The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Three Great Liberators Who Vanquished Tyranny

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What motivates armies to win, whatever the odds? In this vigorous account of the campaigns of three brilliant generals from World War II, the Civil War, and Ancient Greece, Victor Davis Hanson advances a provocative theory: that the moral vision they imparted to their troops was as significant as any military strategy. Each general aimed at salvation rather than conquest; and each one led largely untrained forces to striking victory over tyrannical enemies.

In August 1944, ...

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Overview

What motivates armies to win, whatever the odds? In this vigorous account of the campaigns of three brilliant generals from World War II, the Civil War, and Ancient Greece, Victor Davis Hanson advances a provocative theory: that the moral vision they imparted to their troops was as significant as any military strategy. Each general aimed at salvation rather than conquest; and each one led largely untrained forces to striking victory over tyrannical enemies.

In August 1944, George S. Patton began pushing the Americans of his newly formed Third Army into Germany at such blistering speed that in nine months he would crush the Nazis and liberate the death camps. In his famous Civil War March to the Sea, William Tecumseh Sherman led a motley army across the South, ravaging the landscape, liberating slaves and demoralizing the Confederacy. And in the fourth century B.C., Theban General Epaminondas marched an army of farmers nearly two hundred miles to defeat the long invincible Spartan military empire. Thought provoking as well as stirring, The Soul of Battle is narrative history at its best.

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Editorial Reviews

John Lehman
The most enjoyable histories from Gibbon to Stephen Ambrose are written by authors with a strong point of view and robust prose. Victor Davis Hanson's The Soul of Battle fits right in.
Wall Street Journal
Bernard Knox
Rich and fascinating detail...More an essay on the ethical nature of democracies at war than a purely military history of three epic marches for freedom, for it claims that on rare occasions throughout the ages there can be a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle.
&151; New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hanson, a scholar of classics as well as of military history (The Western Way of War), depicts three great armies under three great captains: Epaminondas of Thebes, William T. Sherman and George S. Patton. Their enemies--respectively, Sparta, the Confederacy, the Nazis--had been considered unstoppable. Yet they were defeated not by professional soldiers but by citizen-soldiers turned quickly into ruthlessly efficient fighting forces. It is no contradiction, Hanson argues, that democracies can produce such fierce killers. On the contrary, democracies, he writes, are uniquely suited to quickly mustering forces, imbuing them with "near-messianic zeal... to exterminate what they understand as evil, have them follow to their deaths the most ruthless of men, and then melt anonymously back into the culture that produced them." To accomplish this, he says, a democracy requires both a clear cause and a leader of genius. Hanson presents his three generals as examples of such leaders. Each man led forces seeking to liberate others, whether serfs in Sparta or slaves in the American South or Europeans tyrannized by Hitler. Hanson's thesis, however, is not self-evident: it is still a matter of debate, for example, whether Epaminondas fought to liberate Sparta's serfs or, less idealistically, to strike a decisive blow against Thebes's mortal enemy; similarly, the Union did not fight the Confederacy solely or even mainly to liberate the slaves (and the Confederacy, too, was made of citizen-soldiers who had, if anything, more devotion to their cause than most Union fighters). Nevertheless, Hanson delivers an eloquent reminder that democracies under great captains, facing enemies challenging the essence of their cultures, can make war at levels beyond the worst nightmares of their warrior opponents. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Military officers who reach the rank of general are plentiful in any army. Generals who can win battles are much more rare, as any war will demonstrate. But generals capable of winning major campaigns and entire wars are terribly scarce indeed. This discrepancy is a problem that has bedeviled military academies for generations; the great captains seldom appear out of the ranks of orthodox general officers, even the most capable. How, then, can a nation find them when they are most needed? Victor Hanson addresses that problem by examining the lives and personalities of three of this rare and singular breed who led free peoples to victory in times of desperate crisis: Epaminondas in ancient Greece, the Civil War's William Tecumseh Sherman, and George S. Patton in WW II. The three are well chosen. Each arose from the citizenry; each epitomized the type of leadership capable of inspiring mass armies; and each ultimately defeated the finest fighting machines of his day. Epaminodas' campaigns against the Spartans proved to be crucial in preserving Western civilization as we know it. Sherman defined war and then proceeded to prove it, thereby shortening the Civil War by a year. And of all the Allied combat commanders in Europe, Patton was the only one the Wehrmacht actually feared. Hanson is a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and has written extensively about the military affairs of the ancient Greeks. Not surprisingly, this section of the book is particularly strong. All three leaders and their times come alive in this book, and he shows particular zeal in attacking Patton's detractors. This is serious military history, but it reads like popular history andwill be relished by anyone with any interest in military affairs. YAs will like the readable style and, of course, the battle scenes. Along the way, they will also learn about the personality traits that make a good leader, on and off the battlefield. Recommended to school, academic and public libraries. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House, Anchor, 480p. notes. bibliog. index., $16.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Raymond L. Puffer; Ph.D., Historian, Edwards Air Force Base, CA , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Library Journal
A simple recipe: take three unorthodox, unpredictable, intellectual military leaders; mix them up with an army of free men; and give them a democratic mission. You have created what Hanson (The Western Way of War and Fields Without Dreams) calls The Soul of Battle, "a rare thing that arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed." Hanson describes the military careers of Epaminondas, a Thespian philosopher-general who organized an army of free men and destroyed forever the despotic state of Sparta; Gen. William Sherman, who organized Midwestern farmers and marched through Georgia, destroying cities and plantations while freeing slaves; and Gen. George Patton, whose Third Army rapidly thrust through France and Germany to the Czech border. This is a great book. Hanson has a gift for grasping the personality traits and failings that made these three military leaders so unique. He gives the finest account of the exploits of the little-known Epaminondas this reviewer has seen in English and comes closer to grasping the essence of that complex character Patton than his biographers. The reader may wish to consult Alexander Bevins's How Great Generals Win to see how these three leaders utilized many of the same approaches. For all public and military collections.--Richard S. Nowicki, Emerson Vocational H.S., Buffalo, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A magisterial look at Epaminondas (the Theban general who defeated Sparta), Sherman (who brought down the Confederacy), and Patton (who helped vanquish Hitler) by Hanson, a classics professor at California State Univ., Fresno, and author of such works as Who Killed Homer? (1998) and Fields Without Dreams (1996).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684845029
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 10/6/1999
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.41 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

I

My father, who helped in a small way to kill thousands, was not a violent man. Curtis LeMay, who led him into battle, surely was. The former, two years off a small farm in the central San Joaquin Valley, left a quiet college campus in California in early 1943, and at twenty-one joined the American armed forces. For much of the Great Depression, a decade prior, millions in the Imperial Japanese Army had been plundering China and Southeast Asia, and they were now engaged in a murderous fight to the death against an assorted host of enemies. In contrast, William Hanson had fired a small rifle only at birds and rabbits, in the countryside five miles outside the backwater farming town of Kingsburg, California. In his two decades he had never ventured much more than a few miles from his parents' farmhouse. He had never been in an airplane and had never seen a bomb. When he enlisted in the United States Army, his future plane, the B-29, did not even exist as a combat-tested bomber.

When William Hanson joined the American army, imperial Japan was still largely unscathed. The closest American land forces to Japan were well over 2,000 miles away. Only a few planners like Curtis LeMay knew that thousands of enlisted civilians like my father in a few months of training could kill both brutally and efficiently, if given the proper equipment and leadership -- and backed by the vast industrial capacity of the American nation. My grandfather, a farmer who twenty-seven years earlier had left the same forty acres, also served in a democratic army. Frank Hanson ended up as a corporal in the 91st Infantry Division and was gassed in the Argonne. He told my father that he should quickly get used to killing -- and that he probably would either not come back, or would return crippled. Americans, my grandfather added, had to learn to fight fast.

A little more than a year after his enlistment, on March 9, 1945, a 400-mile-long trail of 334 B-29s left their Marianas bases, 3,500 newly trained airmen crammed in among the napalm. The gigantic planes each carried ten tons of the newly invented jellied gasoline incendiaries. Preliminary pathfinders had seeded flares over Tokyo in the shape of an enormous fiery X to mark the locus of the target. Planes flew over in small groups of three, a minute apart. Most were flying not much over 5,000 feet above Japan. Five-hundred-pound incendiary clusters fell every 50 feet. Within thirty minutes, a 28-mile-per-hour ground wind sent the flames roaring out of control. Temperatures approached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The Americans flew in without guns, and LeMay was not interested in shooting down enemy airplanes. He instead filled the planes with napalm well over their theoretical maximum loads. He wished to destroy completely the material and psychological capital of the Japanese people, on the brutal theory that once civilians had tasted what their soldiers had done to others, only then might their murderous armies crack. Advocacy for a savage militarism from the rear, he thought, might dissipate when one's house was in flames. People would not show up to work to fabricate artillery shells that killed Americans when there was no work to show up to. Soldiers who kill, rape, and torture do so less confidently when their own families are at risk at home.

The planes returned with their undercarriages seared and the smell of human flesh among the crews. Over 80,000 Japanese died outright; 40,918 were injured; 267,171 buildings were destroyed. One million Japanese were homeless. Air currents from the intense heat sent B-29s spiraling thousands of feet upward. Gunners like my father could see the glow of the inferno from as far away as 150 miles as they headed home. The fire lasted four days. My father said he could smell burned flesh for miles on the way back to Tinian. Yet, only 42 bombers were damaged, and 14 shot down. No single air attack in the history of conflict had been so devastating.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, the March 9 raid was the beginning, not the end, of LeMay's incendiary campaign. He sensed that his moment -- a truly deadly man in charge of a huge democratic force free of government constraint -- had at last arrived, as the imperial Japanese command was stunned and helpless. All the old problems -- the weather, the enemy fighters, the jet stream, the high-altitude wear on the engines, political limitations on bombing civilians -- were now irrelevant. There was to be no public objection to LeMay's burning down the industrial and residential center of the Japanese empire -- too many stories about Japanese atrocities toward subjugated peoples and prisoners of war had filtered back to the American people. To a democratic nation in arms, an enemy's unwarranted aggression and murder is everything, the abject savagery of its own retaliatory response apparently nothing.

Suddenly, all of Japan lay defenseless before LeMay's new and unforeseen plan of low-level napalm attack. To paraphrase General Sherman, he had pierced the shell of the Japanese empire and had found it hollow. LeMay had thousands of recruits, deadly new planes, and a blank check to do whatever his bombers could accomplish. Over 10,000 young Americans were now eager to work to exhaustion to inflict even more destruction. Quickly, he upped the frequency of missions, sending his airmen out at the unheard-of rate of 120 hours per month -- the Eighth Air Force based in England had usually flown a maximum of 30 hours per month -- as they methodically burned down within ten days Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka before turning to smaller cities. His ground crews simply unloaded the bombs at the dock and drove them right over to the bombers, without storing them in arms depots. Between 300 and 400 planes roared out almost every other day, their crews in the air 30 hours and more each week. Missions over Japan, including preliminary briefings and later debriefings, often meant 24 consecutive hours of duty. Benzedrine and coffee kept the flyers awake.

In revenge for the unprovoked but feeble attack at Pearl Harbor on their country, American farmers, college students, welders, and mechanics of a year past were now prepared -- and quite able -- to ignite the entire island of Japan. Their gigantic bombers often flew in faster than did the sleek Japanese fighters sent up to shoot them down. Japanese military leaders could scarcely grasp that in a matter of months colossal runways had appeared out of nowhere in the Pacific to launch horrendous novel bombers more deadly than any aircraft in history, commanded by a general as fanatical as themselves, and manned by teenagers and men in their early twenties more eager to kill even than Japan's own feared veterans. So much for the Japanese myth that decadent pampered Westerners were ill equipped for the savagery of all-out war. Even in the wildest dreams of the most ardent Japanese imperialists, there was no such plan of destroying the entire social fabric of the American nation.

When the war ended, William Hanson had become a seasoned central fire control gunner on a B-29, with thirty-four raids over Japan. His plane and nearly a thousand others had materialized out of nowhere on the former coral rock of the Mariana Islands, burned the major cities of Japan to the ground -- and in about twelve months were gone for good. Yet for the rest of their lives these amateurs were fiercely loyal to the brutal architect of their lethal work, who announced after the inferno was over, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal." LeMay was absolutely right -- he would have. My father occasionally ridiculed LeMay's bluster and his cigar, but it was LeMay nonetheless whom he ridiculed -- and LeMay whom he was proud that he had served under.

For much of my life I have wondered where such a murderous force of a season came from. And how a democracy made a willing killer out of my father and other farm boys, putting their lives into the hands of an unhinged zealot like LeMay, who ostensibly was neither emblematic of a democratic citizenry nor representative of the values that we purportedly cherish. Or was he? How can a democratic leader brag of such destruction, take pride in his force's ability to destroy thousands -- in short, how can he be so utterly uncouth? How in less than a year after being assembled can a motley group of young recruits fly the most lethal bombers in history to incinerate a feared imperial militaristic culture six thousand miles from their own home? And how can that most murderous air force in the world nearly disappear into the anonymity and amnesia of democracy six months after its victory?

Those thoughts are the easy anxieties of the desk-bound class. I have come to realize that both Curtis LeMay and my father are stock types, not aberrations, of the democratic society that produced them. Democracy, and its twin of market capitalism, alone can instantaneously create lethal armies out of civilians, equip them with horrific engines of war, imbue them with a near-messianic zeal within a set time and place to exterminate what they understand as evil, have them follow to their deaths the most ruthless of men, and then melt anonymously back into the culture that produced them. It is democracies, which in the right circumstances, can be imbued with the soul of battle, and thus turn the horror of killing to a higher purpose of saving lives and freeing the enslaved.

My father knew of that soul long ago, which explains why during these last fifty years he was proud to have served under LeMay -- an authentic military genius notwithstanding his extremism. Despite his horrific stories of B-29s overloaded with napalm blowing up on takeoff, of low-flying bombers shredded by flak and their crews of eleven sent spiraling into their self-generated inferno over Tokyo, of the smell of burning Japanese flesh wafting through the bomb-bay doors, of parachuting flyers beheaded on landing, he never equated that barbarity with either LeMay or himself.

On the contrary, he seemed to think the carnage below his plane and the sacrifice of his friends in the air -- twelve of sixteen B-29s in his 398th Squadron, 132 of 176 men, were shot down, crashed, or never heard from again -- had been necessary to win the war against a racist imperial power, and to save, not expend, both Asian and American lives. Despite his lifelong Democratic party credentials, my father spoke highly of "Old Iron Pants" even in the midst of the general's subsequent entry into controversial right-wing politics. The bastard shortened the war against evil, my father told me. You were all lucky, he went on, once to have had angry men like LeMay and us in the air. We flew into the fire, he said, because we believed that we were saving more lives than we took. As he aged, all memories -- childhood, job, family -- receded as the recollection of those nights over Tokyo grew sharper; parties, vacations, and familial holiday festivities were to become sideshows compared to annual reunions with his 313th Bomber Wing and 398th Squadron. His last hallucinatory gasps of July 1998 in death's throes were a foreign vocabulary of B-29 operations and frantic calls to crew members, most of whom were long since dead.

Democracies, I think -- if the cause, if the commanding general, if the conditions of time and space take on their proper meaning -- for a season can produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men, and do so in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material. This book, devoted to infantry, not airpower, tries to learn why all that is so.


II

What, then, is the soul of battle? A rare thing indeed that arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement. Only then does battle take on a spiritual dimension, one that defines a culture, teaches it what civic militarism is and how it is properly used. Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, and other great marshals used their tactical and strategic genius to alter history through the brutality of their armies. None led democratic soldiers. They freed no slaves nor liberated the oppressed. They were all aggressors, who created their matchless forces to kill rather than to preserve. As was true of most great captains of history, they fought for years on end, without democratic audit, and sought absolute rule as the prize of their victories. None were great men, and praise of their military prowess is forever tainted by the evil they wrought and the innocent they killed. They and their armies were without a moral sense and purpose, and thus their battles, tactically brilliant though they were, were soulless.

In contrast, three lesser-known generals were as great in battle and far greater in war; the killing they did and the magnificent armies they led were to save not take lives, to free not enslave, and to liberate not annex ground. We military historians, if we claim a morality in our dark craft, must always ask not merely what armies do, but rather what they are for.

In the winter of 370-369 the obscure Theban general Epaminondas marched his army of democratic yeomen and their allies about 180 miles south into Laconia, the legendary home of the Spartan army and a region inviolate from invasion for more than six hundred years. In a little over four months, the Theban-led invasion dismantled the system of Spartan apartheid -- the enslavement of 200,000 Messenian serfs -- and permanently weakened the military culture which had rested upon the principle that elite warriors should not work. The culture of classical Greece was never again the same.

Sparta, which had fielded the predominant infantry in Greece for three centuries, ceased to be a major military power in that single winter. Yet it was not merely their Helot servants across the mountains in the region of Messenia who were to be emancipated in the winter of 370-369. Epaminondas's Thebans also drove into the very suburbs of Sparta, caused near revolution among the Spartiate overlords themselves, ravaged the farms of Laconia, humiliated the plantation class, liberated the subject states of the Spartans' Peloponnesian alliance, and ensured that three vast cities -- Messenê in Messenia, and Mantinea and Megalopolis in Arcadia -- would be independent and fortified to ensure that their men and property would stay home, free from Spartan expropriation. Within a few weeks, Sparta's allies were gone, the majority of her Helots liberated, and her army humiliated.

Epaminondas killed more Spartan hoplites in a single day at the battle of Leuctra than had the entire Persian army that once invaded Greece over a century earlier, more than Athens had in twenty-seven years of the Peloponnesian War. He destroyed the Spartan state in one season -- something imperial Athens could not do in nearly three decades of warring. In 370 during Epaminondas's invasion, the Spartan women themselves came out of their homes to witness the terror in their midst -- and the strange revolutionary who had shown the entire "Spartan mystique" to be a sham. Is it any surprise that the Spartans after the battle of Mantinea (362) erected a monument to the soldier who finally killed the hated Epaminondas?

This was a general, after all, who when told of Athenian opposition, promised to turn the Athenian countryside into nothing more than a pasture for sheep. At one point the Theban upstart even bragged to his peers that he would lead his phalanx right onto the Athenian acropolis, pull down their hallowed marble propylaeum, gateway to the Parthenon, and resurrect it in the Theban agora! -- the equivalent of an Emiliano Zapata boasting that he would cart off the Washington Monument to plant it in the Plaza de Armas. Epaminondas, not Zapata, really could have. How this man and his army in the winter of 370-369 freed thousands of serfs, ended the power of the Spartan military state in Greece, created killers out of farmers, and lost scarcely a soldier in battle -- and accomplished that feat in a few months -- should tell us something about the deadliness of a particular brand of democratic militias, which run amuck murderously for a season behind a great leader for a just cause and then suddenly disappear back to their homes.

More than twenty-two hundred years later William Tecumseh Sherman marched a similar-sized army of over 60,000 Westerners -- like Thebans mostly rural, agrarian, and voting citizens -- into the heart of the Confederacy -- like Sparta the warden of sorts of an entire enslaved race. Sherman's Federal army rent the fabric of Georgian society. It freed rural black slaves, and left the opposing Rebels impotent and discredited before their helpless women and children. In less than forty days from November 16 to December 21, 1864, when he entered Savannah on the coast, Sherman's three-hundred-mile march had changed the entire psychological and material course of the Civil War.

My maternal grandmother, Georgia Johnston Davis, whose family -- Johnstons from the South who claimed Albert Sidney Johnston as one of their own -- had migrated to California from the ex-Confederacy, told me at ten that Sherman was a satanic "monster." Over a century after he died, many Southerners would still agree. In spring 1998, wire services reported the curious story of a wealthy Southerner who sought to write into the deed of his recently restored South Carolina plantation a restriction of future sale to anyone named "Sherman." In fact, the owner, Henry Ingram, Jr., told the Associated Press that his plantation, five miles north of Savannah and destroyed by Sherman in January 1865, should never fall into the hands of anyone of the "Yankee race" who was born above the Mason-Dixon line. Anyone with the name Sherman, Ingram promised, would not be allowed even to set foot on the property.

Very few of Sherman's Yankees were professional soldiers. The majority of his officers -- most promoted from the enlisted ranks -- were not raised in a hallowed tradition of military academies and genteel chivalry. Sherman, a West Point man, knew this and understood that the very tenets of free yeomanry lent a natural distaste for the binary world of the serf and plantation, giving his recruits a moral impetus to wreck Georgia. They marched out of Atlanta singing "John Brown's Body," and ravaged plantations to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Northerners from the Midwest and West, like the Thebans of old -- no strangers to physical work, and eager rather than reluctant to march, camp outdoors, and live off the land -- were to become lethal destroyers when given an ethical imperative, free rein, and a leader to drive them on. From November 1864 until it vanished in June 1865 just as abruptly as it was formed, Sherman's Army of the West was quite literally the most impressive and deadly body in the history of armed conflict -- a truly ideological army that reflected the soul of its creator, Uncle Billy Sherman.

As in the advance of Epaminondas into the Peloponnese, Sherman fought few decisive engagements, but in a matter of weeks left a military culture in ruins, as no Georgian army dared meet him in pitched battle -- as no Spartan phalanx had braved Epaminondas. To paraphrase Napoleon, Sherman, like Epaminondas, had "destroyed the enemy merely by marches" in a classical display of the indirect approach around rather than directly against the enemy's armies.

Sherman was well connected politically but was entirely democratic in his personal demeanor -- without money, without title, or much desire to profit from his military glory. And like Epaminondas, this creature of democracy, indistinguishable to the eye from his men, had an innate disdain for the masses, a near loathing which in the abstract can only be seen as elitist: a few gifted men, a natural not an aristocratic elite, devoted to order were alone to be trusted to lead a mostly undereducated and easily swayed rabble whose natural proclivity was always to anarchy. Only educated, self-restrained, and rather fatalistic men like Sherman could govern soldiers like Americans, just as only a rare man like Epaminondas could manage his Thebans.

That this asthmatic and often sickly man suffered from occasional manic depression may be true. He threatened to hang reporters and shoot insubordinate enlisted men and was not afraid to match Confederate execution for execution or burn down entire cities that harbored terrorists. Admirer of the agrarian yeomen who had built his country, he had no real confidence in the intellect and culture of the American black, Indian, and Mexican. In short, like Epaminondas, he often seemed a dangerous, opinionated, and in some sense antidemocratic ascetic in charge of a murderous democratic militia whose deadliness derived in large part from his own tactical and strategic genius. His army's legacy, like the Thebans', is that his mob of burners and ravagers saved far more lives than they took, helped to free an enslaved people when others more liberal could not, and in a few months disgraced the notion of militarism without fighting a major battle.

The war for the Union ended a few months after Sherman reached Savannah on the coast and turned northward into the Carolinas. Within a year of burning Atlanta most of his bluecoats were back again farming in the Midwest. Almost to the man they were never to muster under arms again -- at the time the most rapid demobilization of the most accomplished army in history. It is difficult to determine whether Georgians hated Sherman and his army as much as the Spartans despised Epaminondas and the Thebans. Both men had wrecked their centuries-old practice of apartheid in a matter of weeks. It is a dangerous and foolhardy thing for a slaveholding society to arouse a democracy of such men.

Eighty years after Sherman reached Savannah, General George S. Patton officially took command of the newly formed Third Army on August 1, 1944, a few weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy. When Patton arrived in Normandy, the Allied armies of General Eisenhower were just beginning to break out from nearly six weeks in the hedgerows of western France. The German army in Western Europe was still a formidable occupying force of over a million men. General Montgomery was calling for a slow American sweep, as he requested the lion's share of Allied supplies to thrust through Holland. Only with ever more men and supplies that would at last ensure material superiority could the Allies, Montgomery thought, press on a single narrow front into Germany, perhaps crossing the Rhine in winter or spring 1946. Eisenhower and his lieutenants, Generals Bradley and Hodges, although no fans of this British modern-day McClellan -- similarly a genius at methodical organization and training -- were apparently unable to offer a successful strategic alternative, in constant worry over supply lines, flanks, and the reputation of the German army.

Patton, recently disgraced from two slapping incidents in Sicily, considered unbalanced, the object of both envy and disdain, like Epaminondas and Sherman was lucky to obtain the command that he was born for. In the past he had been a superior to Eisenhower and Bradley and now was fortunate to serve under both. Just as Epaminondas was reduced to carrying a shield as an ordinary hoplite in the phalanx, just as Sherman was once declared insane and sent away to recuperate, so too Patton by early 1944 was a general without an army, an acknowledged military genius considered too unstable to command a brigade -- many wondered whether his many past head injuries had resulted in permanent brain damage.

Ten months after Patton took over the Third Army, the German forces in the West were wrecked, Patton's GIs were across the Rhine into central Europe, and Germany itself was in ruins. Patton came late to Normandy; but in August 1944, during the first thirty days of the Third Army's operations, Patton pushed his Americans five times as far to the east as the entire Allied army had progressed during the prior seven-week period after D-Day. Most Americans of the Third Army had been in combat less than a year when they reached the death camps of Germany and helped to put an end to German military power and its entire pseudo-science of an overclass of genetic supermen. Patton's chief of staff, Hobart Gay, concluded of their march:


Not since 1806 has an army conquered Germany or crossed any large portion of it. I question if anyone a few years ago even as late at the beginning of this war or as late as last year, felt the war would end with American forces having completely over-run Germany and passed into other countries. This time the Germans know what war at home means. The German nation has completely disintegrated, and even though they are an enemy nation, it is a saddening sight to witness.


Unlike the First World War, this time Americans would be in Germany; the German landscape would experience what the German army had done to others elsewhere; and there would be no question that anyone had stabbed the Wehrmacht in the back.

George S. Patton, who insisted on hot food and clean socks for his men, who led by example, a wounded World War One veteran who braved gunfire as a display of heroic leadership, was also no fan of democracy in the abstract. His diary entries at times can elicit disgust. Like Epaminondas, he fought continuously with his fellow generals and was nearly court-martialed for his altercations with his superiors -- like Epaminondas he was relieved of command after his greatest victories. Like the Theban, he could be brutal to his men and, as some crazed modern-day Pythagorean, believed in reincarnation and his own appointed destiny. He fought democratically, but thought aristocratically, and did not believe the men whom he led and loved were themselves capable of governing themselves.

"Old Blood and Guts" may have been admired by his soldiers, but like "Iron Gut" Epaminondas and "Uncle Billy" Sherman, he possessed a certain distance and at times contempt for the very masses he led. While he fought, he hated the Nazis, and yet was relieved of command in part for expressing sympathy with ex-German officials -- not unlike Sherman's latter admiration for Southern veterans, or Theban charges that Epaminondas had ruined Sparta but was soft on Spartans.

All three, who followed some arcane code of honor, were poorly suited for peace; and thus in some sense all three admired the very warrior culture that they helped to destroy. All three were at the most basic level intellectuals, widely read in literature and the scholarship of war, and with a keen interest in questions metaphysical and philosophical -- which suggests that most of their tirades and crudity were efforts to mask the embarrassment of such an aesthetic sense, and to project to their men and the public an image of a general who was a warrior always, not a keen student of the arts and sciences.

Patton, severely wounded in World War One, could not refrain, even as general of hundreds of thousands, from stalking the front lines like Epaminondas, who perished at the van under a hail of Spartan spear thrusts, and like the wounded Sherman at Shiloh, who had three mounts shot out from under him in a few hours. No wonder that of all American generals, Patton was most impressed with Sherman and his daring march into the interior of Georgia. It was not the drunken Alexander the Great nor the megalomaniac Hannibal whom Patton saw as the great general of antiquity, but Epaminondas, who, in his words, was alone worthy of emulation due to his "great genius, great goodness, and great patriotism."

Within months all three forces developed from an untrained amateur muster into a deadly, fast-moving horde of predators, who traveled continuously and left fire and ruin in their wake. All three armies and their commanders upset conventional wisdom about the role of mobility, logistics, and amateur militias, proving that the most lethal, the most disciplined, and the most organized armies can emerge from the chaos of democracy. Such armies do not linger after they are finished. They are not used to further the personal ambitions of their beloved generals, or to change public policy -- much less as instruments to overturn the constitutional governments they serve. Epaminondas's 70,000, who marched in midwinter into Sparta, by May the next season were farming. The greatest army in the history of conflict until the late nineteenth century was Sherman's, and yet it disappeared literally within a few days of the armistice; in May 1945, Patton's Third Army numbered over a half million, but by Christmas both its veterans and its general were gone.

These marchers of a season must be led by ruthless and gifted men who are often of little use in a peacetime democracy but find their proper authoritarian and aristocratic calling only as absolute rulers of an armed citizenry. Yet much of their bluster and avowals to make the enemy "howl," to turn the countryside into a "sheep-walk," to kill the "bastards," was the necessary veneer to their more subtle strategy of indirect approaches -- marches to destroy the enemy's spiritual and material resources rather than the annihilation of his armies in the field per se -- a strategy so suited to a democracy that is fickle and wary of costs and casualties, yet so misunderstood by fellow commanders and politicians weaned on the parallel Western tradition of brutal frontal assault on the fighting forces of the enemy.

All three forces had not started the war and did not wish it to begin. All three armies wrought a terrible vengeance on those who had once felt them poor soldiers. These generals who so believed in a code of military gallantry and order destroyed utterly the paradoxical notion of "honor" among a society of slaveholders, by marching into the enemy's native land and daring these gaudy warriors in their red cloaks, plumed hats, and Feldgrau to come out and fight fairly before their women and children. The legacies of these epic marches for freedom are one with democracy itself, proof positive of the ability of a free society rapidly to muster, invade, conquer, and then disband -- a tradition that so often in the eleventh hour has kept the democracies of the West free and one that we abandon only at our peril.

Democracies, of course, can change military policy precipitously and without reason. We know that they can sometimes curtail needed military action out of the terror of human and material losses. Assemblies tend to find scapegoats for defeats and deify the lucky rather than reward the talented. In times of peace and prosperity they relax their guard with often disastrous subsequent consequences -- all that is the well-chronicled military liability that arises from a volatile democratic culture. But the great military strength of such open and free societies is less well known: the dramatic manner in which we can mobilize people in a tremendous retaliatory crusade for a just cause to be led by men whom we otherwise do not appreciate -- an asset greater even than the excellence of our technology or the sheer superabundance of our military equipment.

Too often military historians, armed with postbellum sociological profiles of the combat soldier, attuned to the cynicism of the modern age that has witnessed the slaughter of the trenches and the holocaust of the death camps, and cognizant of the twentieth-century propensity to admit openly to naked self-interest, tend to believe that soldiers fight only instinctually -- largely to preserve their battle comrades, not for some wider abstract and ethical idea. Do soldiers, in mud and cold, maimed and terrified, really march forward for an abstraction to free the oppressed? Similarly, we are told, their commanders push men onward for their own promotions, for the satisfaction of some inner psychological compulsion, or out of blind duty and unthinking adherence to professional training.

Yet, Messenian helotage did not survive Epaminondas, African slavery Sherman, nor Nazism Patton; and we should, it seems to me, admit without reservation or qualificiation that the salvation of these millions were good things and certainly not accidents. The best indication of the achievement of each of these generals is not to read the accounts of modern historians but rather to ask whom did the contemporary supporters of helotage, African slavery, and genocide especially hate and whom did they most fear. The Spartans built a statue to the man who killed Epaminondas. Supporters of the Confederacy have despised Sherman for over a century. German generals talked in feared and hushed tones of some nonexistent "Army Group Patton" that might alone wreck their Panzers. "Patton," German Field Marshal von Rundstedt concluded simply after his capture, "he is your best."

Theban hoplites, Union troops, and American GIs, this book argues, were ideological armies foremost, composed of citizen-soldiers who burst into their enemies' heartland because they believed it was a just and very necessary thing to do. The commanders who led them encouraged that ethical zeal, made them believe there was a real moral difference between Theban democracy and Spartan helotage, between a free Union and a slave-owning South, and between a democratic Europe and a nightmarish Nazi continent. This study is more an essay on the ethical nature of democracies at war than a purely military history of three epic marches for freedom, for it claims that on rare occasions throughout the ages there can be a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle.

Copyright © 1999 by Victor Davis Hanson

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Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations
Prologue 1
Pt. I Yeomen of Thebes: Epaminondas's Descent into the Peloponnese, Winter-Spring, 370-369 B.C. 17
Pt. II The Army of the West: Sherman's March to the Sea, November 16-December 21, 1864 123
Pt. III The Third Army: Patton's Race into Germany, August 1, 1944-May 8, 1945 263
Epilogue: The End of the Democratic Marches? 405
Glossary 413
Acknowledgments 417
Notes 419
Bibliography 463
Index 469
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First Chapter

Chapter One: The Python's Parade of Part II Washington, D.C.
May 24, 1865

Twenty-two hundred and thirty-four years after Epaminondas's homecoming, a triumphant parade marched through Washington, D.C. By all contemporary accounts the army of William Tecumseh Sherman both delighted -- and awed -- the Washington crowd. Sherman himself, who rode with his men like a Roman imperator, was proud of that dual nature of his soldiers, an army of deadly democratic avengers that had burnt its way through Georgia in wonderful order, ruining for the cause of freedom the rich countryside in its path. The narrative of his memoirs closes with a description of that last ceremonial march of his men:


It was, in my judgment, the most magnificent army in existence -- sixty-five thousand men, in splendid physique, who had just completed a march of nearly two thousand miles in a hostile country....The steadiness and firmness of the tread, the careful dress on the guides, the uniform intervals between the companies, all eyes directly to the front, and the tattered and bullet-riven flags, festooned with flowers, all attracted universal notice. Many good people, up to that time, had looked upon our Western army as a sort of mob; but the world then saw, and recognized the fact, that it was an army in the proper sense, well organized, well commanded and disciplined; and there was no wonder that it had swept through the South like a tornado. For six hours and a half the strong tread of the Army of the West resounded along Pennsylvania Avenue; not a soul of that vast crowd of spectators left his place; and, when the rear of the column had passed by, thousands of the spectators still lingered to express their sense of confidence in the strength of a Government which could claim such an army.


Sherman himself would never have been content had his men simply marched in good order and discipline like Grant's Easterners in the Army of the Potomac. His "tornado," after all, was not exactly an Eastern army. Something else made his veterans, his perceived "mob" different, and he was not about to let the world forget it -- many of his men had refused the newly issued blue parade uniforms, but kept on the ragged clothes worn continuously since the march through the woods of Georgia six months earlier. Sherman thus finished his description on a more Roman note:


Each division was followed by six ambulances, as a representative of its baggage-train. Some of the division commanders had added, by way of variety, goats, milch-cows, and pack-mules, whose loads consisted of game-cocks, poultry, hams, etc., and some of them had the families of freed slaves along, with the women leading their children. Each division was preceded by its corps of black pioneers, armed with picks and spades. These marched abreast in double ranks, keeping perfect dress and step, and added much to the interest of the occasion.


Sherman's was an army that was wilder and more rugged than other Northern corps, and yet still far better equipped, disciplined, organized -- and more lethal -- than the battle-hardened veterans of the South it opposed in 1864. Just as Epaminondas's rustic Thebans had outshone their purportedly professional Arcadian allies and terrified the crack troops of Sparta, so too Sherman's Westerners, who had routed or bypassed all veteran Southern forces, also made the well-drilled and veteran Army of the Potomac look in comparison somewhat soft. For Sherman's men, the spring parade was just another -- simply the last -- day on the long march; but for Grant's troopers the ceremonial procession was something quite unlike the months of crawling and digging in the mud of Virginia. Other observers that May afternoon at once perceived the Westerners' army's incongruous ferocity and recklessness beneath its veneer of seeming order and precision. On the following day, May 24, the New York Times described Sherman's army as "tall, erect, broad shouldered men, the peasantry of the west, the best material on earth for armies. The brigades move by with an elastic step."

Most contemporaries naturally compared Grant's and Sherman's men, noting that it was much harder to distinguish officers from enlisted men in the Army of the West. Sherman's troops walked, even talked, differently from other corps; they somehow seemed "more intelligent, self-reliant, and determined." Marching through an enemy country and destroying its economic infrastructure and social strata -- while losing less than 1 percent of an army -- can instill confidence in soldiers in a way that camp life, entrenchment, and even ferocious set battles cannot.

Sherman's enlisted men themselves were aware that the Union's other great army had settled in Virginia and ended there, while they had started in Tennessee, marched through Georgia and the Carolinas, and finished their circle ten months later right beside the sluggish Army of the Potomac. A soldier from the 7th Iowa wrote -- perhaps rather unfairly -- of Sherman's men and the Army of the Potomac, "The difference in the two armies is this: They have remained in camp and lived well; we have marched, fought and gone hungry and ended the war." A Minnesota recruit scoffed of the Easterners, "The more I see of this Army [Potomac] the more I am disgusted with operations for the last years. If there had been an army worth anything here, Richmond would have fallen three years ago."

Sherman's veterans failed to appreciate that their corps, except for normal furloughs, were one and the same army that had left Atlanta a half a year earlier. In that sense, their esprit de corps was more akin to Epaminondas's hoplites than to Grant's army, which, in contrast, was in reality a continually metamorphosing body. In its revolving-door manner of mustering, thousands of its crack troops were to be killed in a series of harrowing assaults in the Wilderness (May 5­12, 1864), Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864), and outside Petersburg (June­October 1864), always to be replaced by a continual stream of raw and often anonymous human fodder. In a way, the Army of the Potomac was not an army at all, but an abstraction, an organization that facilitated the recruitment of mostly adolescents, their brief training, their charges into battle, ending all too often a few weeks or months later in their deaths or injuries. To Grant and his army, men -- in the general and brutal sense of sheer manpower that shot iron into the flesh of the enemy -- were the key to Northern victory; in contrast, the Westerners under Sherman believed that their particular men alone would both win and survive the war.

All Union troops in both armies sensed that dichotomy: by late summer 1864, those with Sherman felt that in the year to come they would live, while a great many with Grant knew they would probably die. Not one soldier in Sherman's army pinned paper with his name to his back -- the nineteenth-century equivalent of dog tags -- as he marched toward battle. The Ohioan C.B. Welton wrote home of his general that Sherman "was a great military genius who depends upon his brains to win his victories instead of the lives of his men." An officer on General Thomas's staff agreed that Sherman knew "it is sometimes much easier to fight with the legs and feet than with muskets and cannon."

The outward appearance of invincibility of the Westerners was due in large part to the fact that they had fought and marched together for over a year and had survived the ordeal. When General Peter Osterhaus's 15th Corps marched past the Washington reviewing stand -- they had occupied the southern wing during Sherman's March to the Sea -- the German ambassador remarked, "An army like that could whip all Europe." Of the 20th Corps -- half of Sherman's renamed Army of Georgia -- that followed, he added, "An army like that could whip the world." And finally when its sister corps, the 14th under the fiery General Jefferson C. Davis, passed, he concluded, "An army like that could whip the devil."

In the same manner that Epaminondas's Thebans stood apart from their Arcadian allies when they entered Laconia, so too Sherman's men were intimidating even to their own Union comrades. Before they were removed to the opposite bank of the Potomac, the Westerners in camp habitually picked fights with Easterners, drank, were disobedient, and required Sherman himself to ride out into the streets at night to calm his men. Some had no shoes. All were sunburnt from their last leg through the Carolinas. Blacks from Georgia and the Carolinas marched proudly in the ranks, and the men still carried plunder from the plantations of the South.

Why this nearly unanimous verdict on the superiority of Sherman's men? They had fought in few bloodbaths like the Army of the Potomac's against Lee -- nothing quite like Gettysburg, the Wilderness, or Cold Harbor. Nearly two-thirds of all Northern casualties in the Civil War came from the Army of the Potomac, which had continuously battled Robert E. Lee's crack Army of Northern Virginia for over three years.

The answer was nevertheless clear to the thousands of onlookers in Washington: Sherman's men had marched, moved hundreds of miles, and survived, whereas too many of Grant's were fixed and had died. The former had sliced through hostile territory and freed slaves, destroyed property, and brought fire and ruin to the enemy; the latter fought not far from home, pitted against like military kind, and had rarely touched the economy that fueled the enemy. The South would hate Sherman, whose troops had killed relatively few Confederates, for a century to come, but come to forgive Grant their future president, whose army butchered its best soldiers -- a propensity to value property over life. By April 1865, Grant at horrendous cost had at last overwhelmed the best of the Confederate army; Sherman at little human expenditure defeated the very soul of the Confederate citizenry with a force that was mobile, patently ideological, and without experience of defeat. These facts the crowds in Washington knew, and the rugged appearance of Sherman's army now confirmed their previous belief in his army's singular ability to destroy the enemy without destroying itself.

Yet Americans had not always been so impressed by the Union armies. Less than a year earlier, Northerners were despondent and gradually coming to the realization that winning the war of more than three years' duration required something more than the defeat of Southern soldiers in the field or even the occupation of Confederate state capitals. Even when Sherman arrived on the outskirts of Atlanta in the summer of 1864, there was no guarantee that the war was likely to be won by the North at all -- or that Lincoln would be reelected to a second term in the fall. Nothing less, it seemed, than a new mentality of war-making -- or an armistice -- was needed to conclude this most horrible of American conflicts.

Spectacular Northern battlefield successes in the past had not translated into the collapse of Southern morale or even of the Confederacy's ability to field new armies. The Union string of victories in 1862 along the Mississippi, at Shiloh, Antietam, and Perryville, and the presence of ponderous and plodding Union armies a few miles from Richmond led to vast numbers of Southerners killed, territory lost, and communications disrupted -- but not to a crippling of the Southern desire or ability to continue war, as the subsequent recoveries by Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and Lee's stand against McClellan in the encounters during the Seven Days prove. Even the second wave of dramatic and brilliant campaigns in the summer of 1863 -- at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga -- did not make the South sue for peace. Before those successes, the Confederates had been victorious at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Even after that summer of Northern optimism, the South would rally to stand firm against Union troops at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania (May 5­19, 1864). Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864) was a bloodbath for Grant's men. By June 1864, the Northern armies had lost 90,000 in just the last two months of fighting. The New York World asked the question, "Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed at the opening of Grant's campaign?"

It was not clear how much longer the Northern public would stand for further catastrophic losses in Grant's trenches and for Lincoln's policy -- whether inadvertent or not -- of the "terrible arithmetic": trading horrendous fatalities with the South on the premise that the Confederates would exhaust their manpower reserves first. The now accustomed reversal after each promising Union battle success bred cynicism, and soon contempt for Lincoln. By mid-1864 there was the resigned acknowledgment that even a victory in battle was unlikely to end Southern resistance on purely Northern terms.

While it is true that the North enjoyed considerable superiority in human and material resources, by late 1864 the traditional advantages that accrue to the defense in a war of attrition were starting to play an increasingly prominent role. The South need not win, only not lose. As it was stripped of its territory to the west of the Mississippi and south of Tennessee, its shorter interior lines alleviated problems of supply and movement -- as the Spartans learned when they were under siege in Laconia and did not venture into Boeotia, and as the Germans discovered during their retreats before the Americans in late 1944 and early 1945. As the Northern armies advanced southward from Tennessee into Alabama and Georgia in 1864, garrisons were left at towns and railroad junctions to occupy and protect territorial gains. So Sherman's army shrunk, even as his opponent's grew from desperate calls to resist the invader of their homes. Moderate Union success did not ensure greater recruitment from a tired and complacent Northern citizenry; greater Southern failure demanded wider participation from the desperate secessionists to save the homeland.

From now on, brave Confederate soldiers would be fighting not on Northern or Border State ground, but almost always on their own home soil. They would not even be killing any longer for abstractions like states' rights or plantation slavery, but rather battling desperately to repel invading troops from their sacred earth. Fortification and entrenchment -- the dirty arena where casualties soared -- would now serve as more frequent points of resistance, as defenders were given direct aid from civilians and guerrilla bands alike. More and more Northerners conceded that if the Union were to win, they must either annihilate almost all the Confederate zealots in uniform -- Sherman's dictum that "We must kill those three hundred thousand" -- or find some other way of bringing the costs of war home to the Southern populace itself. If the North had mixed results in defeating Confederate soldiers in battle, how could it invade and subdue the entire territory of the South itself?

It is often remarked that the North had a potentially mobilizable population four times the size of the South; but in actuality the Confederacy had nearly doubled the North's rate of recruitment from their respective manpower pools. In terms of actual men recruited into the army -- 950,000 for the South, 2,100,000 on the Union side -- the Confederacy had an army almost half the size of the North, not a decisive disadvantage for a Southern force that was to repel invaders as it fought on familiar ground with access to local supplies.

Their land southeast of the Mississippi was no small country, but still a gigantic region of millions of free citizens and over 4,000,000 black slaves; and even a truncated Confederacy comprised a geographical expanse alone far larger than most nations in Europe. The South's comparatively backward transportation network might now favor the defenders, who knew local terrain and the idiosyncrasies of provincial rail lines, and could move more easily on less well known and traveled roads. Northern forces -- blockading the coast, patrolling the Mississippi, occupying the West, responsible for the distant frontier, entrenched between Washington and Richmond -- would be even farther afield, spread thinner, harder to supply, and more dependent on long, single, and vulnerable railroad lines.

To all Southerners there was no tomorrow in defeat, and an understandable hysteria about Northern invaders: their entry east of the Mississippi and south of Tennessee threatened a complete end to the entire antebellum way of life, and a surrender to the new, growing -- and mostly foreign -- culture spreading throughout the North. Not just slavery was to be gone and the South's peculiar notion of states' rights. Defeat also, the planters believed, meant an embrace of laissez-faire capitalism, increased materialism, massive immigration, urbanization -- all antithetical to the rural and agrarian hierarchies of the past. Southerners, in short, despite the vast geographical extent of the slaveholding states, were as far removed from the mainstream of North American life as the Spartans were from the other Greek city-states. Whether this blinkered perception was entirely true or not, Southern elites in a newly reconstituted Federal Union feared a crass, egalitarian morass, where a radically heartless and soulless market -- not status gained at birth -- would govern the opportunity of all citizens in America. Success and status would be found solely in profit, not in inherited reputation. The states, in this often paranoid view, would slowly give up local cultures and rights in exchange for an all-encompassing Federal government that would lead all to a more uniform America through greater taxation, transportation, communication, and national expenditures. As Mr. Lincoln and his Union generals insisted on unconditional surrender, the end of slavery, and the specter of an egalitarian nation where race and class were in theory to be subordinate ideas, so recalcitrant Southerners by the summer of 1864 dug in deeper for their Armageddon to come.

In contrast to the fanaticism of the Lost Cause, there was real opposition in the North to the Union effort of total war. Copperheads and traditional Democrats were agitating at best for different presidential leadership -- someone other than Lincoln who might bring about either a return of the Confederacy to the Union with slavery intact, or an agreement to let the South go in peace and become a second kindred American nation on North American soil. At worst, outright Southern sympathizers in the North welcomed an admission of Union defeat. Racial prejudice and self-interest were constant choruses -- why send thousands of free whites to die for Southern Negro slaves? Liberating slaves by presidential edict in the abstract was not the same thing as sending thousands of young white Northern boys down South either to die or to kill other white adolescents to ensure that blacks were free to leave their masters. Of course, there were Unionists in the Confederacy and quarrels among the worn fabric of the increasingly self-interested and bickering Southern states, but politics in early 1864 was far more volatile in the North. Opposition there was more likely to change the administration and the very policy of continuing the war unabated. Ironically, Lincoln, not Jefferson Davis, whose economy was in fact on the verge of collapse, was more likely to be run out of office. By the same token, the former would be assassinated, while the latter would live to an honorable old age among recalcitrant secessionists. So too was Epaminondas put on trial in the aftermath of his greatest triumph, even as the defeated King Agesilaus faced no such challenge from within his collapsing society, and would outlive the far yo unger Theban. In a slave society at war, democracy functions poorly, if at all, and in its eleventh hour has little choice but to trust in the will of its last fanatic.

Then, abruptly, in autumn 1864 one man at the head of more than 60,000 of their soldiers ended for good all the Northern worries. Now there was a general and an army that could march into the heart of the South, free the slaves, destroy the prospects of the enemy where it hurt most, and come through unscathed -- and mirabile dictu could articulate as no other Union leader except Lincoln why and how the South would lose through an entirely new concept of "total war." So in understandable wonder mixed with trepidation the jubilant crowds this May afternoon cheered their slightly crazy, red-haired general William Tecumseh Sherman and "the most magnificent army in existence" -- this rumpled fellow and his boys who had brought them victory when victory was not foreseen.

In November 1864 the citizens of the Confederacy were about to be squeezed precisely in the manner as the Spartans had been by Epaminondas so many centuries earlier. "All sorts of colors, over a wild monotony of columns, began to sway to and fro, up and down," the New York World wrote of the May 23 entrance of Sherman and his army into the streets of the nation's capital, "and like the uncoiling of a tremendous python, the Army of Sherman winds into Washington."

Copyright © 1999 by Victor Davis Hanson

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Introduction

Prologue I

My father, who helped in a small way to kill thousands, was not a violent man. Curtis LeMay, who led him into battle, surely was. The former, two years off a small farm in the central San Joaquin Valley, left a quiet college campus in California in early 1943, and at twenty-one joined the American armed forces. For much of the Great Depression, a decade prior, millions in the Imperial Japanese Army had been plundering China and Southeast Asia, and they were now engaged in a murderous fight to the death against an assorted host of enemies. In contrast, William Hanson had fired a small rifle only at birds and rabbits, in the countryside five miles outside the backwater farming town of Kingsburg, California. In his two decades he had never ventured much more than a few miles from his parents' farmhouse. He had never been in an airplane and had never seen a bomb. When he enlisted in the United States Army, his future plane, the B-29, did not even exist as a combat-tested bomber.

When William Hanson joined the American army, imperial Japan was still largely unscathed. The closest American land forces to Japan were well over 2,000 miles away. Only a few planners like Curtis LeMay knew that thousands of enlisted civilians like my father in a few months of training could kill both brutally and efficiently, if given the proper equipment and leadership -- and backed by the vast industrial capacity of the American nation. My grandfather, a farmer who twenty-seven years earlier had left the same forty acres, also served in a democratic army. Frank Hanson ended up as a corporal in the 91st Infantry Division and was gassed in the Argonne. He told my father that he should quickly get used to killing -- and that he probably would either not come back, or would return crippled. Americans, my grandfather added, had to learn to fight fast.

A little more than a year after his enlistment, on March 9, 1945, a 400-mile-long trail of 334 B-29s left their Marianas bases, 3,500 newly trained airmen crammed in among the napalm. The gigantic planes each carried ten tons of the newly invented jellied gasoline incendiaries. Preliminary pathfinders had seeded flares over Tokyo in the shape of an enormous fiery X to mark the locus of the target. Planes flew over in small groups of three, a minute apart. Most were flying not much over 5,000 feet above Japan. Five-hundred-pound incendiary clusters fell every 50 feet. Within thirty minutes, a 28-mile-per-hour ground wind sent the flames roaring out of control. Temperatures approached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The Americans flew in without guns, and LeMay was not interested in shooting down enemy airplanes. He instead filled the planes with napalm well over their theoretical maximum loads. He wished to destroy completely the material and psychological capital of the Japanese people, on the brutal theory that once civilians had tasted what their soldiers had done to others, only then might their murderous armies crack. Advocacy for a savage militarism from the rear, he thought, might dissipate when one's house was in flames. People would not show up to work to fabricate artillery shells that killed Americans when there was no work to show up to. Soldiers who kill, rape, and torture do so less confidently when their own families are at risk at home.

The planes returned with their undercarriages seared and the smell of human flesh among the crews. Over 80,000 Japanese died outright; 40,918 were injured; 267,171 buildings were destroyed. One million Japanese were homeless. Air currents from the intense heat sent B-29s spiraling thousands of feet upward. Gunners like my father could see the glow of the inferno from as far away as 150 miles as they headed home. The fire lasted four days. My father said he could smell burned flesh for miles on the way back to Tinian. Yet, only 42 bombers were damaged, and 14 shot down. No single air attack in the history of conflict had been so devastating.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, the March 9 raid was the beginning, not the end, of LeMay's incendiary campaign. He sensed that his moment -- a truly deadly man in charge of a huge democratic force free of government constraint -- had at last arrived, as the imperial Japanese command was stunned and helpless. All the old problems -- the weather, the enemy fighters, the jet stream, the high-altitude wear on the engines, political limitations on bombing civilians -- were now irrelevant. There was to be no public objection to LeMay's burning down the industrial and residential center of the Japanese empire -- too many stories about Japanese atrocities toward subjugated peoples and prisoners of war had filtered back to the American people. To a democratic nation in arms, an enemy's unwarranted aggression and murder is everything, the abject savagery of its own retaliatory response apparently nothing.

Suddenly, all of Japan lay defenseless before LeMay's new and unforeseen plan of low-level napalm attack. To paraphrase General Sherman, he had pierced the shell of the Japanese empire and had found it hollow. LeMay had thousands of recruits, deadly new planes, and a blank check to do whatever his bombers could accomplish. Over 10,000 young Americans were now eager to work to exhaustion to inflict even more destruction. Quickly, he upped the frequency of missions, sending his airmen out at the unheard-of rate of 120 hours per month -- the Eighth Air Force based in England had usually flown a maximum of 30 hours per month -- as they methodically burned down within ten days Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka before turning to smaller cities. His ground crews simply unloaded the bombs at the dock and drove them right over to the bombers, without storing them in arms depots. Between 300 and 400 planes roared out almost every other day, their crews in the air 30 hours and more each week. Missions over Japan, including preliminary briefings and later debriefings, often meant 24 consecutive hours of duty. Benzedrine and coffee kept the flyers awake.

In revenge for the unprovoked but feeble attack at Pearl Harbor on their country, American farmers, college students, welders, and mechanics of a year past were now prepared -- and quite able -- to ignite the entire island of Japan. Their gigantic bombers often flew in faster than did the sleek Japanese fighters sent up to shoot them down. Japanese military leaders could scarcely grasp that in a matter of months colossal runways had appeared out of nowhere in the Pacific to launch horrendous novel bombers more deadly than any aircraft in history, commanded by a general as fanatical as themselves, and manned by teenagers and men in their early twenties more eager to kill even than Japan's own feared veterans. So much for the Japanese myth that decadent pampered Westerners were ill equipped for the savagery of all-out war. Even in the wildest dreams of the most ardent Japanese imperialists, there was no such plan of destroying the entire social fabric of the American nation.

When the war ended, William Hanson had become a seasoned central fire control gunner on a B-29, with thirty-four raids over Japan. His plane and nearly a thousand others had materialized out of nowhere on the former coral rock of the Mariana Islands, burned the major cities of Japan to the ground -- and in about twelve months were gone for good. Yet for the rest of their lives these amateurs were fiercely loyal to the brutal architect of their lethal work, who announced after the inferno was over, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal." LeMay was absolutely right -- he would have. My father occasionally ridiculed LeMay's bluster and his cigar, but it was LeMay nonetheless whom he ridiculed -- and LeMay whom he was proud that he had served under.

For much of my life I have wondered where such a murderous force of a season came from. And how a democracy made a willing killer out of my father and other farm boys, putting their lives into the hands of an unhinged zealot like LeMay, who ostensibly was neither emblematic of a democratic citizenry nor representative of the values that we purportedly cherish. Or was he? How can a democratic leader brag of such destruction, take pride in his force's ability to destroy thousands -- in short, how can he be so utterly uncouth? How in less than a year after being assembled can a motley group of young recruits fly the most lethal bombers in history to incinerate a feared imperial militaristic culture six thousand miles from their own home? And how can that most murderous air force in the world nearly disappear into the anonymity and amnesia of democracy six months after its victory?

Those thoughts are the easy anxieties of the desk-bound class. I have come to realize that both Curtis LeMay and my father are stock types, not aberrations, of the democratic society that produced them. Democracy, and its twin of market capitalism, alone can instantaneously create lethal armies out of civilians, equip them with horrific engines of war, imbue them with a near-messianic zeal within a set time and place to exterminate what they understand as evil, have them follow to their deaths the most ruthless of men, and then melt anonymously back into the culture that produced them. It is democracies, which in the right circumstances, can be imbued with the soul of battle, and thus turn the horror of killing to a higher purpose of saving lives and freeing the enslaved.

My father knew of that soul long ago, which explains why during these last fifty years he was proud to have served under LeMay -- an authentic military genius notwithstanding his extremism. Despite his horrific stories of B-29s overloaded with napalm blowing up on takeoff, of low-flying bombers shredded by flak and their crews of eleven sent spiraling into their self-generated inferno over Tokyo, of the smell of burning Japanese flesh wafting through the bomb-bay doors, of parachuting flyers beheaded on landing, he never equated that barbarity with either LeMay or himself.

On the contrary, he seemed to think the carnage below his plane and the sacrifice of his friends in the air -- twelve of sixteen B-29s in his 398th Squadron, 132 of 176 men, were shot down, crashed, or never heard from again -- had been necessary to win the war against a racist imperial power, and to save, not expend, both Asian and American lives. Despite his lifelong Democratic party credentials, my father spoke highly of "Old Iron Pants" even in the midst of the general's subsequent entry into controversial right-wing politics. The bastard shortened the war against evil, my father told me. You were all lucky, he went on, once to have had angry men like LeMay and us in the air. We flew into the fire, he said, because we believed that we were saving more lives than we took. As he aged, all memories -- childhood, job, family -- receded as the recollection of those nights over Tokyo grew sharper; parties, vacations, and familial holiday festivities were to become sideshows compared to annual reunions with his 313th Bomber Wing and 398th Squadron. His last hallucinatory gasps of July 1998 in death's throes were a foreign vocabulary of B-29 operations and frantic calls to crew members, most of whom were long since dead.

Democracies, I think -- if the cause, if the commanding general, if the conditions of time and space take on their proper meaning -- for a season can produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men, and do so in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material. This book, devoted to infantry, not airpower, tries to learn why all that is so.


II

What, then, is the soul of battle? A rare thing indeed that arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement. Only then does battle take on a spiritual dimension, one that defines a culture, teaches it what civic militarism is and how it is properly used. Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, and other great marshals used their tactical and strategic genius to alter history through the brutality of their armies. None led democratic soldiers. They freed no slaves nor liberated the oppressed. They were all aggressors, who created their matchless forces to kill rather than to preserve. As was true of most great captains of history, they fought for years on end, without democratic audit, and sought absolute rule as the prize of their victories. None were great men, and praise of their military prowess is forever tainted by the evil they wrought and the innocent they killed. They and their armies were without a moral sense and purpose, and thus their battles, tactically brilliant though they were, were soulless.

In contrast, three lesser-known generals were as great in battle and far greater in war; the killing they did and the magnificent armies they led were to save not take lives, to free not enslave, and to liberate not annex ground. We military historians, if we claim a morality in our dark craft, must always ask not merely what armies do, but rather what they are for.

In the winter of 370-369 the obscure Theban general Epaminondas marched his army of democratic yeomen and their allies about 180 miles south into Laconia, the legendary home of the Spartan army and a region inviolate from invasion for more than six hundred years. In a little over four months, the Theban-led invasion dismantled the system of Spartan apartheid -- the enslavement of 200,000 Messenian serfs -- and permanently weakened the military culture which had rested upon the principle that elite warriors should not work. The culture of classical Greece was never again the same.

Sparta, which had fielded the predominant infantry in Greece for three centuries, ceased to be a major military power in that single winter. Yet it was not merely their Helot servants across the mountains in the region of Messenia who were to be emancipated in the winter of 370-369. Epaminondas's Thebans also drove into the very suburbs of Sparta, caused near revolution among the Spartiate overlords themselves, ravaged the farms of Laconia, humiliated the plantation class, liberated the subject states of the Spartans' Peloponnesian alliance, and ensured that three vast cities -- Messenê in Messenia, and Mantinea and Megalopolis in Arcadia -- would be independent and fortified to ensure that their men and property would stay home, free from Spartan expropriation. Within a few weeks, Sparta's allies were gone, the majority of her Helots liberated, and her army humiliated.

Epaminondas killed more Spartan hoplites in a single day at the battle of Leuctra than had the entire Persian army that once invaded Greece over a century earlier, more than Athens had in twenty-seven years of the Peloponnesian War. He destroyed the Spartan state in one season -- something imperial Athens could not do in nearly three decades of warring. In 370 during Epaminondas's invasion, the Spartan women themselves came out of their homes to witness the terror in their midst -- and the strange revolutionary who had shown the entire "Spartan mystique" to be a sham. Is it any surprise that the Spartans after the battle of Mantinea (362) erected a monument to the soldier who finally killed the hated Epaminondas?

This was a general, after all, who when told of Athenian opposition, promised to turn the Athenian countryside into nothing more than a pasture for sheep. At one point the Theban upstart even bragged to his peers that he would lead his phalanx right onto the Athenian acropolis, pull down their hallowed marble propylaeum, gateway to the Parthenon, and resurrect it in the Theban agora! -- the equivalent of an Emiliano Zapata boasting that he would cart off the Washington Monument to plant it in the Plaza de Armas. Epaminondas, not Zapata, really could have. How this man and his army in the winter of 370-369 freed thousands of serfs, ended the power of the Spartan military state in Greece, created killers out of farmers, and lost scarcely a soldier in battle -- and accomplished that feat in a few months -- should tell us something about the deadliness of a particular brand of democratic militias, which run amuck murderously for a season behind a great leader for a just cause and then suddenly disappear back to their homes.

More than twenty-two hundred years later William Tecumseh Sherman marched a similar-sized army of over 60,000 Westerners -- like Thebans mostly rural, agrarian, and voting citizens -- into the heart of the Confederacy -- like Sparta the warden of sorts of an entire enslaved race. Sherman's Federal army rent the fabric of Georgian society. It freed rural black slaves, and left the opposing Rebels impotent and discredited before their helpless women and children. In less than forty days from November 16 to December 21, 1864, when he entered Savannah on the coast, Sherman's three-hundred-mile march had changed the entire psychological and material course of the Civil War.

My maternal grandmother, Georgia Johnston Davis, whose family -- Johnstons from the South who claimed Albert Sidney Johnston as one of their own -- had migrated to California from the ex-Confederacy, told me at ten that Sherman was a satanic "monster." Over a century after he died, many Southerners would still agree. In spring 1998, wire services reported the curious story of a wealthy Southerner who sought to write into the deed of his recently restored South Carolina plantation a restriction of future sale to anyone named "Sherman." In fact, the owner, Henry Ingram, Jr., told the Associated Press that his plantation, five miles north of Savannah and destroyed by Sherman in January 1865, should never fall into the hands of anyone of the "Yankee race" who was born above the Mason-Dixon line. Anyone with the name Sherman, Ingram promised, would not be allowed even to set foot on the property.

Very few of Sherman's Yankees were professional soldiers. The majority of his officers -- most promoted from the enlisted ranks -- were not raised in a hallowed tradition of military academies and genteel chivalry. Sherman, a West Point man, knew this and understood that the very tenets of free yeomanry lent a natural distaste for the binary world of the serf and plantation, giving his recruits a moral impetus to wreck Georgia. They marched out of Atlanta singing "John Brown's Body," and ravaged plantations to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Northerners from the Midwest and West, like the Thebans of old -- no strangers to physical work, and eager rather than reluctant to march, camp outdoors, and live off the land -- were to become lethal destroyers when given an ethical imperative, free rein, and a leader to drive them on. From November 1864 until it vanished in June 1865 just as abruptly as it was formed, Sherman's Army of the West was quite literally the most impressive and deadly body in the history of armed conflict -- a truly ideological army that reflected the soul of its creator, Uncle Billy Sherman.

As in the advance of Epaminondas into the Peloponnese, Sherman fought few decisive engagements, but in a matter of weeks left a military culture in ruins, as no Georgian army dared meet him in pitched battle -- as no Spartan phalanx had braved Epaminondas. To paraphrase Napoleon, Sherman, like Epaminondas, had "destroyed the enemy merely by marches" in a classical display of the indirect approach around rather than directly against the enemy's armies.

Sherman was well connected politically but was entirely democratic in his personal demeanor -- without money, without title, or much desire to profit from his military glory. And like Epaminondas, this creature of democracy, indistinguishable to the eye from his men, had an innate disdain for the masses, a near loathing which in the abstract can only be seen as elitist: a few gifted men, a natural not an aristocratic elite, devoted to order were alone to be trusted to lead a mostly undereducated and easily swayed rabble whose natural proclivity was always to anarchy. Only educated, self-restrained, and rather fatalistic men like Sherman could govern soldiers like Americans, just as only a rare man like Epaminondas could manage his Thebans.

That this asthmatic and often sickly man suffered from occasional manic depression may be true. He threatened to hang reporters and shoot insubordinate enlisted men and was not afraid to match Confederate execution for execution or burn down entire cities that harbored terrorists. Admirer of the agrarian yeomen who had built his country, he had no real confidence in the intellect and culture of the American black, Indian, and Mexican. In short, like Epaminondas, he often seemed a dangerous, opinionated, and in some sense antidemocratic ascetic in charge of a murderous democratic militia whose deadliness derived in large part from his own tactical and strategic genius. His army's legacy, like the Thebans', is that his mob of burners and ravagers saved far more lives than they took, helped to free an enslaved people when others more liberal could not, and in a few months disgraced the notion of militarism without fighting a major battle.

The war for the Union ended a few months after Sherman reached Savannah on the coast and turned northward into the Carolinas. Within a year of burning Atlanta most of his bluecoats were back again farming in the Midwest. Almost to the man they were never to muster under arms again -- at the time the most rapid demobilization of the most accomplished army in history. It is difficult to determine whether Georgians hated Sherman and his army as much as the Spartans despised Epaminondas and the Thebans. Both men had wrecked their centuries-old practice of apartheid in a matter of weeks. It is a dangerous and foolhardy thing for a slaveholding society to arouse a democracy of such men.

Eighty years after Sherman reached Savannah, General George S. Patton officially took command of the newly formed Third Army on August 1, 1944, a few weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy. When Patton arrived in Normandy, the Allied armies of General Eisenhower were just beginning to break out from nearly six weeks in the hedgerows of western France. The German army in Western Europe was still a formidable occupying force of over a million men. General Montgomery was calling for a slow American sweep, as he requested the lion's share of Allied supplies to thrust through Holland. Only with ever more men and supplies that would at last ensure material superiority could the Allies, Montgomery thought, press on a single narrow front into Germany, perhaps crossing the Rhine in winter or spring 1946. Eisenhower and his lieutenants, Generals Bradley and Hodges, although no fans of this British modern-day McClellan -- similarly a genius at methodical organization and training -- were apparently unable to offer a successful strategic alternative, in constant worry over supply lines, flanks, and the reputation of the German army.

Patton, recently disgraced from two slapping incidents in Sicily, considered unbalanced, the object of both envy and disdain, like Epaminondas and Sherman was lucky to obtain the command that he was born for. In the past he had been a superior to Eisenhower and Bradley and now was fortunate to serve under both. Just as Epaminondas was reduced to carrying a shield as an ordinary hoplite in the phalanx, just as Sherman was once declared insane and sent away to recuperate, so too Patton by early 1944 was a general without an army, an acknowledged military genius considered too unstable to command a brigade -- many wondered whether his many past head injuries had resulted in permanent brain damage.

Ten months after Patton took over the Third Army, the German forces in the West were wrecked, Patton's GIs were across the Rhine into central Europe, and Germany itself was in ruins. Patton came late to Normandy; but in August 1944, during the first thirty days of the Third Army's operations, Patton pushed his Americans five times as far to the east as the entire Allied army had progressed during the prior seven-week period after D-Day. Most Americans of the Third Army had been in combat less than a year when they reached the death camps of Germany and helped to put an end to German military power and its entire pseudo-science of an overclass of genetic supermen. Patton's chief of staff, Hobart Gay, concluded of their march:


Not since 1806 has an army conquered Germany or crossed any large portion of it. I question if anyone a few years ago even as late at the beginning of this war or as late as last year, felt the war would end with American forces having completely over-run Germany and passed into other countries. This time the Germans know what war at home means. The German nation has completely disintegrated, and even though they are an enemy nation, it is a saddening sight to witness.


Unlike the First World War, this time Americans would be in Germany; the German landscape would experience what the German army had done to others elsewhere; and there would be no question that anyone had stabbed the Wehrmacht in the back.

George S. Patton, who insisted on hot food and clean socks for his men, who led by example, a wounded World War One veteran who braved gunfire as a display of heroic leadership, was also no fan of democracy in the abstract. His diary entries at times can elicit disgust. Like Epaminondas, he fought continuously with his fellow generals and was nearly court-martialed for his altercations with his superiors -- like Epaminondas he was relieved of command after his greatest victories. Like the Theban, he could be brutal to his men and, as some crazed modern-day Pythagorean, believed in reincarnation and his own appointed destiny. He fought democratically, but thought aristocratically, and did not believe the men whom he led and loved were themselves capable of governing themselves.

"Old Blood and Guts" may have been admired by his soldiers, but like "Iron Gut" Epaminondas and "Uncle Billy" Sherman, he possessed a certain distance and at times contempt for the very masses he led. While he fought, he hated the Nazis, and yet was relieved of command in part for expressing sympathy with ex-German officials -- not unlike Sherman's latter admiration for Southern veterans, or Theban charges that Epaminondas had ruined Sparta but was soft on Spartans.

All three, who followed some arcane code of honor, were poorly suited for peace; and thus in some sense all three admired the very warrior culture that they helped to destroy. All three were at the most basic level intellectuals, widely read in literature and the scholarship of war, and with a keen interest in questions metaphysical and philosophical -- which suggests that most of their tirades and crudity were efforts to mask the embarrassment of such an aesthetic sense, and to project to their men and the public an image of a general who was a warrior always, not a keen student of the arts and sciences.

Patton, severely wounded in World War One, could not refrain, even as general of hundreds of thousands, from stalking the front lines like Epaminondas, who perished at the van under a hail of Spartan spear thrusts, and like the wounded Sherman at Shiloh, who had three mounts shot out from under him in a few hours. No wonder that of all American generals, Patton was most impressed with Sherman and his daring march into the interior of Georgia. It was not the drunken Alexander the Great nor the megalomaniac Hannibal whom Patton saw as the great general of antiquity, but Epaminondas, who, in his words, was alone worthy of emulation due to his "great genius, great goodness, and great patriotism."

Within months all three forces developed from an untrained amateur muster into a deadly, fast-moving horde of predators, who traveled continuously and left fire and ruin in their wake. All three armies and their commanders upset conventional wisdom about the role of mobility, logistics, and amateur militias, proving that the most lethal, the most disciplined, and the most organized armies can emerge from the chaos of democracy. Such armies do not linger after they are finished. They are not used to further the personal ambitions of their beloved generals, or to change public policy -- much less as instruments to overturn the constitutional governments they serve. Epaminondas's 70,000, who marched in midwinter into Sparta, by May the next season were farming. The greatest army in the history of conflict until the late nineteenth century was Sherman's, and yet it disappeared literally within a few days of the armistice; in May 1945, Patton's Third Army numbered over a half million, but by Christmas both its veterans and its general were gone.

These marchers of a season must be led by ruthless and gifted men who are often of little use in a peacetime democracy but find their proper authoritarian and aristocratic calling only as absolute rulers of an armed citizenry. Yet much of their bluster and avowals to make the enemy "howl," to turn the countryside into a "sheep-walk," to kill the "bastards," was the necessary veneer to their more subtle strategy of indirect approaches -- marches to destroy the enemy's spiritual and material resources rather than the annihilation of his armies in the field per se -- a strategy so suited to a democracy that is fickle and wary of costs and casualties, yet so misunderstood by fellow commanders and politicians weaned on the parallel Western tradition of brutal frontal assault on the fighting forces of the enemy.

All three forces had not started the war and did not wish it to begin. All three armies wrought a terrible vengeance on those who had once felt them poor soldiers. These generals who so believed in a code of military gallantry and order destroyed utterly the paradoxical notion of "honor" among a society of slaveholders, by marching into the enemy's native land and daring these gaudy warriors in their red cloaks, plumed hats, and Feldgrau to come out and fight fairly before their women and children. The legacies of these epic marches for freedom are one with democracy itself, proof positive of the ability of a free society rapidly to muster, invade, conquer, and then disband -- a tradition that so often in the eleventh hour has kept the democracies of the West free and one that we abandon only at our peril.

Democracies, of course, can change military policy precipitously and without reason. We know that they can sometimes curtail needed military action out of the terror of human and material losses. Assemblies tend to find scapegoats for defeats and deify the lucky rather than reward the talented. In times of peace and prosperity they relax their guard with often disastrous subsequent consequences -- all that is the well-chronicled military liability that arises from a volatile democratic culture. But the great military strength of such open and free societies is less well known: the dramatic manner in which we can mobilize people in a tremendous retaliatory crusade for a just cause to be led by men whom we otherwise do not appreciate -- an asset greater even than the excellence of our technology or the sheer superabundance of our military equipment.

Too often military historians, armed with postbellum sociological profiles of the combat soldier, attuned to the cynicism of the modern age that has witnessed the slaughter of the trenches and the holocaust of the death camps, and cognizant of the twentieth-century propensity to admit openly to naked self-interest, tend to believe that soldiers fight only instinctually -- largely to preserve their battle comrades, not for some wider abstract and ethical idea. Do soldiers, in mud and cold, maimed and terrified, really march forward for an abstraction to free the oppressed? Similarly, we are told, their commanders push men onward for their own promotions, for the satisfaction of some inner psychological compulsion, or out of blind duty and unthinking adherence to professional training.

Yet, Messenian helotage did not survive Epaminondas, African slavery Sherman, nor Nazism Patton; and we should, it seems to me, admit without reservation or qualificiation that the salvation of these millions were good things and certainly not accidents. The best indication of the achievement of each of these generals is not to read the accounts of modern historians but rather to ask whom did the contemporary supporters of helotage, African slavery, and genocide especially hate and whom did they most fear. The Spartans built a statue to the man who killed Epaminondas. Supporters of the Confederacy have despised Sherman for over a century. German generals talked in feared and hushed tones of some nonexistent "Army Group Patton" that might alone wreck their Panzers. "Patton," German Field Marshal von Rundstedt concluded simply after his capture, "he is your best."

Theban hoplites, Union troops, and American GIs, this book argues, were ideological armies foremost, composed of citizen-soldiers who burst into their enemies' heartland because they believed it was a just and very necessary thing to do. The commanders who led them encouraged that ethical zeal, made them believe there was a real moral difference between Theban democracy and Spartan helotage, between a free Union and a slave-owning South, and between a democratic Europe and a nightmarish Nazi continent. This study is more an essay on the ethical nature of democracies at war than a purely military history of three epic marches for freedom, for it claims that on rare occasions throughout the ages there can be a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle.

Copyright © 1999 by Victor Davis Hanson

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