Interviewing Victor Davis Hanson On History And War

Victor Davis Hanson is an extraordinary writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of historical warfare. His columns are magnificent and his books are even better. So, I was pleased to have an opportunity to interview him about his newest book, The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern .

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!

America’s media seems at times to be ambivalent, even to the point of being hostile toward our military and efforts to win the war on terrorism. Can you talk about other times in history that’s happened and what the results of it have been?

I think if we were to go back to England and France between 1920 and take an arbitrary date — 1936 — it was politically incorrect to evoke Verdun. The Battle of Verdun was not mentioned in the school system. By the same token, those who wanted to re-arm in Britain were accused of trying to evoke these ghosts of the Somme. The media wanted to condition the British public to the notion that any other war would end in the nightmare of the trenches. So, it was much better to use the arts of appeasement — which wasn’t a dirty word. It was a positive word that meant you were willing to avoid a blood bath in the trenches. The result of that, of course, was the serial aggrandizement of Germany from 1936 to 1939.

I think that there was a period from about 1946 to 1950 when the American media wanted us to believe that the Soviet Union was no different than a socialist state, that its Marxism was not virile, and they fought the fascists in Japan and Hitler with us. Therefore, we would still be able to have a perpetual peace. That message, I think, was pretty much a standard until about 1950, when the breakout of the Korean hostilities ended it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the media tries to enhance the agenda of political movements or political leaders who are very distrustful of military preparedness.

Although the actual means of terrorism have changed, it’s a very old tactic that’s been successfully defeated many times in the past. Can you talk about some of the successful campaigns against terrorism and how they were won through history?

Well we can go back – there are some very good examples of the Romans putting down Jewish insurrections from the first century BC all the way into the second century AD that were very successful. …In every one of the cases the Romans were able to divide and conquer. In other words, they found a larger percentage of the population would be willing to want to educate their children, speak Latin, have aqueducts, be subject to habeas corpus law, and enjoy Roman prosperity — a larger percentage than that of so called nationalist leaders who wanted to kill the Romans and revert back to their pre-provincial status. So it worked.

We fought for 12 – you could almost call it 14 years in the Philippines. We were ultimately successful in putting down that Islamic Revolt. There were periods after the failed search and destroy strategy was abandoned where it was sort of build and hold in Vietnam, from 1971 to 1973, that led to an agreement essentially where there was an independent South Vietnam in 1974. The British did it in Malaysia and I think you could see in the French and Indian wars that the British were very successful in keeping French terrorists and the native Americans who worked for them out of New England. At least they were able to stop the violence. So, I think actually if you look at the record of insurgencies, it’s not too good in efforts against states. States tend to be more successful.

If they hang in there long enough.

If they hang in there long enough.

Western nations on the whole have been very successful in fighting wars, but they don’t always succeed. Why do western nations lose wars?

That’s a good question. They don’t really lose wars. They have setbacks. I mean if you look at the British colonial experience, for over 200 years they were able to exercise their power far beyond their borders in ways that were amazing given their small size and distance. When they did give up their colonies, they decided for their own internal use it was wise to do so.

But why did the West have problems from the Little Big Horn to Isandlwana? It’s a good question. And why did they have problems in Vietnam or Algeria or Morocco? I think there are three or four common themes that cross time and space and remain constant.

One of them is that Western technology is often widely diffused. so that whether it’s native Americans with guns or the Afghan Taliban with plastic explosives and garage door openers that make IUD’s, the idea being, just because you can’t create the weapon doesn’t mean you can’t use it and fix it once in a while. That means that weapons are often dispersed and they give a moment of almost near parity on the battlefield.

There’s another point; I think it’s very common for Western armies to be fighting far from home in so called optional wars and their citizenry tend to be affluent and more leisured in comparative terms to those whom they’re fighting against. That translates into sort of a notion that if we lose an Apache pilot with a quarter million dollar bachelor’s degree and the Apache’s shot out of the air by one impoverished Iraqi, from a country with a high end mortality rate, (it’s not an even trade). Even though in human terms that’s a one for one ratio, they’re interpreted different by their respective societies. In the Iraqi society, the death of a, say a 15 year old by RPG, is common place. ..So, for Americans, it becomes “Wow, we lost this Major all the way over there in Iraq” rather than “Wow, we lost a teenager who’s fighting right here at home and has no money and we see rampant illness and death.” That asymmetry is not new. It’s been with the Greeks, the Romans, the Conquistadors, Crusaders et cetera.

Then there’s also this notion that we’re a constitutional government. That’s one of our great strengths — that we promote freedom and self expression. But, it also invites self critique and our enemies sometimes have been able to divide the West. I know that one of the great successes of the Ottomans was their clever diplomacy in which Europe was divided by the Orthodox, Catholicism, and Protestantism for most of the 16th and 17th centuries while the Ottomans were fairly united under the Sultanate. So that helped.

Put all that together and it doesn’t mean that the West can’t use its enormous advantages. But sometimes it does mean that its population comes to believe that the effort of victory is not worth the commiserate investment of blood and treasure.

One thing you hear said oftentimes is a worry that we’ve gotten so concerned about being politically correct, minimizing civilian casualties and being culturally sensitive, that it’s having a tremendous impact on our ability to fight wars — that we’re not able to win the battles we should be able to win because we’re being so sensitive and fighting with one hand tied behind our back. Do you think there’s any validity to that?

I think there is some, but it doesn’t explain the entire phenomena of why the West is having problems translating battlefield success to strategic victory. Countries like Israel, Britain, the United States and Europe in general because they’re advanced technologically, they’re wealthy, and they have a well informed citizenry with ideas about us on humanity — they are subject to a different group of protocols and mostly they’re facing non-Western enemies.

How that translates, to give a few examples, is that if the Russians want to crush Grozny in the first and second Chechnyan war and kill 60,000 people, they understand that they’re not going to be subject to international criticism. If Turkey wants to go into Cypress and occupy it, or they want to divide the capital, or they want to use disproportionate force to put down the Kurds, or they want to imprison Kurdish people and not allow you in — they’re going to be subject to a different set of protocols than would be Israel if they did the same thing,

I think that’s just part of what it means to be a privileged Westerner. It means that you’re going to be wracked by self doubt and you’re going to be constantly picking apart, tearing apart your society to make it better. That means sometimes in war that you think that you can still win without bringing all of your assets to the table because you’re so wealthy or you’re so powerful, or you’re so sophisticated. There’s a certain arrogance there — that you can afford to give medals for courageous restraint. Or you can afford to suggest that because there was a civilian nearby that you didn’t take out a building. The enemy doesn’t really worry about that and doesn’t worry about the U.N. or the New York Times faulting them for not worrying about it.

Yes. Last question. If you plucked a legendary Western warrior out of history, someone like Caesar or Leonidas, and brought him to the present, what advice do you think he’d give us about warfare?

I’m afraid they would be pretty blunt. I think they would paraphrase Sherman, that war is hell and you can’t really refine it. That doesn’t mean that you should be Attila the Hun. There has to be a Geneva code or whatnot. But when you start to be legalistic about war, you’re going to create so many contradictions and hypocrisies and paradoxes because you’re really taking the elemental violence and trying to adjudicate it as if it was dominoes.

So, for example, this country worked itself up over the waterboarding of three suspects that were being detained in Guantanamo. We knew in each case that they were responsible in some part for the 9-11 mass murders. We know they were waterboarded, but suddenly that translated in the campaign season to, “The United States embraces wide scale torture.” At the same time in the last 18 months, we’ve probably killed around 700 in targeted assassinations. Perhaps over 100 civilians and one or two American citizens were killed and we were judge, jury and executioner. So once you get into this legalistic mode, these paradoxes that I referred to start to appear. It’s OK to judge a suspected terrorist, as guilty. It’s OK to pull the trigger and kill him by predator of remote assassination, but it’s not OK to waterboard a known confessed terrorist. Most people would rather be waterboarded than have themselves and their children, everybody in the general vicinity, blown up. Yet we adjudicate one as moral and one as amoral depending on a pretty shaky logic. We’re going to continue to do that more and more as we think that something is as unpredictable and savage as war must follow the same protocols as the health care plan or getting 500 channels on TV. When you get a lot of young people and you give them authorization to kill, you’re going to see pretty savage things as a result.

The best way I think to answer your question finally is that Caeser and Alexander would advise us to use as much force as possible to defeat the enemy and then to be as magnanimous as possible in reconstructing their political system as quickly as possible, but not to reverse the course, not to put the proverbial horse before the cart in other words.

If we try to restrain the use of violence, try not to humiliate the enemy during the war, and try not to defeat them, we’re only going to drag out the actual savagery. (On the other hand), if we used a great deal of force and defeated and humiliated them, then we would be able to extend magnanimity. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s the difference between the aftermath of World War I, where the German Army walked back to Germany undefeated. It was defeated — but at least it felt it was undefeated. Then we did not occupy Germany. In the former case they said they had lost because of Jews and Communists. In the latter case, (after WWII) they understood that they lost because they were defeated by the United States and its allies.

One gets you what we talked about in the first question, a bellum interruptum and the other ends up with peace.

Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time.

OK, John. Thanks for doing it.

Once again, Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book is The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern .

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