Why the West has Won by Victor Davis Hanson

Has the 'West' always defeated the 'East' in battle, ever since the Greeks fought the Persians? Marathon of misconception
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The Independent Culture

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, this book may be said to he the continuation of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis by military means. It is a tub-thumping piece of Western (and especially American) triumphalism masquerading as a serious contribution to military history. Ostensibly concerned to analyse seven decisive battles – Salamis, Gaugamela, Cannae, Poitiers, Lepanto, Rorke's Drift and Midway – plus two protracted campaigns (the conquest of Mexico and the Tet Offensive), it is actually a crude piece of pro-capitalist propaganda. "Capitalism," the author tells us, "explains in no small part Western military dominance from the age of Salamis to the Gulf War." Gordon Gecko, it turns out, could have fought at Salamis and, if we are to believe Hanson, his "greed is good" Athenian counterpart actually did.

One wonders if Why the West has Won started life as a modest "decisive battles of world history" tome, only for the publishers to persuade Victor Davis Hanson to attempt an ambitious undertaking beyond his grasp. That is really the only possible explanation for the crassness of this book. We may leave on one side the many errors of fact (Omdurman fought in 1896 instead of 1898, Don John of Austria aged 26 at Lepanto instead of 24, etc) but the author's ludicrous and uncritical handling of numbers in history is more serious.

He wildly overstates both the size of armies and battle casualties. He expects us to believe that the Persians still had 250,000 men at the battle of Plataca in 479 BC after Xerxes and the bulk of his army had already departed to Persia, whereas the best authorities (including Arnold Toynbee, whom Hanson unfairly disparages) are adamant that the entire Persian host cannot have numbered more than 190,000.

On the Vietnam War, the right-wing zealot finally ousts the scholar and history is rewritten with a vengeance. In Strangelove fashion, Hanson establishes a US "victory" by a headcount of "megadeaths", ignoring the fact that the Tet Offensive blew a hole in US military credibility that could never be repaired. After indulging in cheap sneers at the many brave souls who opposed the war, Hanson speaks of the "disastrous rules of engagement", when every sane person knows that the US refrained from invading North Vietnam so as not to precipitate World War Three. The hysterical rant about Vietnam in itself wipes out any merit the book might have possessed, but Hanson simply makes things worse by the addition of more and more impossible things before breakfast: he must be the only person left who still believes in the long-discredited "domino theory".

The faults of this book are legion, so there is space to concentrate only on the most egregious. In the first place, the West did not enjoy military superiority for 2,500 years. For over 1000 years from the career of Mohammed to the Siege of Vienna in 1683, Europe was on the defensive against Islam and sustained many disastrous defeats. From the battle of the Kalka River in 1223 until the death of Tamerlane in 1405, the Mongols defeated European armies and annihilated the flower of European chivalry in two battles (Liegnitz and Mohi) in one year, 1241.

There is no mention of any of these battles in Hanson's narrative. As for the idea that the West always beats the East, how can the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese war or the shattering victory of the Red Army over the Wehrmacht be explained? According to Hanson, if ever the West lost, it was because of freak occurrences or through (another old chestnut) being overwhelmed by Oriental "hordes". In fact both the many Mongol victories and the triumph of the Chinese army in the Korean War were secured against numerically equal opponents. Second, Hanson's grasp of history other than ancient is shaky. Scholars have debated for more than a century over the chronology of feudalism's replacement by capitalism. According to Hanson, this in a non-issue. It seems the key mode of production in the Ancient World was not slavery, but capitalism. The Romans beat Hannibal and the Christians won at Lepanto because of capitalism.

Occasionally, even Hanson seems to have a glimmering of the absurdity of his arguments, as he brings in a "second eleven" to bolster up capitalism: decisive shock battles, civic militarism, technology, individualism, civilian audit and dissent. Not only does this make the author's argument self-contradictory, but he fails to realise that these are notions that did not have the same value for Ancient Greeks, feudal knights, British redcoats and the US Marine Corps: it is unhistorical and vacuous to claim that they did.

Having told us that capitalism enabled the Bletchley Park codebreakers to produce Ultra, Hanson faces the problem of making the "Market" the chief agency in the conquest of Mexico. He then goes to the moon and back to show that superior technology alone allowed Cortes to prevail against the Aztecs. But what is the point of this if, when dealing with Greeks and Romans, he has argued that it was not technology but civic virtue and republican institutions that were crucial?

Hanson is mired in self-contradiction. If the West often lost battles, the thesis that it has always won is false. If, on the other hand, it is the durability of the West he is talking about, through clement climate, superior technology, favourable location and so on, then winning or losing battles has nothing to do with the case. Hanson is as poor a global historian as he is a prophet. In his final overview, he fails to envisage the possibility of war between the West and stateless terrorists. Not many authors end up being refuted by both the past and the future.