The Father of Us All, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.
Summary: A collection of essays arguing from history that war is a tragic but persistent feature of human existence that explores some of the particular challenges that democracies from Athens to the present day United States face as we are faced with the prospect or reality of war.
It seems that, along with the poor, we will always have war. Victor Davis Hanson would say that this is in fact one of the lessons of history. Hanson, in this collection of essays draws upon both ancient history going back to the wars between Athens and Sparta, and the wars of a post-9/11 age to make this point.
In his opening essay he sounds themes that recur throughout this collection. Military history is an oft-neglected but useful discipline of study. It shows us that war is indeed a persistent feature of human nature. Efforts of appeasement to avert war often only make the situation worse. The idea of war as a miscommunication is mistaken–the fact is there are adversaries who are only too clear concerning their malevolent intent. Asymmetrical methods, such as IED’s versus Humvees are hardly a new invention, but rather the inevitable resort of an inferior but determined foe. Those who make war must always be aware of political considerations. At the conclusion of this essay, Hanson introduces the unfamiliar reader to the riches of military history writing, from the ancients to contemporary.
The essays, originally articles or presentations, are grouped under four headings. The first part, as already alluded to, explores the “orphaned” discipline of military history. The second considers war writing from Thucydides through the battle of Lepanto in 1571, a critical example of conflict of east versus west. Part three then looks at the contemporary phenomenon of war–how we as a nation like to fight battles, and the result in a post 9/11 war of asymmetrical conflicts between the west and radical terror organizations. The last section explores the unique challenges of democracies in war-making, and that often we are our own worst enemies, and yet also, that a democracy aroused, mobilizing the full resources of free peoples is a fearsome foe.
As you may be able to tell, Hanson speaks against a prevailing progressive notion that if only we communicated better, understood our enemies better, and so forth, we would not fight wars. He would contend we engage in far too much self-criticism, and far to little moral assessment of the evil of the ideologies of radical elements in the world. Paradoxically, he observes that often, Democratic presidents such as Roosevelt have often done a better job of leading in war, explaining both their reluctance to make war, and its necessity rather than engaging in sabre-rattling. What this should reveal to us is the persistent character of war in the world, and like it as little as we do, that if we are confronted with war, the worst thing that can be done is to shrink from it, but rather meet it with resolve.
I do think that Hanson’s essays challenge progressive notions cogently. But I wonder if he insufficiently wrestles with what Barbara Tuchman once called “the march of folly.” Perhaps it is also part of human nature that we often pursue foolhardy courses of bellicosity that make war inevitable, but must we? Is not war often a failure of political leadership, as in our own Civil War, or the bellicosity and incredible build-up of arms that led to World War I? Likewise, the argument that war must be fought such that foes are utterly defeated and humiliated seems to be the argument at the end of World War I that gave us World War II out of the grievances of the German people, played upon skillfully by Hitler.
In the end, Hanson has history on his side in arguing war’s persistence, and that this is a reflection on human nature. What he doesn’t explore here, which I think perhaps is more curious is why we are this mixture of noble ideals as well as malevolent motives? If this is indeed the human condition, then what hope is there for us?