Carnage and Culture by Hanson, Victor DavisCarnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.   
Victor Davis Hanson (Doubleday,
September 2001, 492 pp., $29.95)
Reviewed by J. Clements

 “Military history must never stray from the tragic story killing”

– Victor D. Hanson

“The general public itself is mostly unaware of their culture’s own singular and continuous lethality in arms…for the past 2,500 years…there has been a peculiar practice of Western warfare, a common foundation and continual way of fighting that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization.”  So begins an early portion of this unique and forceful book that goes far beyond the suggestion of its humble title.  The work will be of particular interest to students of historical fencing studies as it provides a unique perspective on the military tradition underlying our entire Western martial heritage. 

Victor Hanson offers a lively, highly readable and controversial view of Western military tradition as being a direct offshoot of the values inherent in Western civilization.   The central lesson of the book is how “The West’s rise to dominance was not an accident. Its military prowess over the centuries has been the result of "larger social, economic, political, and cultural practices that themselves seemingly have little to do with war.”  Professor Hanson argues convincingly that we possess “a long standing Western cultural stance toward rationalism, free inquiry, and the dissemination of knowledge that has its roots in classical antiquity.”  He states his case unapologetically, relating that “while most historians admit of a European dominance in arms from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, fewer profess that since its creation the West has enjoyed martial advantages over its adversaries –or that such dominance is based not merely on superior weaponry but on cultural dynamism itself.” 

The book presents its material by selecting nine important battles that Hanson chooses to present larger ideas about the nature of Western civilization and it’s cultural values in contrast to Asia, Africa, and South America, in order to explain “Why the West Has Won.”  He uses these to address larger questions as to why Europeans colonized Asian and Africa, and the Americas and not vice versa, and why Western values –especially in the realm of military science – have proven their worth and now dominate the world. 

“The dramatic European expansion of the sixteenth century may well have been energized by western excellence in firearms and capital ships, but those discoveries were themselves the product of a long-standing Western approach to applied capitalism, science, and rationalism not found in other cultures.  Thus, the sixteenth-century military renaissance was a reawakening of Western dynamism.  It is better to call it a “transformation” in the manifestation of European battlefield superiority that had existed in the classical world for a millennium and was never entirely lost even during the darkest days of the Dark Ages.  The “Military Revolution,” then, was no accident, but logical given the Hellenic origins of European civilization.” 

Central to his thesis is the idea of individualism and civic militarism –ideas of which were spawned exclusively in ancient Greece (and their ancillaries consensual government, civilian audit, free speech, dissent, and market economics).  As a classical scholar, Hanson misses no opportunity (sometimes repetitively so) to somehow relate every facet of history back to the ancient Greeks.  From here he stresses the importance of a traditional “Western way of war” founded upon the concepts of shock infantry and battle of annihilation (this was in fact the very title of his earlier work on ancient Greek warfare). 

Hanson’s presents a view not often encountered of the “resilience and lethality of the West” that makes perfect sense.  The basis of the book is that “In battles against the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the new World, tribal and imperial alike, there is a shared legacy over centuries that allowed Europeans and Americans to win in a consistent and deadly manner –or to be defeated on rare occasions only when the enemy embraced their own military organization, borrowed their weapons, or trapped them far from home.”  To this he concludes “From the fighting of early Greece to the wars of the entire twentieth century, there is a certain continuity of European military practice….this heritage of the Western war is not found in its entirety elsewhere, nor does it begin earlier than the Greeks.” And that “the military affinities in Western war making across time and space from the Greeks to the present are uncanny, enduring, and too often ignored.” 

Hanson’s real talent as a historian is his way of presenting cold facts in a brutal no-nonsense manner that still manages to instill excitement and appreciation to the reader for the humanity involved without losing the larger picture.  The book offers ten chapters beginning with the crucial naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC where a vastly out numbered Greek fleet decimated a Persian armada to essentially save Western civilization.  Next he contrast the armies, methods, and motives between East and West as exemplified in Alexander’s victory over the Persians at Gaugamela in 331 BC.  He then dissects the Roman defeat by Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC and manages to show how even this was no set back.  He then scrutinizes the first battle of Poitiers in 732 AD where Western Europe was saved from the Moors by a Frankish army.  The most interesting chapter is that on battle of Tenochtitlán during Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs in 1520.  It will also be of the most interest to students of Renaissance martial arts.  Here Hanson presents a wide range of sober facts deflate the popular view of noble Mexica’s simply being slaughtered by the “guns, germs and steel” of evil Conquistadors and reveals the encounter as being at its core a “conflict of cultures”.  Considerable material is presented that place success on the frequently minimized importance of Spanish military skills and martial prowess.  The next chapter considers the Mediterranean naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 between the Turks and an Euro-Italian alliance.  The details of the account provide some of the most significant examples supporting Hanson’s thesis.  Skipping ahead the work then analyzes the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu war offering a number of observations.  The battle of Midway in 1942 is then presented as a further example of the fundamental difference between the Western way of war and that of the rest of the planet, and how the element of cultural values plays such an important role in how and why different people’s fight.  Lastly, he ends with an anatomy of the tactical victory but strategic failure of the 1968 Tet offensive in the Vietnam war and how to a very large degree it characterizes the entire conflict.  He is also careful to point out (at least toward the end) that “The battles of this study are offered as representative examples of general traits rather than absolute laws of military.  They are episodes that reflect recurring themes, not chapters in a comprehensive history of Western warfare.” 

Though historians and military experts could surely debate ad nauseum the exceptions and minor details of his examples (such as the case of the Mongols and Ottomans), as any good writer does, Hanson generalizes in order to present the underlying fundamental elements with clarity.  Indeed, at one point he specifically acknowledges, “Although important exceptions should always be noted, generalization –so long avoided by academics out of either fear or ignorance –is indispensable in the writing of history.” 

In many ways the work is a refutation of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Guns, Germs, and Steel, of which Hanson points out some of the racism underlying Diamond’s view.   In essence, Hanson’s view is that there is no clearer example of the differences in ideas and values that form the basis of cultures than in the clash of between East and West, specifically on the battlefield.  Diamond, a geographical determinist beloved by cultural-relativists, has argued that differences of societies, technology, and successful civilizations can all be reduced to the luck of where they first rooted (i.e., what crops and livestock the land supported, the topology of their terrain, and what minerals were under their feet).   Following Diamond’s theory, we could imagine that the results of playing a good campaign of Sid Mier’s computer game Civilization would not be determined by the ideas and wits of each individual player’s own stratagems and decisions, but merely the random starting location each was given on the map.  Anyone who’s played the game at length knows full well that just as in real life, given the available resources individual choices affect the direction each culture takes.  As Hanson puts it early on: “Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more –all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture, but it is impossible to determine exactly whether man, nature, or chance is the initial catalyst for the origins of western civilization.  What is clear, however, is that once developed, the West, ancient and modern, placed far fewer religious, cultural, and political impediments to natural inquiry, capital formation, and individual expression than did other societies, which often were theocracies, centralized palatial dynasties, or tribal unions.”  

He rightly points out that historically, “Western armies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as soldiers everywhere, were often annihilated –often lead by fools and placed in the wrong place in the wrong war at the wrong time.  But their armies, for the cultural reasons this book has outlined, fought with a much greater margin of error than did their adversaries.”  He further contends Western armies “enjoyed innate advantages that over the long duration could offset the terrible effects of imbecilic generalship, flawed tactics, strained supply lines, difficult terrain, and inferior numbers –or a simple “bad day”.  These advantages were immediate and entirely cultural, and they were not the product of the genes, germs, or geography of a distant past.” 

Professor Hanson’s thesis rings truer in light of recent events post 9/11, where we witnessed Afghanistan, the so-called “graveyard of Empires” collapse in a matter of weeks in the face of overwhelming technological might and brute firepower of the world’s ultimate Western military force.  Further, the current “clash of civilizations” only plays out the next chapter of Hanson’s clear-sighted and remarkable book celebrating “the age old and arrogant Western idea that nothing is inexplicable to the god Reason.” 

Because serious military history is often a weak spot among practitioners of Medieval and Renaissance fencing and has been so overlooked in university circles, indeed, even dismissed as not “politically correct”, Professor Hanson’s highly original work is a timely and very welcome beacon of light.  This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in Historical European martial arts.  It particularly agreed with me as it presented ideas I had either long suspected or previously concluded on my own.  It even reflects the germ of an idea I actually closed my ’98 Medieval Swordsmanship book with, that our Western martial heritage is very much alive and well and all around us, but in different forms than chivalric armored knights and cavalier musketeers.  Even if you end up questioning his conclusions, you will not easily dismiss the strength of his ideas.

Back to Book Reviews


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.