How to spin ancient history to justify modern-day orchestrations of military power.
Affluent Western democracies have “difficulty maintaining popular support for costly counterinsurgency wars,” laments Victor Davis Hanson, the accomplished historian of ancient Greek wars and fanatical insurgent in his own right, against what he considers the beleaguered American imperium’s fickle liberal elites. He means to restore the legitimacy of the unilateralist U.S. hegemony envisioned in George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002; writing in The American Enterprise Magazine in 2006, he attributed a dearth of popular support for that project to “ignorance of military history.” Now, in Makers of Ancient Strategy, he assembles ten military historians of classical Greece and Rome (including himself) to rectify that ignorance by showing how Athenians, Romans, and, even before them, Persians extended their sway and coped with challenges to it in ways that American grand strategists can learn from.
At the same time, though, Hanson is a geyser of vituperations in National Review, the conservative Pajamas Media website, and beyond, against challenges to America’s missions abroad from our liberal governing and cultural cliques, “the mindset of the faculty lounge,” and, naturally, the media. As Iraqi casualties rose in 2006, he accused journalists of sensationalizing setbacks in Iraq thusly: “I deeply love [California], but…imagine what the reaction would be if the world awoke each morning to be told that once again there were six more murders, 27 rapes…and 360 instances of assault in California.…I wonder if the headlines would scream about ‘Nearly 200 poor Californians butchered again this month!’ ” Here he’s blaming the messenger instead of reckoning with different kinds of carnage and their causes, but Hanson writes like this day and night–indeed, several times a day.
Even in Makers, a scholarly anthology, he claims grandly that today’s “problems of unification, civil war, expansion abroad, colonization, nation-building, and counterinsurgency all have clear and well-documented precedents in both Greek and Roman culture.” But many of the book’s precedents point in directions Hanson doesn’t want to go, and he ends his introduction by advising cagily that “[r]ather than offering political assessments of modern military leaders’ policies, we instead hope that knowledge of the ancient world will remind us of all of the parameters of available choices–and their consequences.” This, after years spent invoking ancient precedents for decisive American action:
People wonder how Rome could conquer all of northwest Europe with…four or five legions. The answer is the Romans had a very similar policy to our own: They looked at the most retrograde, bloodthirsty, nationalist leaders–the bin Ladens of the ancient world–and took them out, but with precision and with a lesson.
Ancient histories, epics, tragedies, and disputations do make clear that at some point in public deliberations, there’s no substitute for decisive action driven mainly by what the nineteenth-century military strategist Karl von Clausewitz, a student of the classics himself, called “the silken thread of imagination.” Before all facts can be known, leaders must act decisively on intuitions about the interplay of their own and others’ traditions, moral structures, and economic practices. The study of classical history and literature revivifies the inevitability of that silken thread, even if also its elusiveness.
But some conservatives seem to go further. Feeling trapped in neoliberal postmodernity, they think that emulating the ancients opens opportunities to shed the mincing Christian moralism, political correctness, and secular revolutionary fantasies of our time. In their view, ancient Greeks and Romans, unburdened by otherworldly preoccupations or the secular nostrums of today’s reigning but empty neoliberal relativism, were more realistic, brave, and exultant in breasting the terrors and felicities of the human condition than are technocrats and bottom-liners or the apostles of progressive groupthink who react against them. The ancients expected not to escape the human condition through science, personal salvation, or historically redemptive Hebraic or Protestant missions, but to bear it nobly through character nourished in a civic culture far stronger than a slippery web of contracts and rights.
“The Greeks accepted the idea that we all get old, there’s certain things that we can’t change, human nature is constant throughout the ages and therefore certain things will always be with us–war, pestilence, the fact that individuals are capable of pretty awful things without civilization and culture,” Hanson told The Boston Globe in 2003, when he was becoming infamous for turning folksy insights into bludgeons against critics of the Iraq War. A fifth-generation California raisin farmer, self-styled Jeffersonian republican, and best-selling historian of ancient wars, Hanson pleased Bush and Dick Cheney with his Carnage and Culture, which cited nine historic battles to attribute the supposed superiority of Western war-making to its rooting in Greek and Roman values. Hanson reserves his deepest scorn for leftist academics, who he claims prefer a politics of moral (or amoral) posturing to taking real responsibility, and for progressive activists who think they can improve the world rather than affirm some dignity amid deprivation, moral depravity, and capricious fate.
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