Western Way of War

I am reading Victor Davis Hanson’s book, Carnage and Culture. His main thesis is that the remarkable success of the western way of warfare is not due merely to technological superiority, and not to biology nor geography, but to cultural strength and resilience. As I read certain passages, it struck me that he’s describing the terrifying and terrible fourth beast of Daniel 7. Mind you, not the horns or kings, but the mechanical beast itself. Here’s Daniel’s depiction:

After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns…

“Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet…

“Thus, he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,

    which shall be different from all the kingdoms,

and it shall devour the whole earth,

    and trample it down and break it to pieces.”

Daniel 7: 7, 19, 23  (English Standard Version)

This fourth beast is terrifying, dreadful, and exceedingly strong; unlike any prior kingdom in its inorganic nature. Its implements of destruction are made of iron and bronze. It devours the whole earth, tramples it down, and breaks it into pieces; an apt description of the warfare this kingdom executes. It sounds like Western warfare from Alexander the Great through General Colin Powell and beyond.

To be fair, Hanson caveats his thesis with the statement:

While I grant that critics would disagree on a variety of fronts over the reasons for European military dynamism and the nature of Western civilization itself, I have no interest in entering such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality, of the West. (Preface)

This is as it should be. Great power can be used for good or for ill. There are just and unjust wars.

Elaborating on his thesis, starting with its Greek origins, Hanson writes:

…The Greeks fought much differently than their adversaries and that such unique Hellenic characteristics of battle

—a sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, matchless weapons, egalitarian camaraderie, individual initiative, constant tactical adaptation and flexibility, preference for shock battle of heavy infantry—

were themselves the murderous dividends of Hellenic culture at large. The peculiar way Greeks killed grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes, civilian audit of military affairs, and politics apart from religion, freedom and individualism, and rationalism. (Page 4)

Explaining the motivation of the Western nations, he says,

Western armies often fight with and for a sense of legal freedom. They are frequently products of civic militarism or constitutional governments and thus are overseen by those outside religion and the military itself. (Page 21)

Western warring is often an extension of the idea of state politics, rather than a mere effort to obtain territory, personal status, wealth, or revenge. (Page 22)

Westerners, in short, long ago saw war as a method of doing what politics cannot, and thus are willing to obliterate rather than check or humiliate any who stand in their way. (Page 22)

These sharp engagements quickly settled conflicts decisively. However, Hansen observes, there is a downside,

I leave the reader with the dilemma of the modern age: the Western manner of fighting bequeathed to us from the Greeks and enhanced by Alexander is so destructive and so lethal that we have essentially reached an impasse. Few non-Westerners wish to meet our armies in battle. (Page 98)

The only successful response to encountering a Western army seems to be to marshal another Western army. The state of technology and escalation is such that any intra-Western conflict would have the opposite result of its original Hellenic intent: abject slaughter on both sides would result, rather than quick resolution. (Page 98)

Whereas the polis Greeks discovered shock battle as a glorious method of saving lives and confining conflict to an hour’s worth of heroics between armored infantry, Alexander the Great and the Europeans who followed sought to unleash the entire power of their culture to destroy their enemies in a horrendous moment of shock battle. That moment is now what haunts us. (Page 98)

Interestingly, the West’s principle of military accountability to civilian rule has enabled it to recover from horrendous defeats. Among other examples, Hanson cites Rome’s defeat by Hannibal at Cannae,

Polybius ended his excursus about Rome’s remarkable constitutional and military system with a final thought on the aftermath of Cannae: For although the Romans had clearly been defeated in the field, and their reputation in arms ruined, yet because of the singularity of their constitution, and by wisdom of their deliberative counsel, they not only reclaimed the sovereignty of Italy, and went on to conquer the Carthaginians, but in just a few years themselves became rulers of the entire world. (3.118.7–9) (Page 132)

In conclusion, Hanson says that the western way of war may lead to a frightening future,

Thucydides, who claimed he wrote history as “a possession for all time,” reminds us that states fight for “fear, self-interest, and honor”—not always out of reason, economic need, or survival. Honor, even in this age of decadence, despite the gloomy predictions of Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler, still exists and will, I think, still get people killed for some time to come. (Page 449)

The most obvious worry is the continual spread of Western notions of military discipline, technology, decisive battle, and capitalism without the accompanying womb of freedom, civic militarism, civilian audit, and dissent. (Page 451)

…Can the non-West import our weaponry and military organization and doctrine apart from the cargo of their birth (i.e., free citizens, individualism in command hierarchy, constant audit, and oversight of its strategy and tactics)? (Page 451, edited)

Even should our present adversaries adopt consensual government, free speech, and market economies, would they then really remain our adversaries? Would the embrace of Western culture gradually smother centuries of religious, ethnic, cultural, and racial hostility to the West itself? Perhaps, perhaps not. (Page 452)

States that become thoroughly Western are less likely to attack the traditional West, but not less likely enough to ensure that they will never attack the traditional West—and each other. (Page 452)

The more the world becomes thoroughly Western, it seems to me, the larger the Europeanized battlefield shall become. (Page 452)

The peril to come, however, is not just the spread of atomic weapons and F-16 fighter jets but much more so the dissemination of knowledge, rationalism, the creation of free universities, perhaps even the growth of democracy, capitalism, and individualism themselves throughout the world—the real ingredients, as we have seen in these case studies, of a most murderous brand of battle. (Page 453)

I have yet to finish the book, but the point is clear: Western military power, if not its liberties, will spread throughout the world and be its own worst enemy:

“Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” Rev. 13:4b (ESV)

War and History, Ancient and Modern, YouTube, Mar 17, 2010, Hoover Institution