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March 2, 2010

Soul of Battle

From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny
Victor Davis Hanson - ISBN - 9780385720595

"Democracies, I think--if the cause, if the commanding general, if the conditions of time and space take on their proper meaning--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." Thus begins the discussion and exploration of The Soul of Battle, by Victor Davis Hanson, delving into, analyzing and expounding upon three of the most exemplary such battles of all time:

1. The battle surrounding the defeat of the hubristic and hated Spartans. At the time, Laconia, home territory of the Spartans, had not been attacked for nearly 600 years. An army of 70,000 Hoplites, commanded by Epaminondas, marched 180 miles from Thebes in the winter of 370-369 B.C. These Greek Yeoman--simple dirt farmers, voting citizens and volunteers all--over-ran Laconia and destroyed it, freeing its slaves, then moved on to neighboring Messenia, freeing forever Spartan Helots (serfs). They established several free, fortified Greek city-states governed by these freedmen. There were few casualties suffered by the invaders, and though the Spartans were slaughtered like cattle on the first day, subsequent losses were few, since they avoided further meetings with the Thebans on the field of battle. Instead, they left their women to pathetically plead for mercy. Epaminondas ("Iron Gut") and his democratic army accomplished in 60 days what imperial Athens had been unable to do in 27 years of the Peloponnesian War. Less than six months later his army returned home in time for spring planting, never to be assembled again. The Spartans, while still a nuisance for a time, were never again the Sparta of myth, legend, or prior reality as their army had been demonstrated to be a hollow and heartless shell.

2. For nearly 150 years we have studied Sherman's March to the Sea (Nov. 16 to Dec. 21, 1864) in which William Tecumseh ("Uncle Billy") Sherman led an army of Midwestern troops 62,000 strong--also mostly 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 driven the south into the Civil War. When Sherman's army turned north five weeks later the Confederacy, and its ability to make war, had been thoroughly destroyed. While there were 30,000 Confederate troops "in his way," they never entered the field of battle in their own defense. They hid, leaving their women to plead for leniency and safety. Their safety was never in doubt, but leniency was denied. The Rebels, like the Spartans, were shown to be a hollow force. Little known is the fact that Sherman's army killed virtually no one and experienced only a handful of casualties--virtually none of these in combat--and did no direct harm to the poor. After the surrender at Appomattox four months later, the army was disbanded and never heard from again--and the Confederate slave state was no more.

3. 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 homeland (Aug. 1 to May 8, 1944/45). Had he not 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. Almost certainly there would have been no Russian occupation, no Berlin wall, and just maybe no cold war. Certainly there would have been 500,000 fewer deaths (though some estimates of deaths potentially prevented run well into the millions.) In seven months--plus the two when Patton was sidelined--the Third Army, composed of raw recruits who for the most part had never been in battle, so completely overwhelmed the Germans that they lived in constant dread of the army of "Old Blood and Guts." He experienced fewer casualties than any other general, while inflicting more. Alone amongst Allied generals, Patton was feared. He struck terror in the hearts and minds of the Nazis--the master race--who never knew what he would do, where he would go, when he would attack . . . or how. They knew, only that he was lethal. As with the prior armies, Patton's half a million men was disbanded within months, vanishing into the U.S. landscape never to be heard from again, except in history. 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. Hanson observes that, and why, "Iron Gut", "Uncle Billy" and "Blood and Guts" were all respected, admired and even worshipped by the men they commanded. Yet, each maintained a certain distance from, and a subtle contempt for, the very masses they led. All spent their time at the front, where they could command and be seen by their troops. All kept moving, always taking new ground, never settling into fixed positions, "paying for the same territory twice," as Patton remarked. All were feared by their adversaries, but each exhibited a certain softness and consideration for their enemies, once defeated. All were intellectuals, far better read and educated than their armies and their contemporary commanders, especially in the literature and philosophy of war. All honored the warrior culture they labored mightily to destroy, and all followed an arcane honor code poorly suited for times of peace. They were ruthless and gifted men of little subsequent use. Neither the three, nor their armies, started the wars which they did not wish to begin. All led armies which fought with a terrible vengeance, as Spartan helotage, African slavery, and Nazism perished in their fearsome onslaught. All were despised by their opponents--Sherman is still hated in the South--and worshipped by those they commanded and those whose salvation they wrought . . . millions upon millions of people.

This book demonstrates that these commanders instilled in their men a zealous ethic, making them understand and believe they were morally superior to their undemocratic, slave-holding adversaries. It is more nearly an essay on the ethical nature of democracies at war than a pure history of epic military marches for freedom. In it, Hanson demonstrates that "on rare occasions throughout the ages there is a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle."

It is a truly magnificent read, detailed and graphic, informative and wise. Read it and understand that, and why, an American army, deployed properly for the right reasons, led by stirring, competent and committed commanders, will never lose a war.

Posted by Curmudgeon at March 2, 2010 10:35 AM