Victor Davis Hanson: Interviewed about the greatest books on war

Historians in the News

Victor Davis Hanson, a former classics professor, is a renowned conservative scholar of ancient history and military affairs who's recently become a nationally syndicated columnist and blogger. The author of 17 books with titles like "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War," "An Autumn of War" and "Mexifornia: A State of Becoming," he is the senior fellow in residence in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus. Hanson, whose scholarship and interest in individual freedom recently earned him a 2008 Bradley Prize worth $250,000 from the Bradley Foundation, was on his farm near the central California town of Selma when I called to ask him about his favorite war books.

Q: What’s the greatest book on war ever written?

A: I think Thucydides' "Peloponnesian War" is the most astute. It’s the second-earliest history of war and it’s not only a testament to the use of source material and the ability to provide a coherent narrative, but it's analytical and it becomes almost philosophical in its dissection of human nature.

Q: Has everyone else been trying to rise to those standards ever since?

A: Yes, I think so. The adjective "Thucydidean" is pretty much a standard brand now that people understand that ideally a historian would have three components in a successful history: One would be that they would use source materials in an analytic rather than prejudicial manner; and two, they would be able to draw together a lot of sources and provide an engaging narrative; and then three, that their history would speak to readers in terms of philosophy beyond just the particular history or period or era they are narrating.

Q: What was the best book about World War II?

A: I think Gerhard Weinberg’s “A World at Arms” (1994: Cambridge University Press). It’s a single-volume (1,208-page) history of World War II. What’s so good about it is, he looks at it in a holistic fashion, so we understand for the first time how the Balkan uprising affected German war plans. Or what was going on in the Japanese empire in places like Korea or Taiwan or Mainland China and how that affected the war with the British. Or what were people in the Nazi Party talking to Hitler about in terms of alternate plans rather than what actually happened. He understands source material very well and he has an eye for trying to give us a world at war other than just Britain, Germany and the United States. It shows how their ideas filtered out into so many different theaters and how the ultimate result of that is how lucky we were to win.

Q: What’s the best anti-war book?

A: There was a whole genre of anti-war books that followed the First World War. There are novels such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” or memoirs like Robert Graves’ “Good-bye to All That,” or poetry by people like Siegfried Sassoon that came out of the World War I experience in Europe. Europe had never experienced anything like that before. There are other things that have been written, like “The Red Badge of Courage,” and plays going back to the Greeks, like “The Trojan Women” or Aristophanes' comedy “Lysistrata,” that were anti-war in nature. But it seems to me that World War I and the advent of industrial war created entire new genres of novels, poetry and memoirs that started with the premise that there was nothing at all possibly glorious about war.

Q: Would you agree with that last phrase you uttered?

A: To an extent. I am not one of these people that is common now who see World War I as a tragedy in the sense that there was no moral or ethical difference between Germany of 1914 and France and England. If one were to look at the nature of German aggression in Europe, the nature of German colonies overseas, or what the German agenda was, it seems to me that it was very different than the liberal tradition in France and England that prevailed. It’s a tragedy that it had to end in a war like that, but given the superiority of the German Wehrmacht in 1914, I don’t know any other way how anybody would have stopped it. In terms of artillery, in terms of personal arms, in terms of general staff, railroads, communications, esprit de corps, it was so far superior to the colonial armies of France and England. The ambitions of the German Kaiser were so ambitious, I don’t know how anybody could have done anything other than what they did. They would have either had to appease them or capitulate. It was a tragedy. But I do think there was a qualitative difference in the fact that the Allies won. It had a profound effect on Europe. The tragedy of World War I, it seems to me, is how the Versailles Treaty ended and the Allies were not willing to remain vigilant, because given their enormous losses in the war there was sort of a utopian pacifism that followed.

Q: You’ve been reading books about the war in Iraq by various participants. They’re all sort of pointing fingers of blame at each other for various reasons. Which book so far do you find to be the most informative and the most credible?

A: I think the most recent that I read, (former undersecretary of defense) Douglas Feith's “War and Decision,” is the most informative. And I think it’s the most credible for one reason – that it’s the best documented. More importantly, he has deliberately avoided or promised not to use a technique that has been very common in other books like Tom Rick’s “Fiasco” or Trainor and Gordon’s “Cobra II.” By that I mean he has not had anonymous sources in the footnotes. So we don’t see “senior Pentagon official” or “junior American diplomat” cited after a direct quotation. Nor do we see, as we see in Bob Woodward’s books, conversations repeated verbatim inside a room with three people and we don’t know who gave him that information. That means the information can never be checked.

Whereas in the case of Feith, he not only cited things, he put it on his Web site and a person can go to the Web site and click on the footnote and see whether the footnote reflects accurately what it is supposed to. And I don’t think he was trying to get even. Part of the problem with that genre is that, a), it’s right in the middle of a war; and b), when Paul Bremer writes he’s going to blame Feith and he’s going to blame Gen. Sanchez. When Gen. Sanchez is going to write, he’s going to blame Bremer and Feith. Gen. Tommy Franks is going to say I did a great job and I left and everything was right. Gen. Sanchez is now going to blame Bremer … once you get into that cycle it’s unending.

I think if you read carefully what Feith wrote, a), he didn’t do that, and b), he takes some of the blame himself. It’s an apology in a sense for the idea that the Pentagon had a war plan, had people listened to then rather than the State Department, things would be better than they are now. It’s not “My brilliant war was ruined by somebody else’s lousy occupation.” That’s pretty much the subtext of every other (book).

Q: How many years after a war does a historian need to get a proper perspective?

A: I think it takes a half century.... It takes the death of people, and that’s usually 50 years. In the case of World War II, we had a radical change of heart once Eisenhower passed away and once Gen. Omar Bradley passed away, because they were icons of the American military. If we were to say Bradley was not as good a general as George Patton, that would have been heresy. Patton died right after the war and was caricatured as an uncouth bigmouth. But after Bradley died and there was not the Bradley core of scholars – clients, so to speak – in the military and also in the civilian world, then people began to look at World War II with a fresh start. So you can see that the last two or three biographies of Patton have been very sympathetic. They have started to say that it was Bradley who was responsible for the Falaise Gap (in Normandy); it was Bradley who didn’t have a good plan to restore the Bulge; it was Eisenhower who was naïve about Czechoslovakia and Berlin. These questions were not even raised before, because of the enormous stature they held while they were alive. That’s true of every war; you really can’t question in a disinterested fashion because the principals who are still alive have their various spheres of influence. I don’t think we’ll know about Iraq until all the major players are gone.

Q: Some people have said Iraq is the worst blunder in the history of American foreign policy. What do you say when you hear that statement?

A: Two things come to mind: One, people must not know things that we’ve done in the past. I’m not saying it was a blunder, but you could easily have used that terminology when we armed the Soviet Union and it killed 30 million of its own people to stop Hitler; we went to war to ensure that Eastern Europe was liberated from Nazi totalitarianism and we ended up assuring that Eastern Europe was subjected to Soviet totalitarianism and we empowered an empire that was every bit as bad as Hitler. But that was something that a prior generation accepted…. On a tactical level, Iraq is not even close to World War II. Putting pilots in Devastator torpedo bombers; or trying to sell the idea that the Sherman tank, for all of its strengths about maintenance, was going to be anywhere near comparable to a German tank; and the thousands of people who found out with the cost of their lives that wasn’t true … I could go down the line.

Whether it’s the Civil War, or the First World War, or the Second World War, or the status of American armed forces in August of 1950, we’ve made so many more blunders and we reacted so much more slowly to correct them than anything we have seen in Iraq. So I just don’t think anybody has any historical comparison.

That being said, is Iraq a fiasco or a blunder? If we were to get out and were to lose, I would concede that it would be. But if we stay and we are successful in creating a constitutional government, then you can see that that would be an amazing achievement. It would not only make Saddam Hussein’s Iraq an ally rather than an enemy that attacked its neighbors, but it would have a very deleterious effect on Iran. We can talk in terms of Iran undermining Iraq – that’s true. But if Iraq was to win that struggle, then it would be -- by its very presence as a constitutional state -- undermining Iran as well as putting pressure on other countries who don’t have our interests at heart. All we did by going into Iraq was raise the ante; great good can come of it or great evil depending upon how we prevail. As far as the losses, I don’t quite understand it. I don’t like to be heartless, but in six years we’ve lost about the same amount of soldiers we lost in two or three days in a major campaign in World War II. During an eight-year period of the Clinton administration, when the military was two or three times larger and not nearly as adept in its training, I think we lost almost twice as many as we’ve lost in Iraq in peacetime accidents. I think in the eight years of the Clinton administration we lost over 7,000 dead in accidents. So if you look at the rate of casualties this month, for example, we’re averaging about less than one a day. It was always pretty much a standard figure that we would lose three soldiers a day in the military in the 1980s and 1990s – it was well over a thousand a year. It’s not happening in the military in general and it’s not happening in Iraq. It doesn’t mean it’s not tragic we are losing people, but given the stakes, I’m always amazed at how well the military does.

Q: If you were to write a book about the war in Iraq now, after six years -- and I know you’d probably say it’s too early to write one -- what would it focus on?

A: I think I would concentrate on two issues: One is how victory or defeat would affect the position of the United States in a geopolitical sense. That would touch on everything from the price of oil to the nuclear arming of Iran or to the weapons of mass destruction programs that we know took place under Saddam but more importantly in places like Pakistan, Libya and Syria. I’d make the argument that a victory would discourage proliferation of all these weapons and encourage reform and a defeat would make things much worse than they were before.

The second thing, I would be concentrating on how the military evolved; an artillery-armor-rapid-moving column that won the war and then in a bureaucratic sense was static in the occupation had to adjust and the degree to which it adjusted faster than the insurgents did. I think we’re going to see in the next round of Army promotions a whole new cadre of colonels who are more versed in counterinsurgency than they are in armor, artillery or air support.

Q: What lessons has the war in Iraq taught future historians?

A: It’s a reminder that there are new lessons in war. No war turns out as one predicts. So those who were arguing after the three-week victory that we’d have a constitutional government up and running in six months given the euphoria of the pretty brilliant victory were wrong, just as people have been wrong about the Civil War lasting one summer or World War I being over in September. And then those who thought that the insurgency had won and it was hopeless; the United States could never go into the heart of the Caliphate and know what they were doing; the idea that Arabs could ever vote in a peaceful or orderly fashion among themselves was impossible – they’re wrong, as well. I think it reiterates that the strengths of the United States’ system – civilian control of the military, reliance on high technology, logistics and most importantly consensuality among the ranks so that people who have different ideas or different strategies are allowed to be heard – for all the problems we’ve had in Iraq, if we have enough patience, will finally come into play. We get somebody like Gen. Petraeus and he turns around the theater and the unheard of and the impossible starts to happen -- that being that suddenly a Shia-dominated government is attacking Shia radicals that are surrogates of Iran while appealing to Sunnis to join them and to do their part in routing al-Qaida and Wahhabi insurgents. Nobody in their right mind would have believed that was possible just a year and half ago. But with patience, we get the right kind of people in such a system that can change things around. I think that’s happened.
Read entire article at Bill Steigerwald at Frontpagemag.com

comments powered by Disqus