eastern armies, by contrast, from the time of Xerxes to Saddam Hussein, have been composed of serfs, slaves, and mercenaries.  Hanson believes that armies of freemen who are defending their own farms and liberties make better soldiers than those who are fighting for a distant ruling class or for an empire in which they are mere subjects who possess no rights.  Not only have such freemen demonstrated a disciplined bravery (which Hanson defines as staying in rank despite battlefield adversity or overwhelming enemy numbers), they have exhibited an initiative and adaptability that has often proved decisive in hard-fought, evenly matched battles (e.g., Midway), qualities which, Hanson argues, are totally lacking in non-Western armies.

Inevitably, Carnage and Culture must anger American and European multiculturalists.  On page after page of his book, Hanson contrasts the freedom, creativity, productive power, and martial prowess of Western culture with Eastern servitude, autocracy, sterility, and stagnation.  His positive revisionist treatment of the Spanish conquistadors, coupled with his merciless depiction of the horrors of Aztec rule, will not be well received.  He characterizes the conquistadors as both devout Christians and European rationalists who were not only well read in the latest developments of military science but in Western anthropological and comparative political science, which helped them study and search out weaknesses in the Aztec military and political structures.  Their knowledge of engineering, metallurgy, and chemistry empowered them to construct portable wooden towers, movable bridges, gunpowder, metal bolts for their crossbows, and 13 prefabricated brigantines that proved crucial to the success of the final siege of the island fortress of Tenochtitlan.  Hanson concludes that the “fanatical” Christians under Cortes were the heirs of “two millennia of abstract Western military science, from fortification, siegecraft, battle tactics, and cavalry maneuver to logistics, pike and sword fighting, and medical treatment in the field.”  By contrast, Hanson describes the Aztecs as mired in superstition, primitivism, and a form of barbarism whose demonic culture sanctioned human sacrifice, mass murder, cannibalism, sodomy, and transvestitism.

Hanson’s three chapters devoted to the defense of the Western homeland from Eastern imperialism should be required reading for contemporary students who have been subjected to an endless tirade against alleged Western crimes and depredations committed against non-Europeans.  Hanson argues that Eastern conquest—whether Persian, Arab, or Turk—would have meant serfdom, oppressive taxation, female sexual slavery, and despotism, resulting in cultural sterility and economic stagnation.  Islamic culture would have enriched Western life with forced religious conversions, the harem, and the wonderful institution of devshirme, under which the Turks kidnapped Christian youth from their conquered Balkan subjects, enslaved them for life, forcibly converted them to Islam, and then trained them to staff the army and bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire.  Knowing the cruel character of their Eastern enemies, the Greeks at Salamis, the Franks at Poitiers, and the Italians and Spanish at Lepanto took no prisoners and slaughtered those who begged for their lives after they were defeated.  American multiculturalists would have granted them political asylum, resettled them at taxpayer expense among the victors, given them free health care and education, and permitted the Arabs and Ottoman rulers to pay for mosques for their former soldiers and sailors now residing in the West.

Hanson rejects the fashionable leftist doctrine that cultural diversity is a source of strength and unity.  He describes Charles Martel’s victory at Poitiers as significant because it stemmed the cruel tide of Islamic expansion northward, “marked a general continuance of the successful Western defense of Europe,” and “inaugurated a near thousand-year struggle” between Christian Europe and the Islamic East, which he describes as two “antithetical cultures.”  “[T]he thousand-year-old cultural fault lines characteristic of the past Greco-Roman wars against the Achaemenids and Sassanids,” he concludes, “reappeared in the Christian struggle against Islam.”

The impressive erudition and incisive analysis of the author are not without their flaws, however.  Hanson exaggerates the advantages of democracy and egalitarianism, while ignoring the social strength of free but aristocratic polities.  For instance, in praising Athenian democracy, Hanson suggests that the more egalitarian and democratic a regime, the more formidable its military power.  Yet it was aristocratic Sparta, not democratic Athens, that finally prevailed in the Peloponnesian War.  Great Britain was a stronger military power and smarter in choosing its wars under a mixed government (democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy) in the 18th and 19th centuries than it was under its democratic parliamentary regimes of the 20th.  British democracy bankrupted the country, lost the empire, and shed the best blood of the nation in ruinous and unnecessary wars.  Despite being outgunned and outnumbered, the aristocratic American South almost won its independence from the more democratic North.  Man for man, Confederate soldiers fought better, while Southern society proved far more cohesive and resilient than that of the North.  Nazi Germany routed democratic-minded French and British armies on the western front in World War II, and the totalitarian Soviet Union, not Anglo-American democrats, ground down the German Wehrmacht.

Hanson also betrays many of the classicist’s prejudices toward Northern Europe.  For instance, he describes Vercingetorix, who united the Celtic tribes of Gaul in a desperate struggle to defend their lands and freedom against Roman imperialism, as a mere adventurer and his troops as mercenaries out for booty.  He also fails to understand the ancient cultural and ethnic consanguinity between the Greco-Roman world and that of the Germano-Celtic north. 

He does note that hundreds of years of Greek rule failed to Hellenize or Westernize the peoples of Western Asia, just as hundreds of years of Roman rule failed to Romanize or Westernize their North African or Middle Eastern populations.  On the other hand, the Germanic and Celtic tribes of Northern Europe successfully absorbed the best of Greco-Roman culture even as they overran the western provinces of the empire.  The historical model for the Arthurian legend was probably a Romanized Celt who led his fellow civilized Britons in battle against the invading Saxons.  At Poitiers, the Germanic Franks were defending the legacy of classical culture at Poitiers as much as they were defending their own wives and daughters, farms and estates, villages and churches.  Hanson also overlooks the important battle of Chalons (A.D. 451) at which a pan-European force of Romans, Visigoths, and Franks came together to defeat Attila’s rampaging Huns.  The distinction between “civilized” Roman and “barbaric” German meant little when Europe was assailed by a common Asiatic enemy.

Carnage and Culture errs in totally dismissing the ethnic dimension in military history and insisting on a determinism that is purely cultural.  The ferocious resistance of the Aztecs, Zulus, and (in the 1940’s) the Japanese, Russians, and Germans proves that armies can fight valiantly in defense of their homelands and peoples even when they do not enjoy a culture of freedom.  Hanson does not address whether they will fight for such a culture when they are part of a large, diversified, and multiethnic empire.  After all, every one of Hanson’s landmark battles was won by a Western people that was more or less unified by a common racial identity and religious faith.  Despite a reputation for diversity, U.S. forces in Vietnam were over 80 percent white.  The ever-expanding diversity of the modern West has no historical parallel, save, perhaps, that of the Roman empire, a precedent that hardly seems auspicious or encouraging.

And so Victor Davis Hanson’s cultural determinism causes him to omit massive Third World immigration from his list of possible threats to continuing Western military ascendancy.  He apparently believes that non-European immigrants will be magically transformed into Westerners the moment they set foot on Western soil.  As the appalling attacks of September 11 made clear, it could prove a fatal assumption.  The next war in defense of the West may again be fought on Western ground.


[Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, by Victor Davis Hanson (New York and London: Doubleday) 460 pp., $29.95]