VDH Lecture: "From Marathon to Anbar"

Two weeks ago I attended a short lecture by renowned classicist, and last year’s National Humanities award recipient, Victor Davis Hanson. My former Latin professor, Bruce Thornton introduced him as an “adviser to the vast right-wing conspiracy.” Professor Hanson spoke about Western military tradition, and how it is possible to best the west.

I. What is the West?
Professor Hanson began the talk by briefly defining the West, and what it means to be Western. He made an important clarification in his definition that the West is not distinguished by geographic areas or racial labels, but instead embodies a set of ideals. To be Western then is to have an “allegiance to a set of values and tradition that arose in Greece and Rome, and enriched in Jerusalem and Europe.” Hanson highlighted five particular values and ideas predominately particular to the West: constitutional government, freedom of the individual, secular government (not of divine right or theocracy), capitalism and the sanctity of property, and the triumph of sanity and reason over superstition. When these elements are combined, Hanson says, the individual achieves a wealth beyond what they had with existing resources. That is an interesting piece to Hanson’s theory: that resources matter little to a countries success in comparison to ideals. He convincingly contrasted Japan and Mexico. Japan (a Westernized country) is a tiny little island with scarce resources, yet they have “the third most powerful navy in the world” and enjoy incredible economic success. Mexico is abundant in resources, yet the country is politically tense and economically turbulent. Japan is not more powerful or rich because they are Japanese or because of their territory, but because “the values of civilian society permeated the military”. Hanson asks: “How do these values translate into military dynamism?”

II. What is the Western military tradition?
Freedom of the individual is an important feature to military dynamism. When an individual feels they have “a stake in society”, then that individual is more devoted to military success on behalf of not just their king and country, but their selves and family. The preciousness of the individual also creates a particular view of bravery and military discipline in Western tradition. Aristotle’s Politics describes a certain Germanic tribes (I believe) military tradition of “rewards based on kills,” corresponding the amount of destruction with equitable bravery. The Greek’s basis for bravery was based on the ability to follow orders and preserve the Phalanx. Cohesion benefits the larger cause so that “only courage that furthers the group aim is rewarded.” A soldier can go down in Iraq, taking down 25 insurgents with him while providing covering fire so injured man can get to safety. The man’s brave death will still be seen as a loss, and he will be seen as brave not because he took down 25 insurgents necessarily, but because he did so in order to help the group (saving lives).
So, how did a little tiny area like Europe exercise control over the world?
There was the technological advantage. “divorce free thinking from religion,” Hanson says, “and wonderful and awful things happen.” He also makes the point though that technological advances are virtually no good unless harnessed and developed properly. The Chinese had fire powder long before we did, but Europeans ended up being the ones of supply China with firearms. Capitalism is another factor. Allow individuals to seek wealth, and that wealth (and the accompanying fierce protection of that wealth) will fuel desire for military success. Self-critique is another piece of Western military discipline, and making allowances for self-critique within ranks is inherent to future military growth and success.

III. What about when we lose?
Professor Hanson also explored Western losses–when the West has lost to non-western forces. What is the key? How do you trump the system?
Hanson says there are four strategies and weaknesses outsiders can employ and exploit to weaken Western might.
1. Make sure the West turns on itself. When you turn this tradition in on itself, corpses pile up. He then had some ridiculous figures comparing Civil War battle losses to American losses in other conflicts with non-Western forces during the same technological period. Also, when the West is in disagreement over how to combat a challenge, they do not reach their potential fighting ability. “If tomorrow suddenly all the Western allies: Europe, Canada, the United States…were all in full agreement on how to fight terrorism, the GWOT would be over the next day.”
2. Civil Dissent. Because most wars are fought away from our Western homes, we have the increased luxury of civil dissent. “The nice thing about Harvard is that every once in a while very sophisticated academics come off leave and publish a paper saying 2+2=4.” The particular paper Hanson refers to is one connecting rising insurgent levels in Iraq with increased displays of civil dissent against the war here at home.
3. Military parasitism. How did North Korea develop nuclear weapons? They received the knowledge from Pakistan, who had received the knowledge from Holland. The West needs to be careful about the share of arms.
4. A sense of concession–that the losses are not worth the gains. “The way we define losses is a burden of the West.” As the West becomes more affluent that trend gets stronger. This is especially seen as a weakness to a culture of Jihad that glorifies death. Terrorist’s success in Iraq and elsewhere often seems to hinge on “convincing the Western public that whatever the losses it (sic: victory) is not worth it.”

IV. What does this leave us to conclude?
That the West brings military advantages, but there are hidden weaknesses. “Reason is a double-edged sword. When Reason is your god, and war is unreasonable–so you avoid it, that assumes everybody thinks the same thing.”
The Western tradition is not innate to a specific people, but is brought on by adherence to a set of ideals. “It is unusual to say that I am loyal to an idea.”
Hanson finished by saying that the twin challenged for this generation are “affluence and license (in the Latin meaning–freedom to the nth power). The bastard children of those two are cynicism, nihilism, and skepticism.” We have the ability of falling into that trap or becoming a generation commiserate with the generation of WWII.

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