Jack's Reviews > Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power

Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson
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's review
Aug 06, 2011

bookshelves: history, politics-and-social-thought

Hanson argues for a distinct western strategic culture through the retelling of 9 historical battles. The Greek naval victory against Persia at Salamis demonstrates the efficacy of "free" soldiers against "slave" eastern soldiers, Alexander's victory against the Achaemenids at Gaugamela demonstrates a Western preference for decisive battle, the Roman recovery after the defeat to Hannibal at Cannae shows the unique resilience of a Western army of citizen soldiers, Charles Martel's stand against the Saracens at Poitiers shows the potency of the western tradition of heavily-armored ground infantry, Cortes' conquest of Mexico is told as a victory of Western emphasis on reason, empirics, and capacity for innovation, the British stand against Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift demonstrates the superiority of western discipline in battle, Midway shows the value of individualism and flexible decision-making in battle, and American engagement in Vietnam as demonstration of a western tradition of self-critque that in the long run makes for a more dynamic and innovative fighting force. Although well-written, the limited anecdotal nature of this book makes an ultimately unpersuasive case for a very ambitious case. Hanson's argument would have benefited from a section on the historical and intellectual continuity of the "western traditions" described. I remain skeptical on how robust a superior western culture of war really is. Is discipline of formation and tactics really unique to Hellenic origins? Does not the greater efficacy of Roman forces under Authoritarian Imperial rule than under Republican guidance undermine the supposed martial virtues of democracy, freedom, and individualism? Did not Attila and Ghengis Khan, who are well outside the Hellenic western traditions utterly devastate European defenses? And given the periods of great stability, prosperity, and peace in Persia, China, and other "eastern" regimes, there seems to be a case to be made that if the Western tradition is better at war, the Easter tradition seems to be better at peace.
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Dean Marais the huns only rode over the western empire because Rome no longer had a professional army and was already crumbling. when it came to engaging the Byzantines the huns had no hope of victory. the authors point is also not that of military might but cultural sustainability. after Attila died the huns disappeared into obscurity. most of the one star reviews repeat the same handful of battles where professional western armies were met with defeat, and then accuse Hanson of cherry picking haha. yes Hanson selection of battles is a little strange, but they are far from cherry picked. there are literally hundreds of battles in history which could have been used to support his thesis

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