Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Not quite Why The West Has Won

There is a division in analysis of Western history between those who are impressed by the achievement of Classical antiquity and those who are more sympathetic to the West’s medieval heritage. Between those who think Western civilisation clearly extends back to Classical Greece and Rome and those who think that Classical civilisation ended and Western civilisation is what came after.

I am very much of the latter view. Classical military historian Victor Davis Hanson is very much of the former view. In Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam he examines a series of Western military victories (Salamis 480BC, Gaugamela 331BC, Poitiers 732, Tenochtitlan 1520-21, Lepanto 1571, Rorke’s Drift 1879, Midway 1942), a clear defeat (Cannae 216BC) and a useless victory (Tet 1968).

The list includes three naval battles (Salamis, Lepanto, Midway) and not a single battle involving knights. We skip from Poitiers-aka-Tours in 732 to Tenochtitlan in 1520-1521, the second biggest temporal jump (apart from that from Cannae to Poitiers-aka-Tours: the latter jump means we miss Adrianople 378).

The reason for the former jump is that Hanson argues that the West has a peculiar aptitude, for cultural reasons, for mass combat, particularly mass foot combat. That steady, murderous infantry is the West’s enduring military achievement and the basis of Western military success, along with an unsentimental pragmatism about effectiveness (hence the naval victories). So the (mounted) knights are a bit of an embarrassment.
Hanson does try to justify the jump, arguing that the role of infantry in the medieval period was more important than they are often given credit for (some truth to that). Nevertheless, Latin Christendom expended a very high proportion of its (limited) resources to produce knights. Moreover, knightly society presided over a technological boom, and later a rise in wealth and in population, far greater than anything Rome managed. The similarity in political forms between modernity and Classical Greece and Rome conceals some deep differences, while the differences in political forms between medieval society and modernity conceals some profound continuities.

Hanson is an engaging writer, and his discussions of the various battles carry the reader along. He very much wants to contrast the cultural and social milieu that produced Western armies and navies with their opponents. For example:
Achaemenid Persian—like Montezuma’s Aztecs or Ottoman Turkey—was a vast two-tiered society ruled by autocrats, audited by theocrats and coerced by generals (p.92).
In discussing the Greeks (and later Macedonians) against the Persians, he notes the hoarding of specie by the Persian rulers and, against modern criticism of the limitations of Athenian democracy, that the groups marginalised in Greek society were marginalised in all societies.

He is very much not keen on autocracy, comparing Alexander to Hitler in his brutal megalomania. Hanson notes that execution of losing generals is rare in the West, quite common elsewhere. He is interested in such things as the different uses of language between the West and its opponents. Hanson argues that the Western view of history has predominated because it produced a lot more histories, even during the 500AD-1000AD period than, for example, Islam. Latin Christendom’s historical endeavours were not simply ruler/court-focused. The demotic nature of Western civilisation is very much central to his thesis. (Embarrassing then that Rome became so very autocratic: consider that first temporal jump from Cannae to Poitiers-aka-Tours.)

Why the West has Won is not, however, some sort of glowing apologia for the West. Hanson engages in an unsentimental dissection of the focused slaughter of Western warfare. Aggression is aggression (e.g. the Zulu War). There is no hankering for any “lost glory” of empire.

His thesis is genuinely about culture and society. Thus Alexander (and Hannibal) had the military techniques but not the cultural follow through. So the real story of Cannae is not about the crushing Roman defeat, but the Roman Republic’s amazing resilience afterwards, leading to eventual crushing victory.

This lack of sentimentalising is perhaps most obvious in his discussion of the Tet offensive and the American loss in the Vietnam War. Hanson is (naturally) very impressed by the productive power of capitalism. But he also dissects the ineptness and incompetence of American military and political leadership. Journalists, generals and politicians all lied.

It is striking that President Johnson’s steady escalation showed much the same problem as the “War on Poverty”—everything could be solved with enough resources motivated by the correct intentions.

Hanson notes that the civilian death toll in Indochina under the communist “peace” was far higher than during the American war: and that the US lost the war but won the peace. Rather strikingly, he uses the Vietnam case to argue for the (positive) power of self-criticism.

I was not very much persuaded by Hanson’s thesis of military power coming from cultural continuity. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that Western Civilisation includes Classical Greek and Rome. If that were true, the Orthodox world (which managed full institutional continuity until 1453) would be the heart of being “Western” and the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire was the most quintessentially medieval “Western” state, neither of which is true.

What grew up after the collapse of the Western Empire was a new civilisation: one with Classical residues to be sure, but a new civilisation nevertheless. The core areas of Latin Christendom had either been on the Roman periphery or had never been Roman.

Take political forms. It is somewhat arguable that medieval manorial-serf arrangement descended from villa-coloni of Late Antiquity. But Medieval assemblies did not descend from Classical urban assemblies, particularly not after Diocletian had emptied city councils of any real role. They descended from Germanic warrior assemblies.

Even if we accept that there were cultural continuities (as there clearly were some), the question arises, why? How did they, for example, survive the profound moral and intellectual transformation of Christianisation followed by Germanic rule? What kept the cultural continuities Hanson wants to point to going generation after generation, through vast changes and a shift in the geographical base of the putatively single civilisation?

Part of the answer, I would suggest, is geography: Japan created steady infantry. So did China. Basically, valleys, forests and cities produce steady infantry. Plains produce horseman. Large river valleys produce autocracy—particularly large river valleys periodically conquered by mounted nomads so that any evolution in more pluralistic directions is periodically wiped out by the new rulers. Geography is one of those persistent factors that can keep acting as a constraint (or enabler) for human affairs. Hanson’s implicit suggestion, for example, that the ferociously effective foot of the Norse was due to their (non-existent) Classical antecedents is surely silly. Trying to turn Tours-aka-Poitiers into a victory for the Classical heritage when clearly it was a victory of Germanic warriors much like the later Norse shows just how strained Hanson’s underlying thesis is.

I enjoyed Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam, but I wasn’t persuaded that Western military efficiency was due to our Classical heritage.

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