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June 10, 2005

Soul of Battle

Victor Davis Hanson – ISBN – 0385720599

(Apologies for the length of this piece, but there is simply no way to fairly edit it further.)

“Democracies, I think . . . for a season can produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men, and do so in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material. This book, devoted to infantry, not airpower, tries to learn why all that is so.” So begins a discussion of three of the most significant battles of all time:

First: the battle surrounding the defeat of the hubristic and hated Spartans. An army of 70,000 Hoplites marched 180 miles from Thebes to Laconia in the winter of 370-369 B.C. These Greek Yeoman—simple dirt farmers, voting citizens and volunteers all—over-ran and destroyed it freeing forever the Spartan slaves, and established free, fortified Greek city-states governed by these freedmen. The legendary Spartans avoided meetings with the Thebans on the field of battle, but left their women to pathetically plead for mercy. Epaminondas (“Iron Gut”) and his democratic army accomplished in just 60 days what imperial Athens had been unable to do in the 27 years of the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans had been demonstrated to be a hollow and heartless shell. The slave state was destroyed and the Theban army marched home to plant their crops, their army gone within 6 months.

Second: the March to the Sea, in which William Tecumseh (“Uncle Billy”) Sherman led an army of Midwestern troops 62,000 strong—also simple dirt farmers, voting citizens and volunteers—into and through the heart of the Confederacy, a slave based society similar to Sparta. There the Army of the West razed the property and freed the slaves of the arrogant plantation owners who had fueled the Civil War. When Sherman’s army turned north five weeks later the Confederacy had been thoroughly devastated. While there were 30,000 Confederate troops always nearby, they never came to their own defense. They hid, leaving their women to plead for leniency and safety. Leniency was denied. The Rebels, like the Spartans, were a hollow force. Little known is the fact that Sherman’s army killed virtually no one and did no direct harm to the poor. After the surrender at Appomattox only four months later, the army disbanded and was never heard from again--and the Confederate slave state was no more.

the lightening attacks of George Patton’s Third Army contributed mightily to the defeat of Germany in WWII, sweeping rapidly across Europe and into the German. Had he not (most unfortunately) been halted for two months to permit Montgomery to pursue his failed operations, Patton would have been in Germany months before, the war shortened by six months, and the outcome entirely different: no Russian occupation, no Berlin wall, and just maybe no cold war. Further, there would have been as many as two million fewer deaths. In seven months--plus the two when Patton was sidelined--the Third Army, also composed of raw recruits, so completely overwhelmed the Germans that they lived in constant dread of the army of “Old Blood and Guts.” Seldom recognized is that Patton experienced fewer casualties than any other general, while inflicting more. Alone amongst Allied generals he struck terror in the hearts and minds of the Nazis—the supposed master race--who never knew what he would do, where, when or how. Only, that he was lethal. Patton’s half a million man was disbanded within months, vanishing into the U.S. landscape never to be heard from again. And the Nazis entered history in the 9th year of their much touted 1,000 year Reich. A third evil slave state destroyed by a murderous democratic army of “spiritual warriors.”

Such is The Soul of Battle. All three generals were intellectuals, better educated than their armies and contemporary commanders, especially in the literature and philosophy of war. All honored the warrior culture they labored mightily to destroy. All followed an arcane honor code poorly suited for times of peace. All were ruthless and gifted men of little subsequent use. All led armies which fought with a terrible vengeance, and the Spartans, Confederates and Nazis perished at their hand. All were despised by their opponents and worshipped by those they commanded and whose salvation they wrought.

These commanders instilled in their men a zealous ethic, making them understand and believe they were morally superior to their undemocratic, slave-holding adversaries. The book is an essay on the ethical nature of democracies at war. Hanson demonstrates that “on rare occasions throughout the ages there is a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle,” and that war is neither always evil nor always unnecessary.

We now live in an era of “conflict resolution” and “peace studies” in which moral guilt is equally assessed to those who kill to advance evil and those who kill to end it, and to the aggressive as well those who resist aggression. In the end we all become “victims”. “Evil” itself has become relative.

Historians often fail to see that “humane war” (the ultimate oxymoron) gives us someone like McClellan, whose battle incompetence prolonged the killing, and whose tolerance for slavery might--had Sherman not taken Atlanta--have allowed bondage to continue in North America—under a McClellan presidency. (In WWII, Omar Bradley favored “humane war.”)

It would be well for modern Liberals to keep in mind (as they chant their constant--and truly anti-liberal: “hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go”) that what they perceive and hate about the West is not what they represent it to be. While Spartan, Confederate and Nazi states all originated in the West, so too does the culture and tradition of civil rights, democracy and consensual government.

These are the things which we in America must fight to reclaim from our Hellenic legacy. All cultures are not equal! Indeed, most are not even in the running. This is not cultural arrogance, it is fact!! Despite our problems the West is the foremost culture ever visited upon this planet, and it must survive if the world is not to revivify the Dark Ages. If the U.S. fails, the West will disappear. About that there can be no question.

The depth and breadth of these convictions of freedom are succinctly expressed in the epitaph of Epaminondas:

By my plans was Sparta shorn of her glory,
And holy Messenia at last received back her children.
By the arms of Thebes was Megalopolis fortified
And all of Greece became independent and free

In a chapter ending narrative Hanson observes that “in my impotence, I [to] would hate the arrogant Eastern Americans (the North) who ruined a century of my family’s work, destroyed my community, and ended my viability as a farmer—and I would despise more the architect of that desolation, [the] heartless and crazy Bill Sherman. But I would also never again think that either my neighbors or I had the right—or power—to hold slaves, much less either the prerogative or ability to declare California (Hanson’s home) and the property of the federal government within it as our region’s own. We would have no doubts that we were defeated.” And mostly I would hope that the commander of such an army was not a man like Sherman, who would say: “those people made war on us, defied and dared us to come south to their country, where . . . they would kill us and do all manner of horrible things. We accepted their challenge, and now for them to whine and complain of the natural and necessary results is beneath contempt.”

A spellbinding book, full of history, some of it unknown to me before I read it (and I consider myself pretty well read.) More, it is a tome which ought to be relished by every American interested in the West, our origins, our historic beliefs and our “deportment” in times of conflict. And it will yield an understanding of why the West always wins--at least when it tries (and why it will win the war on terror—if it tries!!)

For Left Liberals (even centrist liberals), “peaceniks,” and others ignorant of the grandeur of the West, it should be required reading!

Also recommended are practically all of Hanson’s other books, in no particular order. Hang around since many of them will be reviewed, in time. But in keeping with my comments about our modern Liberal elite I would especially recommend: Who Killed Homer a lengthy and scholarly discussion of the disappearance of the proper historic study of the West in our current educational curricula, K thru 16 (or 20+.) It is appalling that so little is taught about our past and its implications, and that so much of what is, is garbage shoveled about under the pretense of being authentic information.

Posted by respeto at June 10, 2005 1:41 PM