The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyrannyby Victor Davis Hanson
Examining in riveting detail the campaigns of three brilliant generals who led largely untrained forces to victory over tyrannical enemies, Hanson shows how the moral/b>
Victor David Hanson, author of the highly regarded classic The Western Way of War, presents an audacious and controversial theory of what contributes to the success of military campaigns.
Examining in riveting detail the campaigns of three brilliant generals who led largely untrained forces to victory over tyrannical enemies, Hanson shows how the moral confidence with which these generals imbued their troops may have been as significant as any military strategy they utilized. Theban general Epaminondas marched an army of farmers two hundred miles to defeat their Spartan overlords and forever change the complexion of Ancient Greece. William Tecumseh Sherman led his motley army across the South, ravaging the landscape and demoralizing the citizens in the defense of right. And George S. Patton commanded the recently formed Third Army against the German forces in the West, nearly completing the task before his superiors called a halt. Intelligent and dramatic, The Soul of Battle is narrative history at it’s best and a work of great moral conviction.
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&151; New York Times Book Review
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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.
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
Meet the Author
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He is the author of Carnage and Culture, An Autumn of War, and Ripples of Battle, all published by Anchor Books. His most recent book is The Savior Generals (Bloomsbury 2013). Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007, the Bradley Prize in 2008, as well as the William F. Buckley Prize (2015), the Claremont Institute’s Statesmanship Award (2006), and the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002). He divides his time between his farm in Selma, CA, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.
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