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The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    The Classics and Modern Military History

    In this book of short, readable essays (though a few show signs of hasty writing), classical scholar and military historian Victor Davis Hanson uses ancient and early modern military campaigns, such as the Peloponnesian Wars and the battle of Lepanto (1571), to give us new perspectives on current wars. He laments today's lack of academic interest in military history, an ignorance that he thinks leaves us ill-prepared to understand what is going on now.

    Hanson thinks that wars, ancient and modern, arise from motives that are part of human nature: leaders think that they can get what they want by going to war because they don't perceive any credible deterrence. He rejects the prevalent academic idea that wars arise from fears and misunderstandings between people that could be overcome by wise negotiation.

    Many of his essays develop what he sees as enduring features of military history by drawing on ancient and modern examples. For example, in democracies, public support for wars changes quickly with perceived success or failure: Lincoln, newly popular after Vicksburg and Gettysburg, probably would have lost the 1864 election, and the war, had Sherman not taken Atlanta. Naturally Hanson applies this lesson, and others, to present-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the same vein he reminds us that serious political, strategic, tactical, technological, and intelligence gathering lapses also occurred in our prior wars: at the Bulge, at Okinawa, in Korea. Thus today's blunders are not unique, nor fatal to achieving our aims. An epilogue chapter examines what is new in 21st-century war: on the one hand robot drones save our troops from enemy fire, and on the other hand readily-available automatic weapons and improvised bombs make terorists hard to fight: the advantage may be shifting to the defense. Meanwhile we worry that we mustn't cause enemy casualties disproportionate to the injuries they cause us because world public opinion wouldn't like it, an idea he finds unfathomable.

    Hanson's informed and insightful discussions of military campaigns are worth reading for their own sake, apart from their applications. He supplements these accounts with historiographic essays and book reviews. Thucydides seems to be his special hero, but he also discusses an action movie portraying the Spartan defense of Thermopylae, which he liked. Someone who wants to explore these topics further will find this section helpful.

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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