Blink and You’ll Miss it: Medieval Warfare in Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture
By John Hosler
Paper given at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History in Frederick, Maryland
Introduction: In 2001, Victor Davis Hanson, a historian who, according to John Keegan, “is becoming one of the best-known historians in America,” published the controversial book Carnage and Culture. Its central argument is that a definitive “western way of war” can be traced through history, from the Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C. to the modern day. Western military culture in this sense is identified by a number of salient features: political freedom and the ability to debate strategy through a free exchange of ideas; the invention, fabrication, and development of lethal weaponry, enabled through the existence of a capitalistic economy; training and bravery tempered by strict military discipline; and finally, western lethality of killing as typically expressed in mass field confrontations, shock combat, and masses of heavily-armed infantry groups. It is thus the larger culture of Western armies, what he refers to as “civic militarism,” that has allowed them to triumph even when faced with the usual impediments to victory, such as weather, location, supplies, or numbers.
To prove his thesis, Hanson analyses nine significant battles fought between “western” and “eastern” armies, broadly construed. These battles, he states, were selected “for what they tell us about culture, specifically the core elements of Western civilization.” Nine battles seems too small a number for the course of 2,500 years of military history, and the list of battles is both top and bottom-heavy in a chronological sense. Given Hanson’s expertise as a historian of the ancient world, it is not surprising that three of the nine battles predate Christ: Salamis, Gaugamela, and Cannae. Three more occurred in 1879 or later: Rorke’s Drift, Midway, and Tet. The remaining three battles are left to fill the void in between the Roman Republic and the Age of Imperialism, a span of over 2000 years. Of these, two are in the 16th century (Tenochtitlan, Lepanto), and third is the Battle of Poitiers in 732.
Several reviewers have noted the striking omissions that result from such a spread-out sampling. Absent are such periods as late-Republican Rome and Julius Caesar, the entire Roman Empire, the Eastern or Byzantine Empire, most of the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War, Napoleonic Europe, and all Euro-Asian warfare before the 20th century, to name just the major examples. I suspect that most specialists could find cause for complaint in that their favorite subjects are somewhat neglected in the book. To his credit, Hanson foresaw such objections and addressed them in his Epilogue, acknowledging that several other battles from other periods and theaters might also have been included.