Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Review: The Soul of Battle

Victor Davis Hanson made a name for himself as one of the intellectuals of the neoconservative movement. His best-known work is probably Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power. In that book, Hanson explained how men of the West became the dominant military power on Earth through the use of heavy infantry capable of direct, vicious clashes with other troops. This "shock" type of warfare allowed everyone from Greek hoplites to American GIs to overcome enemies as varied as the Persian Empire and the Japanese Empire. What's interesting about his 1999 The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny is that it seems to undermine the 2002 thesis of Carnage and Culture. Why? Because while Carnage and Culture focuses almost exclusively on "shock" warfare and concentration of power, The Soul of Battle, written before 9/11, focuses on indirect methods of warfare.

What, then, is The Soul of Battle about? Starting with a little-known Greek general, Epaminondas, the book covers two other generals--William Tecumseh Sherman and George S. Patton--and their careers as leaders of democratic armies.

Let's start with Epaminondas. If you were asked who was the first general to destroy a slave-holding society by attacking that society's infrastructure--the homes and fields--you might think first of the Union Civil War General Sherman. However, 2,300 years before Sherman, a Theban named Epaminondas ravaged the Spartan countryside, ended the Spartan practice of holding fellow Greeks as slaves (helots), and ensured the Peloponnese a generation of peace before Alexander the Great's father Philip II of Macedon destroyed Greek democracy forever.

We tend to remember and glorify Sparta's gallant stand of the 300 against the Persians and overlook their rougher, more imperialistic behavior before, during, and after the Peloponnesian War. After Athens was defeated in that war, Sparta continued its domination of Greece, until a general of Thebes, Epaminondas, conceived of the idea of invading Sparta, burning its farms and homes, and destroying its vicious form of slavery. With a force of around 30,000 hoplites, the newly democratic city-state of Thebes destroyed the slave-state of Sparta, established the free city of Mantinea, and ensured the safety of another democracy, the city of Megalopolis.

Most of this military activity, performed over the winter of 370-369 B.C., occurred with few pitched battles. Instead, this army of farmer-warriors mostly just ravaged the countryside, pillaging and burning Spartan homesteads while freeing helots, who often joined their assault. By the time the Theban army reached Sparta itself, the once-proud warriors were hiding on the high ground, hoping that pitched battle would not come to them, even as Epaminondas and his troops challenged them to direct battle. The Spartans would not leave their walls, and the Thebans continued their ravaging of the Laconian countryside, freeing even more slaves, and helping them build a city before returning home. Epaminondas was eventually charged with treason and other crimes for keeping an army in the field beyond its appointed time, and yet the general's army eventually fought again, until Epaminondas was killed in action. After that, the army's soldiers returned to civilian life. It would be nearly 2,300 years before another army repeated the social and political circumstances of this forgotten Greek army of liberators. Sparta never mounted another serious attack within the Greek world.

William T. Sherman is a renowned and (in the part of the United States where I live) infamous general who fought along the Mississippi River, in Tennessee, and Georgia before beginning his famed "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, then a further march up through South and North Carolina. He engaged in few pitched battles after conquering Atlanta. Instead his army, consisting mostly of Midwesterners (my folk--people from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois), took it upon themselves to destroy the plantation homes and culture of the rich slaveholders who advocated for secession from the Union. Sherman's theory was that these Southern planters were most responsible for goading the Confederacy into war, and so must bear the brunt of punishment for starting that war. Along its way, Sherman's army destroyed property, took food and provisions, and freed slaves on the plantations it encountered along a 100-mile-wide track through the South.

While Ulysses S. Grant was engaged in direct confrontation with the Army of Northern Virginia and the 19th century version of immobile trench warfare, Sherman was performing a war of rapid maneuver that involved little direct confrontation with Confederate troops. As the author puts it, there was little in the way of civilian killing, raping, or the usual mayhem that might be expected during a typical "sack" by an invading army. Instead, this ideologically minded army was focused on destroying the infrastructure and martial spirit of its Confederate enemies. And, come the day when the war ended (in no small part due to Sherman's approaching General Lee's flank), Sherman's army of 65,000 marched triumphantly down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, before disbanding into the civilian populace.

The third general discussed in The Soul of Battle is perhaps the most famous American general of modern times, George S. Patton. Having been immortalized in a motion picture, the details of Patton's story tend to get lost. For instance, Hanson reveals some of the petty jealousies and outright sabotage that occurred within the American Army to prevent Patton from achieving even greater fame. The section on Patton is written somewhat differently from the other two sections, as it is written in reverse chronological order, focusing on the various places where Patton had (five!)opportunities to wipe out the armies of the Third Reich and was denied by more cautious superiors, namely Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower.

Patton comes across as somewhat of a dramatic figure compared to the more "bureaucratic" Bradley and Eisenhower. While we think of political correctness as a function of the present day, the practice of softening language to cover up ugly behavior (e.g. killing) was already well underway in the 1940s. Patton was determined to turn his Third Army into a cadre of ideological killing machines, determined to destroy the German Nazis. And yet, after the Third Army's amazing drive from Normandy to Czechoslovakia ended in 1945, it was dissolved six months later, and its commanding general was dead by the end of the year.

What is the point of this narrative? Why focus on these three generals? Hanson is trying to teach an important lesson about the armies of democracies in time of war. He wants to demonstrate the lethal destructiveness that democratic armies are capable of under military geniuses like Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton. More importantly, he wants to explain for a modern audience the need for such generals and armies in the current day. Once upon a time, men of the West would gather and fight to destroy evils like sadistic helotage in Sparta, a similar slavery in Confederate America, or the cold-blooded genocide of Nazi Germany. Patton's Third Army, indeed, might be the most recent and last example of an army of free people going forth to destroy a pernicious ideology. Hanson references Gulf War I (Soul of Battle was written in '99), and points out that all three generals of his narrative would not have stopped short of Baghdad, as Schwarzkopf did in '91.

The Soul of Battle, however, while it does not cover Gulf War II, anticipates the rapid thrusts and quick victories that armies of liberating democracies are capable of, such as General Tommy Franks' assault on Baghdad in 2003. It also points out that

democratic armies do not fight well when they are not attacked, when they are stationary with nowhere to march, when they fight to preserve privilege or empire, when they are not supported at home, when they are led by careful clerks and bureaucrats who command by consensus--in short, when they are not moving forward with every means at their disposal to destroy the enemy in the cause of freedom.

On the other side of these weaknesses, Hanson encapsulates the heart of warfare in the democratic age, as articulated by William T. Sherman:

He perceived that the resisting power of a modern democracy depends more on the strength of the popular will than on the strength of its armies, and that this will in turn depends largely upon economic and social security. To interrupt the ordinary life of the people and quench hope of its resumption is more effective than any military result short of the complete destruction of the armies.

This is, in short, what terrorists are trying to do without the benefit of massive forces or logistical tails. The question remains: how does one counteract such destabilizing strategies in the new era of fourth generation warfare? We'd best learn that lesson quickly, as Americans were pioneers in this type of warfare. That, I suppose, is the lesson Hanson teaches most clearly in this informative and highly philosophical work on war.

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