Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, by Victor Davis Hanson (Doubleday, 278 pp., $27.50)
Victor Davis Hanson is the only modern writer I know with the sensibility of an ancient Greek: He, like Homer, is implacable. In his remarkable Carnage and Culture (2001), a mind-opening work, we are with Herodotus — an artist of gentler effects than the Iliad, because of his philosophical distance. With Ripples of Battle, though, we are there: on that concentrated and all but indescribable, except by Homer, plain between Troy and the cobalt sea.
Herodotus taught his lesson throughout his History, but especially in Book VII: Free men are better warriors, and usually win against warriors who are essentially slaves. Hanson explains the same thing, a bit more analytically for us slow learners and sentimental multiculturalists: Hellas over the mass armies of Darius and Xerxes, Rome over Carthage, which it (N.B.) annihilated, Europe over Islam and the Sultan (Poitiers, Lepanto), Cortez over Montezuma and the Aztecs (Mexico City), the U.S. over Japan. This scenario echoes through Western literature. Milton’s Satan and his hordes appear as the sultan and his; the heroic Christ defeats them, with heroic power, and it helps that, like the West, He has artillery and Satan does not.
Herodotus, one of Hanson’s models, relates a conversation between Demaratus the Greek and Xerxes in the Persian camp before Salamis. The great king asks Demaratus how he thinks the Persians will do.
“My Lord,” Demaratus replied, “is it a true answer you would like, or merely an agreeable one?”
“Tell me the truth,” said the King, “and I promise that you will not suffer by it.” . . .
“[The Greeks] fighting singly . . . are as good as any, but fighting together they are the best soldiers in the world. They are free, but not entirely free; for they have a master, and that master is Law, which they fear much more than your subjects fear you. Whatever this master commands, they do; and his command never varies: It is never to retreat in battle, however great the odds, and always to stand firm, and to conquer or die. If, my Lord, you think what I have said is nonsense, very well; I am willing henceforward to hold my tongue.”
Xerxes broke out laughing at Demaratus’ answer, and good-humoredly let him go.
Free men freely obey the laws because they have a voice in making them. They tell the truth to their superiors without fear. They are inventive, contentious. They are property owners. Xerxes had to assure Demaratus that he would not, at very least, have his tongue cut out, and what he heard was probably the first truth he had heard in years. Similarly, as Hanson shows in Carnage, disaster awaited the Japanese navy at Midway because Yamamoto’s admirals could not tell him that his plans for the battle stank: Yamamoto was the Emperor’s deputy.
With Ripples of War we are up close — in the battles, as in the Iliad. The theme is battle itself and its ramifying effects; Hanson’s mind is part of the sub-zero cold world of the late Bronze Age, the Age of Achilles, around 1250 b.c. You yourself may not be ready for this Arctic chill. It is said that Cheney likes to talk with Hanson.
Ilium, or Troy, is part of Homer’s universal cycle of destruction, as is the warrior, as are all cities. Achilles is the “destroyer of cities.” The Iliad — so named by Herodotus; it could have been the Achillead — begins, “Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” In this Bronze Age world, only women and children weep. When Achilles wades through slaughtered Trojans and is about to plunge his sword into Laocoön, who shows fear, Achilles’ words are pitiless: “Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so? Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you. And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you, death and strong force of fate are waiting.” The only light in this world is nobility according to the code of areté, and the beauty of artifacts: the glint of the sun on Achilles’ bronze armor, the great funeral pyre at a hero’s death, and the immortal songs sung by the poets, like Pindar and Homer.
Hanson’s excellent book demonstrates that war is always war, its Bronze Age chill no less palpable at Shiloh in 1862 than it had been on Homer’s plain. After the first disastrous day, Grant said that you could walk across the field of battle and never touch ground, so thick were the corpses, whole or shot to pieces, and sunk in the mud. In the evening, Sherman, who had been badly wounded and had two horses shot from under him, said to Grant, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the Devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” said Grant. “Lick ‘em tomorrow.” Grant was implacable, Sherman not quite: The nihilism of the battlefield nauseated him. He resolved to keep casualties at an absolute minimum. Hanson writes that Sherman’s “odyssey through the South” was a spiritual journey, one that had begun “with his wounds and lost mounts at Shiloh.” And the field of corpses.
Sherman destroyed the infrastructure of the Confederacy, not its armies, and launched the huge pincer that came up on Lee from the south and won the war. Hanson thinks that thereafter, the United States sought — to the extent it could — to destroy property, not people. In his discussion of Okinawa (1945), Hanson returns to this question of avoiding casualties. The Japanese, he writes, had a simple plan: kill so many Americans, and destroy so many of their ships and planes, “that the United States — both its stunned military and its grieving citizens back home — would never wish to undergo such an ordeal again.” The Japanese strategy actually worked. Our losses on Okinawa were catastrophic, with the result that there would indeed be no invasion of the home islands of Japan. But the strategy elicited an equally creative response — Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course, but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other cities:
The always deadly inventive Gen. Curtis LeMay was ready on his own to use airpower in radically new ways to avoid American casualties. In response to the horrific losses on Okinawa, he was carefully assembling a monstrous fleet of B-29s — perhaps eventually 5,000 in number — to be augmented by 5,000 B-24s and B-17s transferred from the European theater, with the possibility that over a thousand British Lancaster bombers and their seasoned crews would join the armada as well! That rain of napalm to come from a nightmarish fleet of 10,000 or more bombers on short missions from Okinawa would have made both atomic bombs seem child’s play in comparison. The fire raids on March 11, 1945, alone killed more than died at Hiroshima, and were followed by far more destruction — perhaps 500,000 incinerated in all by the subsequent bombing — than occurred at Nagasaki.
Hanson faces war’s reality in a direct, Greek manner. Augustus Saint-Gaudens also caught it perfectly, in his great statue of Sherman on New York’s Fifth Avenue: Sherman and his horse, led by Nike, the goddess of victory, look down that great Avenue to Stanford White’s Roman arch in honor of George Washington. Look at Nike. Her eyes are wide open, expressionless. Far beyond cruelty: a Greek goddess. Sherman’s prancing horse walks over the pine cones and leafy fronds of a Confederacy that, like the Japanese Empire, would not rise again, but join Persia and Carthage, the Aztecs and the Sultan, totally eliminated from history.
Bin Laden should read this book. He is playing 10th-century Arab — and does not understand, not for an instant. Poor fool. The “bomb” of 9/11 was a homemade firecracker compared with the products of Western freedom and ingenuity. Another attack on our civilians — bomb, anthrax, whatever — and he and the rest could be out there in the frozen galactic spaces. Hanson knows this, hints at it; Nike’s cold eyes are gazing still.