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Vic Hanson: Soul of Battle

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The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, written in 1999 by Victor Davis Hanson, is a must read for anyone wanting to evaluate America’s chances in the current conflict.

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.
– from Part I of the Prologue

This book is about a special intersection of ideology and warfare. Hanson proposes that democratic “armies of a season”, led by philosopher-generals, in pursuit of a just cause, can be phenomenally devastating beyond what any material measures would predict, when taken on an anabasis (march upcountry) into the heart of an oppressive, militaristic society.

To illustrate this thesis, Hanson captivatingly narrates the details of the marches and men lead by three generals: Epaminondas, William Sherman, and George Patton. The first lead the yeomen of Thebes to crush the supposedly unstoppable Spartans in their homeland. The second lead his famous—and often misunderstood—”March to the Sea” that eviscerated the Confederacy and ended their will to fight. The third, despite constant interference from above, lead the brand-new Third Army in a mad dash into the heart of Nazi Europe. All three were vilified by members of their own side, worshipped by the men they commanded, and unexpectedly victorious over and devastating to the slave-owning regimes they went up against.

The first thing that grabs me, reading this book, is how compelling Hanson’s narratives are. Some of the minutiae he examines would, in the hands of another author, make for somewhat dry reading. Hanson, though, has the refined gift of not only loving his subject matter to death, but also of being able to convey that love to a fairly broad audience.

Hanson is a professor of Greek at California State University in Fresno, as well as a frequent contributor of opinion articles to outlets like National Review. However, he is also a fifth generation farmer and a great believer in the “yeoman-citizen” who puts down his work to go and fight evil for a season, much as his father did in World War Two. This perspective comes out strongly in his sympathies for the Theban hoplites, the midwestern soldiers of Sherman’s Army of the West, and the unassuming Americans of Patton’s Third Army.

The book is enjoyable, but is Hanson’s thesis true? It’s certainly compelling as he argues it. Much of what he says flies in the face of the accepted wisdom regarding why soldiers fight. Citing letters and diaries of soldiers, though, he does show that ideology and idealism were significant motivating factors for these people—these folks fought to do more than merely “protect their buddies”. He also takes on the accepted wisdom regarding the generals that have partially overshadowed Sherman and Patton (Grant and Eisenhower, respectively). Comparing Sherman to Grant (who were friends), he notes that Grant’s efforts were focused on the “terrible arithmetic” of grinding down the lives of the Army of N. Virginia, while Sherman fought a largely battle-free campaign to destroy the Confederacy’s will to fight. Eisenhower was a logistical genius and part of the new breed of “corporate generals”, a mastermind of management and organization; Patton, on the other hand, was the general who saw that the conservative approach directed by Eisenhower was unnecessarily long and—while “safer” from the strategic perspective—ultimately far more costly to the individual lives, not only of allied soldiers, but also to enemy soldiers and civilians held in helotage or worse.

Let me back up a moment. Before opening this book, I would always have characterized myself as a fan of Alexander the Great, Robert E. Lee, and Douglas McArthur. Sherman has never interested me, Patton always bored me, and of Epaminondas I knew nothing. Hanson has fully converted me in all regards, now.

This is a good book, but there are many good books. It makes it onto my Warblogger’s Bookshelf because it is also of real relevance to today’s conflict. The most disturbing aspect of this book is the trend over history that the three generals exhibit: as command and control has become more all-encompassing and farther reaching, as armies have continued to reward good “peacetime generals” and politicians have gained greater influence over the day-to-day decisions of the military, the potential effectiveness of these rare and critical philosopher-generals has steadily decreased over time. The kind of person you want leading your democratic army when confronting real evil is generally someone that will be rejected by polite society; they are at their best when they may act on their own. Had Bush and Powell, the first time around, not halted Schwarzkopf’s Iraqi anabasis before it was completed, we would be looking at a very different Middle East, right now. At the same time, as Hanson himself has said in many places, a democratic society’s auditing of the military that serves it is an important foundation of the free society we enjoy and defend.

Hanson’s thesis is multipart and, in the end, complex; sometimes it feels like he is trying to cover too much at one go, dashing about to keep all of his plates spinning. This is a small criticism, though, as he does manage to pull it all off in what amounts to a wonderfully written book filled with compelling stories, all supporting an important statement on the nature of war.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you get hold of this book. You can buy Soul of Battle now at Amazon.

[This review originally appeared on GlennFrazier.com.]
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About Glenn M. Frazier

  • Eric Olsen

    Great job Mac – the old freak is compulsive but persuasive, an ad for narrowcasting.