BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The history we neglect at our peril
, November 12, 2011
THE FATHER OF US ALL:
War and History, Ancient and Modern
by Victor Davis Hanson
(New York: Bloomsbury Press)
Paperback: 272 pages
Reviewed by Mervyn F. Bendle
“War is an ugly thing”, observed John Stuart Mill, but “the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing is worth a war, is worse” (p.17).
It is this insight and its implications that shape Victor Davis Hanson’s new book on military history and the study of war. This collects many of his most interesting and accessible articles published over the past decade, and ranges widely from ancient to modern wars, the study of military history, and the impact of postmodernism on the humanities.
Among Hanson’s previous books is Carnage and Culture (2001; published in Australia as Why the West Has Won), which explored nine pivotal battles in history and showed how the military dominance of the West began with the ancient Greeks and reflects core civilisational values, including individualism, democracy, liberty, private property, science and rational inquiry, and a vibrant public sphere that facilitates open debate.
Other books reflect his interests as a professor of classics and explore key aspects of the ancient world, including major battles.
As this new book makes clear, central to Hanson’s worldview is his belief that war arises from the inherently tragic dimension of human nature and its capacity for evil and aggression, which demands resistance and makes war “the father of us all”, as societies and even entire civilisations are forced to struggle for survival.
In this apparently endless series of conflicts “the Western way of war” has so far prevailed, but this may soon end as the underlying core values are corroded and our civilisation loses faith in itself.
This corrosion is exemplified by the peculiar attitude of Western societies to the study of war and military history, which Hanson explores in depth in studies that range from Thermopylae to 9/11 and the War on Terror. It is an analysis that has great relevance for Australia.
The status of military history in Australia is quite ambiguous. At the grassroots level there is widespread interest in military history, exemplified by the popularity of books on Australia’s various military campaigns, especially at Gallipoli, in the Pacific and in Vietnam.
There is also a strong market for military history magazines, while there are innumerable web-sites devoted to military matters. Tour companies thrive on the demand for tours of overseas battlefields and around Australia there are innumerable war memorials and community-based museums, commemorating aspects of Australia’s military history. And there is the Australian War Memorial, which is by far the best and most frequented museum in Australia.
Within the universities things are very different. Research and teaching relating to military history is notable for its scarcity — indeed its suppression — within academe, reflecting the left’s extremely tight grip on tertiary education, its self-righteous dismissal of “militarism”, and its hatred of anything that it associates with national pride.
This is especially the case with the Anzac legend, which is regularly traduced each April in the media and academic journals by members of a coterie of senior academics who resent the attention paid to the memory of those who have served in war, and even believe they themselves have earned an heroic place in history because they demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
Their influence is exemplified by the main proposal of the report of the commission on how the ANZAC centenary should be commemorated, released in April 2011.
It recommends the establishment of an “Anzac peace studies centre” at the Australian National University as the centrepiece of the centenary, and proposes that this centre not focus on Australia’s iconic military engagements, such as at Gallipoli or Kokoda or in France, but should instead promote the study of peace, conflict resolution and anti-war activity.
Peace studies centres emerged during the Vietnam War as academic front organisations for the anti-war movement, and this proposal is a cynical attempt by the left to hijack the funding and prestige associated with the Anzac centenary to promote its own “radical pacifist” agenda.
Moreover, “peace” is not an absolute good that must be pursued at any price, as Hanson laments. Indeed, “military history teaches us … that wars are not necessarily the most costly of human calamities” (p.15); those would be the nightmarish tyrannies that monsters like Hitler or Stalin would inflict upon humanity if they were left unchallenged.
Consequently, the fact that this “peace studies” proposal is the main recommendation of this important report reveals not only the cultural power of the left but its abysmal ignorance of the nature and role of war, and its refusal to accept the place it has played in Australian history and human history generally.
The same situation exists in the United States, as Hanson explains. While there is a massive popular interest in military history, it is systematically ignored within the universities, with several recent surveys finding that only two per cent of professorial staff in history faculties possess any expertise or interest in military history.
Moreover, when war is studied or taught in America, as in Australia, it is almost always in terms of the notorious “class, gender and race template” that completely dominates the study of the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Consequently, as Hanson points out, the Oxford Classical Dictionary allocates only 21 lines to the epochal Peloponnesian War, but 337 to homosexuality and 435 to literary theory, indicating that knowledge of homosexuality and postmodernism are some 15-20 times more important than one of the most important wars in the history of the Western world.
Similarly, a typical course on World War II would ignore the rise of European and Asian fascism and militarism and instead “emphasise Japanese internment, Rosie the Riveter, and the horrors of Hiroshima, not necessarily Guadalcanal, Midway, or Normandy”, even though the fate of nations is “decided largely by action at the front among soldiers” (p.9), whose exploits are ignored and even denigrated by academics.
And again with the Vietnam War. Instead of recognising the mortal threat of international communism and the need to resist it, “a typical survey of the Vietnam War will devote lots of time to the inequities of the draft, media coverage, and the antiwar movement at home, and [disregard] the air and artillery barrages at Khe Sanh” and the analysis of other major battles (p.9).
Likewise, any discussion of the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts invariably focuses on their alleged futility, America’s alleged geo-political interests, or the post-traumatic shock suffered by soldiers, rather than on the intricacies of their campaigns, the courage and resourcefulness of their efforts in an extremely hostile and treacherous environment, and the over-riding need to combat global terrorism and the ideology of jihadism that drives it.
Contemporary military history, Hanson points out, reveals that those who stepped forward to suffer and die on behalf of the liberal democratic resistance to totalitarian violence “were a different sort” of person to those fanatics who eagerly embraced such barbarism and died to inflict such violence (p.8).
Sadly (but typically), academics would deny any such distinction and would insist on a moral equivalency between democratic societies and totalitarian regimes.
Inevitably, “a public that’s illiterate about the conflicts of the past can easily find itself confused during wartime” (p.12), and is thus an easy target for those who want to manipulate and exploit public opinion for political and ideological purposes, as Hanson shows in a discussion of the public response to war over the past two centuries.
The results can be disastrous. The debacle in Mogadishu in 1993 (depicted in the book and film Black Hawk Down) led not only to a collapse of political and public support for the use of military forces to protect humanitarian programs from vicious warlords and their paramilitary gangs; it led also to the reluctance of Western countries to become involved in preventing the escalation of ethnic conflicts to genocidal proportions, as then happened in Rwanda in 1994, in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s, and in many places since.
Moreover, Mogadishu led Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to conclude, “in rather explicit and public fashion, that the supposedly decadent Westerners would never fight, whatever the provocation — and that if the United States … ever should engage, it would withdraw as it had from Mogadishu once images of American killed and wounded blanketed our television screens”.
Ultimately, bin Laden attacked America “because he thought … he could get away with it” (pp.18-9). The 9/11 attacks and the wars that have followed were the tragic results of this miscalculation.
But such miscalculations are not limited to death cults like al Qaeda: they become inevitable within democracies when the study, teaching and discussion of military history and the legitimate role of war are pushed to the margins of academic study and intellectual culture, as Hanson shows.
He points out that it was Western airpower that eventually ended the Milosevic regime’s reign of terror, “but only after a near decade of inaction and [futile] dialogue had made possible the slaughter of tens of thousands” of people who may have survived had there been resolute action from the outset (p.17).
Where do we now stand? According to Hanson, as existential threats multiply not only across the globe but within the West itself, the greatest danger lies “not in accepting that the innate nature of war lies in the dark hearts of us all, but rather in denying it” (p.246).
The study of military history has “2,500 years of experience, trial by error, and tragedy to draw on”, and can therefore provide the vital perspective that is required if our nation and the civilisation to which it belongs are to preserve their core values and retain the determination to fight to protect them.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University, Queensland. His many articles include “Anzac in ashes”, Quadrant, April, 2010, and “Gallipoli: second front in the history wars”, Quadrant, June, 2009.