An Interview With Victor Davis Hanson

I’m a huge fan of Victor Davis Hanson’s work. Not only do I consistently link his columns, I’ve recently read his brilliant book “Carnage and Culture.” That’s why I was thrilled that he agreed to do an interview via email with RWN. Read and enjoy…

John Hawkins:: Hypothetically, let’s say that we go to Iraq and replace Saddam with a minimal number of losses. What do you think our next big move in the war on terrorism should be? Should we consider using military force in Iran, Syria, or perhaps in other nations?

Victor Davis Hanson:: It depends on the developments that follow — which no one can predict, and which run the spectrum from social upheaval in Iran to increased terrorist activity in Lebanon. At some point, we should address the Iranian-Lebanon nexus. After 9-11, the United States cannot allow enemies from the Middle East that engage in terror to continue to fund, abet, and participate in efforts to kill Americans. The simple question should be: where do the money, instruction, help, and support for things like the Bali murders, the attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Philippines killings, etc. ultimately come from? The answer to that should determine our reactions. This war is one of the spirit and perception as much as a simple contest between Saddam and us or their terrorist cells and our Special Forces as so-called neutral states watch on the sidelines to see whether we prevail or retreat into calculated inaction.

John Hawkins:: Why do you think there is such a profound difference between the American and European view of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Victor Davis Hanson:: There are a variety of reasons that can properly be debated about their relative roles. But we can agree on the general picture — fear and appeasement of terrorists, rising Muslim populations (largely unassimilated) in France, Germany, and Scandinavia, inherent anti-Semitism, identification of Israel with the US as an overdog, proud power, guilt over past colonialism, financial interests in the Arab world, along with concerns for oil supplies, and generally the largely backdrop of easy and cheap ways of opposing the United States in ways that cost nothing but alleviate European concerns about stature, pride, and their own diminished role in the world. That is not to say there are not legitimate issues; it just explains why the Europeans would allow a quarter-million Muslims to be butchered under their noses in the Balkans when they had the power to stop it, and yet fret impotently over Palestinians far away. The end of the Soviet threat and the rise of the EU are creating a new tension in the West, and it will only quicken and manifest itself in ways well beyond disputes over the Middle East.

John Hawkins:: Realistically, what is it going to take to solve the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Victor Davis Hanson:: All agree about the general outlines: an autonomous state with 90-95% of the West Bank, security guarantees for Israel, an end to quite crazy ideas about rights of returns that are designed to overthrow the Jewish state, etc. The building of the wall along the general 1967 border suggests the Israelis are moving toward such a stance. Contrary to popular punditry, such walls can work. And they at least clarify the issues: why would Palestinians object so loudly to being walled off in their native and autonomous land from their hated enemies? Where we differ from the Europeans is that many of us in America believe that a necessary Palestinian state will be unfortunately seen by many on the West Bank as step 1, followed by step 2 of attacks on Israel itself. And unlike the Europeans, we in the United States will never let a second holocaust transpire, so the trick is to allow a state that is seen as the end, not the beginning, of the problem.

John Hawkins:: In your opinion, how effective has the war on terrorism been so far? Is there anything we’ve done surprisingly well or unusually poorly since 9/11 in your opinion?

Victor Davis Hanson:: By any standard, it has been a success — destroying an enemy 7000 miles away in less than 6 weeks, while disrupting and scattering a sophisticated terrorist network worldwide. More importantly, there is a new sophistication in our thinking about a great many Arab autocracies whose conduct has been quite duplicitous, along with a new awareness about Europe. All this shows a growing sense that the administration has now sized up the nature of the conflict, who our friends are in the trial ahead, who are enemies, and who are on the sidelines waiting to jump in when they see a clear cut winner. I might have gone more quickly into Iraq after the successes against the Taliban; but I don’t think such hesitation will ultimately matter much.

John Hawkins:: Hypothetically, let’s say that somehow, someway, George Bush were convinced not to invade Iraq and were to promise not to invade any other nation during the war on terrorism. What do you think the consequences of that would be?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Not much for the first 6 months or so, as terrorists and autocrats scouted the terrain. But within a year it would be an utter disaster and quite dangerous for Americans. There would be a sense, rightly or wrongly, that the United States had backed down, that we were terrified of Saddam’s weapons, that we heeded the advice of Saudi Arabia and co., that the Europeans had prevailed in reining in a rogue US, and most importantly, that countries with frightening weapons, in a climate where 3,000 Americans had been murdered and our icons in New York and Washington damaged or demolished, had found a formula to blackmail, a la Korea, the United States. In other words, the loss of so many Americans would mean nothing, and we would soon return to the era of 1983-2001 when Americans lectured, sent a cruise missile, or a few planes when attacked, and then went back to things as normal. It would be similar to stopping before Baghdad in 1991, and thus we see some of the same experts now advising once more such an equally disastrous course. The dead must mean something, and that something must be the promise to them to defeat those who wish further destruction of their fellow Americans.

John Hawkins:: Saudi Arabia is a unique problem. They are one of our largest suppliers of oil and they are officially considered an “ally” of America. Yet, obviously their support for radical Islam and the money and men flowing out of that nation into terrorist organizations is a big problem. How should we handle Saudi Arabia?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Carefully — seeking moderate voices in the royal family committed to democratic reform. The kingdom is a time bomb — skyrocketing population growth, declining per capita income, rising foreign debt, growing unemployment — all enhanced by censorship, sexual apartheid, cheap anti-americanism, odious anti-Semitism, and an autocratic elite of about 85,000 which has put nearly 700 billion dollars of capital overseas and out of the hands of the needy. The axiom that dictatorships and autocrats who hate us ensure a friendlier population in the future toward America is quite correct — as the nature of the Eastern Europeans, present-day Iranians, and Iraqi people attest. So constant pressure on them to reform — with a rule that if they continue, either out of fear, blackmail, or spite, to give money to killers of innocent Americans there will retribution to those responsible as terrible as it will be unpredictable.

John Hawkins:: Would it be fair to say that there have been other militaries throughout history that have been just as dominant in combat as the US military is today? If so, can you give some examples?

Victor Davis Hanson:: The British navy after Trafalgar was supreme, but even after Waterloo England had nothing like American preeminence on land. Rome did, but the world was smaller and there were formidable powers on her borders that often could prove terrifying. Not so for the United States after 1989. So this is a new era, and the striking thing is that we have proved to be a benign hegemon who does not seek treasure or exact tribute, not to mention does not annex land not our own. We have not seen previously such military power used in positive ways — which explains the angst of our critics who can’t quite put the removal of Noriega, Milosevic, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein in the normal Marxist paradigm. How hard it must be for such doctrinaire and ossified ideologues to berate the United States for removing right-wing killers and promoting democracy, and so how pathetic the attempts are to portray us as imperial oppressors.

John Hawkins:: There have been frequent comparisons of late between the United States and the Roman Empire. How valid do you think those comparisons are? Why so?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Politically they are absurd. We do not send proconsuls to demand taxes to pay for basing troops. In fact we do the opposite–pay lavishly for bases that protect others. The imperial senate was impotent, and civil war was common after AD 200 — we have a stable Congress and little strife. For all the European venom, George Bush is not a Caracalla or even Diocletian. The classical topos of luxus, decadence brought about by affluence and leisure — read Petronius, Suetonius, or Juvenal — well, that is a real concern. Self-loathing and smug cynicism from an elite are the first symptoms and we see that clearly among those pampered and secure, who nevertheless ridicule the very system under which they operate in such a privileged fashion — most notably in the arts, on the campuses, and in the media. A Jessica Lange or Barbra Streisand is right out of a Petronian banquet or perhaps sounds like a Flavian princess spouting off at dinner before returning to Nero’s Golden House. Norman Mailer is a modern day Eumolpus bellowing on spec, and a Michael Moore a court-jester brought in to stick his tongue out at his benefactors for their own sick amusement.

John Hawkins:: How do you see the relationship between the US and Europe changing over the next decade or so?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Radically, as we revert to the pre-1945 world of bilateralism with all its dangers. The cold war was an aberration. Note how quickly the Europeans turned on America once 400 hostile divisions were no longer on their borders. They make up a big continent with a big population that deserves pride and power commensurate with their economy and population; so it is time for both of us to recognize that, bring the troops home or redeploy them in more friendly eastern European countries, and as friends let them develop their own military identity. Keeping 200,000 troops abroad to protect a rich continent is unhealthy for all parties involved. We are a different people, and to preserve our common heritage and friendship, we must recognize those divergences and thus it would be safer in the long run to let them defend themselves and not seek such shrillness in lieu of power and independence. We are in a very Orwellian world now where al Qaeda could hit the Louvre or Vatican and do so with impunity — if not for the overseas reach of the US military — and yet the Europeans seem to resent their protectors by reason of their very dependency. Add our frontier experience, our original charter that was antithetical to Europe, our strength in mixed races and religions, our greater allegiances to liberty than enforced equality and it is no surprise that after the Soviets are gone we are rediscovering our differences. This is not fatal and yet cannot be laughed off either by careerists and the self-interested. If France had the ability to act resolutely to stop its ships being attacked off Yemen, then it would be less insecure and less vocal. Instead, we have NATO countries bristling over the invasion by Morocco of a barren rock.

John Hawkins:: Over say the next half century or so, do you see another great power rising up to counter-balance the United States or do you see the US remaining the world’s sole super-power for the foreseeable future?

Victor Davis Hanson:: There will be always rising powers, in our case either the EU or China. Should they both have democratic systems I see no real danger. Should China develop, in the manner of imperial Japan or Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, a sophisticated war economy under autocratic auspices, or should Europe recoil from its unhealthy socialism and in reaction embrace an authoritarian and dangerous nationalism, then we could have problems. But the proper attitude is not to worry about others, but only worry what we do — in Grant’s words not caring what the enemy will do to us, but what we can to do to him. As long as we keep an honest humane society, coupled with economic power and a spiritual citizenry, then for some time to come it would be insane for anyone to attack the United States.

John Hawkins:: Do you know if there was any sort of significant anti-war movement in the US after Pearl Harbor? If so, could you give us some details on that?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Very little; what was sizable on December 6th suddenly went mute by the 8th. But then a much poorer, much more endangered populace was still in large part rural or lived in small communities, felt shame, and knew that America was good or at least better than the alternatives. The rise of big government, big corporations, and anonymous suburbs have created a sort of transience and unaccountability, enhanced by enormous wealth and materialism. The Clintons on the Left and the Enron people on the Right are good examples–the lifestyles of each, the similar improper financial deals, the abuse of language, the sense of entitlement, all that is the same. Bill Clinton is the Ken Lay of politics–pampered, insincere, duplicitious, felonious, smug, and star-struck. Both are reflections of the corruptions of the time; the one mouths concern for the poor, the other for free markets, but they both like Aspen, peddle influence, and share the same values.

John Hawkins:: In your book “Carnage and Culture”, you stress that one of the comparative advantages that Western cultures have in war is their ability to rapidly replace men and equipment lost in battle. Since the United States does not have a draft or the ability to rapidly replace our technologically sophisticated weapons, have we lost an edge that Western societies have traditionally had in battle?

Victor Davis Hanson:: I don’t think so. A draft with a cohort of youth 30 million strong would be too large to integrate easily into a high tech military. The key is civic militarism in the sense of laws, rights, and legal protections; thus a Green Beret, albeit a professional, is far more a product of the classical tradition than a draftee in Korea or Iraq who enjoys no legality, but is more like a galley slave than a conscript soldier. An American enlisted man is more like a voting hoplite than are Saddam “draftees.” The military has done a better job in creating an harmonious diverse populace than has the university–and often its soldiers are better trained, disciplined, and more astute than many of our college students.

John Hawkins:: In times past, how have other nations dealt with terrorism?

Victor Davis Hanson:: The antidote is well known and works — overwhelming power, an articulated policy that explains the moral issues involved, and a strong sense of national purpose and resolve. The sicarri, the great Mahdi, the assassins, the kamikazes, they all ended up badly — though they were terrifying at the time. Al Qaeda will share their fate, and bin Laden will be a footnote to history, no better known than Isama Cho, who was the rage of 1930s in Japan, and whose ideology was felt to frightening and unstoppable. The U.S. Marines took care of him and his brood on Okinawa, and they will again with the far less dangerous Islamic fundamentalists. The United States Air Force and Special Forces are much more capable warriors than killers with head bands and hoods.

John Hawkins:: Could the United States have won in Vietnam? If so, what would we have needed to do to make that happen?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Tactically, we did win. Strategically and politically we suffered a terrible defeat. We bombed the countryside inhumanely out of fear and wrongly spared Hanoi where the perpetrators of great evil planned their war. It would have been more humane to invade Hanoi and Haiphong, and replace the communists with a government that might have evolved into something like Taiwan or South Korea — and we could have done that I think. Barring that route, the war could not have been won, and we should not have tried to fight it. China had suffered 1 million casualties in Korea and was not eager to intervene, nor was Russia. Instead our military was forced to fight the war that it did not want to fight and could not be won, or at least not won without real genius. In a perfect world we still could have pulled it off, but there were no margins of error with such a flawed strategy and political landmines everywhere.

John Hawkins:: If you had to select the three most important battles in history, what would they be and could briefly tell us why?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Entire books have been written on that and there is no consensus. Salamis saved Greece at a time when an infant Western civilization could easily have been lost for good. Cort’s’ destruction of Tenochtitlan ushered in the Spanish conquistador protectorate and ensured the New World would develop in a bilateral fashion, with the US and Canada on one side and all the rest on the other. A failure at Normandy would have put the Russian army into central France by the time we regrouped, and perhaps doubled the death toll of the camps — as well as discrediting Anglo-American arms for a generation.

John Hawkins:: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, “An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism?

Victor Davis Hanson:: It is a compilation of essays I wrote on the war, with an introductory new essay as well, that discusses the conflict in historical terms and from a variety of cultural and political aspects. I think the reader can go back and see things written in early September and October 2001 about the progress of our response that were verified by events that later transpired and thus receive a sense of affirmation that his own innate confidence in the US in the next phase is borne out — and the misinformation of pundits now are as flawed as they were last year.

John Hawkins:: Are there political websites out there that you could recommend for our readers?

Victor Davis Hanson:: They are new phenomena for me, and I am just now learning of them. I read, of course,: National Review Online, which has been very nice in allowing me to write longer essays with historical themes. I appreciate that support and wide latitude.

John Hawkins:: Is there anything you’d like to say or promote before we finish up?

Victor Davis Hanson:: Not really, I have a book: “Ripples of Battle”: that will come out next summer from Doubleday on how 3 battles – Okinawa, Shiloh, and Delium – changed the lives of millions of people in ways we can’t imagine. It is an account of how books, ideas, and politics arise from a few hours of fighting in a manner we rarely appreciate.

John Hawkins:: Thank you for your time, I sincerely appreciate it.

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