Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government


Our Current War Is Not New

On Principle, v11n2

September 2003

by Victor Davis Hanson

I would like to begin with a few observations about the current war that is only a week old, because already throughout this brief conflict, we have been told that everything has gone wrong and that the war planners have seriously miscalculated. I think that comparative knowledge of the past is always valuable in war, so I’ve asked of prior campaigns: when in the history of warfare, within seven days, three of which were horrendous weather conditions in which the military could not go forth, has an armored panzer column driven three hundred miles in hostile territory and lost less than thirty dead? Patton couldn’t do that same distance in two months. Guderian, one of the great panzer commanders of all time, took three weeks to go through the Ardennes.

Quite astonishingly, within seven days of the start of the war, U.S and Coalition forces surrounded Baghdad with fewer overall casualties than were lost in one day in Lebanon. They did more damage to the Iraqi military in one week than the Iranians did in eight years. We should also keep in mind that this present hysteria that seeks to find fault where there is little is not just typical of us and is not necessarily bad. It is typical of all democratic people who audit their government and often seek perfection rather than just success.

Remember that in the first Gulf War, it wasn’t one hundred hours of a ground war. It was first forty-four days of bombing, and by day ten of the bombing, people were saying that air power was going to win the war ipso facto. By day twenty they were saying they weren’t so sure, and by day thirty they said it failed and there would be 20,000 casualties. Then the ground war started, and it was over in four days.

Remember in Serbia we were told that you could not inflict damage on Mr. Milosevic because he was going to send the tiger brigades all over Europe and destroy the nuclear reactors of Europe, engage in relentless terror, and was deeply embedded in civilian infrastructure. We started bombing, and people forecast victory in seven, stasis in twenty, and abject defeat in forty. Seventy-seven days later, suddenly Mr. Milosevic capitulated, as did all the initial critics of America’s decision to use force when Europe would not stop a holocaust on its doorstep.

We remember the Taliban campaign in recent memory. The snow was too deep; the peaks were too high; it was the holy month of Ramadan. It was the graveyard of the British and Russian expeditionary forces. The Northern Coalition was unreliable. We were going to be in a quagmire. Indeed quagmire was the word used by R.W. Apple and the New York Times on day twelve. Many said that we were in
a Vietnam-style quagmire. Suddenly after the war was over, people now said it was in fact wise that by limiting ground troops we didn’t lose a large number of casualties to Taliban forces. Few Americans were killed, and even critics were declaring it a stunning success — for a while.

If we look at the past, both ancient and recent, it seems to me that we’re witnessing military operations in Iraq that are nothing short of miraculous, and the only disappointment would be for those who thought that wars end in 3 or 4 days, which they never really do.

I want to go then to the larger example of war itself for guidance. We’re told that war is rare or that it’s amoral. It is supposedly an artifact to us who now live in modern post-heroic, post-modern society. Go back to the ancient Greeks. They accepted war as a tragic fact of life. Sophocles the poet said it was hateful. Solon said it hunts out young men and targets them. Herodotus said that it is a terrible time when fathers bury sons rather than sons, fathers. But out of that tragedy, came a grudging acceptance that it was a tool to combat aggression and indeed evil. They also thought unfortunately it was ubiquitous. It was always there, lurking in the shadows. Plato confessed that peace, not war, is the aberration in human experience. The pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclites, announced that war is the father of us all.

Rather than trying to do what the U.N. did in 1986 by essentially declaring war not to be innate to the human condition, the Greeks simply accepted that there was going to be evil in the world, and thus people who would prefer to make war on their neighbors. So over time they established a loose body of thought that explained what war is, and I think it’s valuable to us if we look at their wisdom in a modern context.

Wars, then, are frequent. I suppose that’s why they have Roman numerals. We thought that the Gulf War was the “end” of the Gulf War, but now some are using Gulf War I and Gulf War II. If you look throughout history, that is not rare: there is a first Peloponnesian war and a second Peloponnesian war. Consider Punic War One, Two, Three. The same is true even of battles. First battle of Coronea, second battle of Coronea. First battle of Bull Run, second battle of Bull Run. Sometimes we even use terms like Seven-Years War, Thirty-Years War, and One Hundred-Years War. Roman numerals, years in the plural — we all use these terminologies and rubrics because they’re so frequent and eerily repetitive in the same places and among the same peoples.

We say that America hasn’t been at war very often recently, but think back since Vietnam. We went into Cambodia. We went into the Gulf. We’ve gone into Panama. We’ve gone into Grenada. We’ve gone into Somalia. We’ve gone into Serbia. The fact is that America has intervened or been at war, and Americans have been killed, almost continuously since the fall of Saigon. Once I was curious about whether this was true of the democratic states of the past. The Athenians were a peace-loving people, so I went back to the Fifth Century and tried to count all the years that they were at war. It was three out of four — and that was a conservative reckoning. It is a tragic facet of human experience that war is with us.

Why do such horrible things break out? Well, evil, of course; but in the post-Marxist world we’ve sort of accepted that people go to war because of exploitation and poverty — legitimate pretexts in other words. But if we go back to classical times, the Greeks didn’t consider real material causes as a legitimate source of disagreement. In other words, they confessed that there were grievances, but they were not necessarily economic and they were not necessarily real — at least to any disinterested observer who stood apart from the conflict.

Rather, Thucydides said, they start out of honor, fear and self-interest. In his way of thinking, the Falklands were not economically viable for anybody. Why would two states like Argentina and England — remember the great novelist Borges laughed that, “It reminds me of two bald-head men fighting over a comb.” — go to war over something from which they really didn’t receive any economic benefit? Surely, the cause of the war was the perceived value of those rocks, the perceived status and accompanying honor. Argentina wanted to whip up public support for failed dictatorship. Britain felt that it could not establish the precedent that it would be attacked in peace by a second-rate power and thus encourage further adventurism on the part of possible enemies. So it is this perception, this belief, that can start wars. Sparta went to war with Athens because it perceived, Thucydides says, that the growth of Athenian power was unstoppable. And they had a fear — a phobos, we get phobia from it — of Athens; yet if you look at what Athens did during that century, there was very little actual provocation on the part of the Spartans. But it did not matter. It was a perception that a powerful country might injure Spartan interest and surely had wounded its pride.

In this way of thinking, I would say that the terrorists on 9/11 also had a perceived grievance. It was very hard for us to say what we had done to the Muslim world, especially when, in the first Afghan war that started in 1980, you could make the argument we saved the Afghans through our supply from Soviet communism. I don’t think that Muslim Kuwait would exist today had it not been for Americans. Remember that after we saved Kuwait, it ethnically cleansed 350,000 Palestinians and sent them back to Palestine — and yet a Gallup poll about a year ago revealed that a majority in Kuwait, which again exists today because of America, didn’t like us because of the way we treated Palestinians! I’m not trying to single out the Kuwaitis. I’m trying to single out how perceptions arise, and how they are based on fears and pride rather than legitimate grievances.

The causes of war don’t necessarily have to be grounded in reality because, as the ancients tell us, they represent or they manifest feelings of inadequacy, fear, insecurities. Perhaps bin Laden, in this way of thinking, the classical way of thinking, didn’t attack us because we had hurt Muslims (there was not evidence that we had), but maybe he thought that McDonalds or global capitalism or Arnold Schwarzenegger movies or American popular culture was sweeping the globe and appealing to the appetites of the average person worldwide, especially in the Muslim world, faster than the mullah, the tribal patriarch, or the dictator could squash them.

Then, like the Spartans, the Islamicists especially focused on America because it seemed to have no prerequisites on participation in its culture and appealed in a radically democratic fashion to people all over the globe. While we saw ourselves as mostly concerned about domestic issues and ignorant of the world, bin Laden saw America provocatively everywhere he sought to reintroduce 10th-century Islam. Wars break out just because people have these perceptions.

Why though do they break out apparently so easily? Wars don’t have to arise, because in fact, I don’t think that they’re so easy to start. A Korean airliner was shot down by the Soviet Union. China just forced down, two years ago, an American spy plane. These provocations didn’t cause a war because the ensuing hostilities would have been a catastrophe, and felt to be needless over such a minor incident. But again, why do on other occasions wars break out?

I can’t think of one war that broke out by accident or miscommunication. Feelings for war usually build and take some time to arise. The Greeks would tell us they start when one side perceives that the cost of going to war for desired objectives are felt to be minimal — or that they’re going to suffer very little in return for what they’re going to gain. We would call that a lack of deterrence. This is something akin to what the Roman writer Vegetius says, “He who prepares for peace, or he who wishes peace, must prepare for war.” And so arose this idea of classical deterrence. In the American Civil War, the South went to war because they really did not think the North would fight, or if they did think they were going to fight, they didn’t think they were going to fight very well. When you read Southern literature, it’s just saturated in 1860 with deprecation of the decadent, industrial, toiling class. They had no idea that an army like General Sherman’s army of the west could take yeoman farmers
of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois and come right into the middle of plantations. They had no idea that a muscular Northern yeomanry existed. Because of Northern appearances of appeasement and weakness, the South miscalculated and got themselves into a war that they could not win.

In that case, you could make an argument that the federal government in the 1850s had not made a clear signal about the consequences of secession — and the powers of the Union to stop it. In 1983, you could make the argument that the British withdrew some very minor ships —a minesweeper and a destroyer escort, I think, from the Falklands — and thus gave the message to the Argentines that the British either would not or could not fight. You could make the argument that our ambassador to Iraq in summer 1990 gave the impression to Saddam Hussein that if he invaded Kuwait, there would not necessarily be repercussions.

Finally you could make the argument that after the Iranian hostage-taking in 1979, after the destruction of the Marine barracks, the destruction of the embassy in Lebanon, and the embassy annex, the destruction of the embassies in the Sudan, the withdrawal from Mogadishu, the destruction of the Khobar towers, the first bombing of the World Trade Center towers, the bombing of the USS Cole, rightly or wrongly, there was a perception that the United States either could not or would not react to a provocation from the Muslim world, which emboldened people throughout that region or at least suggested to them that the United States was a target that would not respond. And so we lost the idea of deterrence — and once a state loses the idea of deterrence, then the region in which it operates can become very, very dangerous. You have to reclaim it to ensure future peace, and sometimes the messy process of reclamation involves war. That’s what we are seeing today, and it will be a long while perhaps until the precedent is again established not to kill Americans.

Once these wars break out, if they are caused by perceptions and they break out because of a lack of deterrence, what ends them? I wouldn’t be so bold as to go through twenty-five hundred years of civilized warfare and say you could predict who would win or lose, although I wrote a book that in some sense was arguing just that. But it seems to me that in the West — the culture that started in Greece and Rome and spread to northern Europe and embodied the Judeo-Christian tradition, and then colonized most of the world, the Americas, Australia, and parts of Asia — there arose a singular way of making war — one involving civic militarism, the audit of military operations by civilian officials, a high premium on individualism coupled with group discipline — whether it’s legions or the phalanx or the 101st Airborne — and a secularism that set aside intellectual inquiry and research apart from philosophy and religious censorship. Thus in the West, whether it was gunpowder or stirrups taken from abroad, people were free to invent and adopt, reject, modify military equipment without the say of the government or the Mandarin class or even some type of utopian philosopher. There were no better thieves of foreign military ideas and weaponry than Westerners — who almost immediately improved them and profited from their sale.

You add to it open markets and capitalism, and you have the ingredients for a type of war-making that could usually trump all the other conditions that determine who wins or loses on the battlefield. We know roughly what those are: they’re numbers, they’re weather, they’re distance, they’re individual genius (whether you have a Hannibal on your side or a Rommel), they’re individual courage. The Zulus were very courageous people, but unfortunately for them, the British came from a tradition that allowed them to exercise military power that was not just commensurate with the British population or the small size of their territory, but instead drew on a Western tradition of war making which gave an inherent resiliency and dynamism, one that meant that even for all the occasional setbacks, whether it’s the defeat at Little Big Horn or Cortez’s first rout at Mexico City, these traditions in the West allowed Western armies to recover and go on to ultimate victory.

So when I looked at Afghanistan and people in October were already forecasting doom and gloom, I could not see how that could be possible given our institutions and military traditions. It is the same thing this first week as we look at Iraq. I was just told by someone at the Naval Academy that when there weren’t enough tankers in the skies over Iraq — they didn’t plan on enough tankers for the enormous amount of sorties — they almost instantaneously adopted F18’s into tankers to fuel other F18’s. This is a type of flexibility that would be impossible in the Muslim world today with its tribal hierarchies and unaquaintence with sophisticated technology. All these are insidious and often forgotten factors of a culture, but when they come out on the battlefield, they allow, I think, Western armies to trump the intrinsic disadvantages of waging war at great distances and against more numerous foes. We see all this now in Iraq.

Finally, what causes wars to end? We hear a lot about the peace process — the quartet, the U.N. peacekeepers, and so on. I can’t think of one war that the U.N. has stopped or ended to bring lasting peace. I really can’t. I wish I could, because I don’t like necessarily to accept the bitter wisdom of the Greeks that is so often depressing given its pessimistic appraisal of human nature. In short, wars end when one side wins and one side loses — and thus the condition for which they went to war no longer exists. Let’s see if that makes sense. What made the Falkland war end? Did the U.N. send down peacekeepers? Is there a green line there today? No, the U.N. didn’t do anything. Britain didn’t even go to the U.N. on that issue. That conflict ended when the British forces physically removed Argentine forces from the Falklands and the government that sent them there fell in humiliation. Now there’s apparently not a problem and surely not a UK East Falklands and an Argentine West Falklands with sniping in between.

Why is there an axis of evil that includes Iran, Iraq and North Korea? Whatever you think about the nomenclature or the rhetoric of that provocative phrase, it is interesting that we have these problems with Iran, that started with the Iranian hostage crisis, that were never resolved. Our sovereign territory inside an embassy was attacked and hostages taken. We didn’t really respond to it successfully, and as a result have been in a de facto state of hostility with the mullacracy ever since.

Again, wars usually end when one side wins and one side loses. Look at World War I and World War II. At first glance their outcomes would seem to refute that thesis. Didn’t we defeat Germany in 1918? Yet if you look at the Versailles peace treaty, it combined the worst aspects of diplomacy, a harsh peace on an enemy that does not feel defeated, but rather cheated. It doesn’t matter what the winner thinks; it has to be the defeated who accepts defeat. If you look what people were writing in Germany in 1918 and 1919, it was exactly opposite of what Woodrow Wilson said they felt.

The German army was a magnificent, frightening machine; and although we thought it was beaten badly, and I think it was beaten, it didn’t always think it was so defeated. When Pershing suggested that he should march a million men — French, English and American — into Berlin and physically take that government and expel the Prussian autocrats, Wilson said that would be too costly. Well the problem is that when we didn’t do that, the German army surrendered in Belgium and France, not in Germany. It claimed that it still was on the move. It was stabbed in the back by Jews; it was stabbed in the back by Marxists; it was stabbed in the back by traitors. And so the legend grew that the German army was invincible, and the enemy could only stymie but not defeat it — and, worse still, perhaps even didn’t have the guts or the power to defeat it. World War II came along and the Allies did not make that mistake twice.

So when you look at the axis of evil, look what’s not there: Germany and I might add Japan for obvious reasons as well. I would add that Vietnam is not there either, because I think that although we could argue, if we had time, that the United States military really did win the war, it lost the peace: the country was unified under a communist government, and the issues for which we went to war were settled. We were defeated, we left, the communists got their wish (beware what you wish for). So Vietnam is not any longer in the Axis of Evil because that issue is resolved — one way or the other. Whether we like it or not, defeat or victory seem to be the arbiters that close wars.

Why, in conclusion, do we find all of this sort of bone-chilling? Why, when we mention the name William Tecumseh Sherman, do we all sort of shudder? I think I don’t need to tell you that people from this state of Ohio went down with Sherman in his thirty-seven day romp through Georgia and his two month swing through the Carolinas. Yet they killed only 600 Confederates in Georgia while that prior summer ten thousand were being killed in northern Virginia. They freed 40 thousand slaves; they lost about one hundred men. Yet to paraphrase what Machiavelli said, “A man can forgive you if you kill his father, but not if you damage his patrimony.” And in Mr. Sherman’s way of thinking, the people who started the war were precisely the plantation class who were sending eighteen year olds who did not own slaves to their deaths; and he wanted to reverse that moral calculus by bringing humiliation to those reckless instigators who put such a high premium on honor.

In other words, the use massive force in a moral cause is in fact humane, and saves lives in the long run as it disabuses the enemy of its many false conceptions. What’s inhumane are long drawn out wars — often over entire decades — where people decide for political or ideological or religious reasons that they don’t want to seek victory and instead turn to processes that only prolong the killing. Then the corpses start to pile up.

Again, why do we find this so disturbing? I’ll just leave you with some propensities common in Western civilization that people have remarked upon from Plato to Hobbes to the German nihilists like Nietzsche and Hegel and Spengler.

The combination of values in Western culture that makes us fight so well also are responsible for enormous affluence and security, what the Romans called luxus —almost a sort of license. In this way of thinking, for a post-heroic, post-enlightened society, war can be passé, or war is fought among ignorant people in need of education or money, or war is an innate part of our distant and embarrassing Neanderthal past. Then usually affluent and very educated people in the West in their smugness — we see that in Europe to an astonishing degree today — believe that they are beyond the reach of war or, worse still, that the entire human community is at the end of history and thus has evolved to a higher state of peace. Then innocent people — whether they be in Bosnia or Rwanda or in Iraq or in Manhattan — will get killed. And this tragedy un-folds precisely because of the intellectual or moral or even religious arrogance of an elite few in positions of leadership and influence who don’t understand, whether we like it or not, that evil is always with us, and it is our duty on our watch and according to our station to combat it wherever we see that it poses a threat to civilization itself.

Victor Davis Hanson is a Professor of Classics at California State University at Fresno. Some of his recent books include An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism; Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power; and The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny. This article is adapted from a speech he gave at the Ashbrook Center on March 28, 2003 during the recent war in Iraq. The entire speech can be heard on-line at

Get Email Updates

Subscribe to the Email Update