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Victor Davis Hanson: Why Study War?

Why Study War?
Victor Davis Hanson

In case anybody doesn’t know Victor Davis Hanson, he’s a military historian and classicist; former Prof. of Classics at California State U., Fresno; farmer; current Fellow of the Hoover Institution; and essayist, columnist, pundit. He’s very highly regarded over here as a military historian.

The essay is longish (but only one page), and ends with an armload of books for beginners to read.


…[T]he sixties had ushered in a utopian view of society antithetical to serious thinking about war. Government, the military, business, religion, and the family had conspired, the new Rousseauians believed, to warp the naturally peace-loving individual. Conformity and coercion smothered our innately pacifist selves.

. . .

Military history is as often the story of appeasement as of warmongering.

. . .

Military history teaches us, contrary to popular belief these days, that wars aren’t necessarily the most costly of human calamities. The first Gulf War took few lives in getting Saddam out of Kuwait; doing nothing in Rwanda allowed savage gangs and militias to murder hundreds of thousands with impunity. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin killed far more off the battlefield than on it.

I think most everyone will find at least one paragraph to argue with, but I also think on the whole the piece is sound.


  1. ann says:

    Yes, wars are ever so necessary and the human suffering they cause is all part of doing business. Lets hope someone saturation bombs Fresno right quick sjust o Professor Hanson can experience it the way most of its present-day victims do.

  2. Lynne says:

    I’m surprised he didn’t mention Sun Tzu in the bibliography. That Chinese general wrote the definitive war bible that is as relevant now as it was two and a half thousand years ago.

  3. Paul Marks says:

    It is one of my books at home Lynne and (of course) an old translation – not a trendy modern one that tries to pretend that the author (and those people who wrote commentaries) were writing about business, or New Age spirituality.

    The short reply to the question “why stud war” is the liberal (liberal arts) reply that study is good for the sake of knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) and the practical reply that those who do not study war are likely to be defeated.

    Contrary to well meaning school teachers it takes one (not two) to start a conflict – and if the victim does not know how to fight back, they will be destroyed.

    As for the specific thing the gentleman mentions.

    I would argue that Spartan tactics were effective – in the long run.

    By attacking homesteads and destroying crops in the growing season the Athenian population were concentrated in the city (it is astonishing it took so long for plague to break out), and made them dependent on the import of food – thus vulnerable to naval defeat (once Sparta built up a navy).

    Rather than sending forces to Sicily (and so on) the Athenians should have built up their army to defeat the Spartans outside the gate of Athens.

    “But the Spartans could not be beaten” – yes they could, as the City of Thebes was to prove a few years later.

    And even during the war with Athens 300 full Spartans (i.e. “Equals” full soldier-citizens) were forced to surrender by Athenian light troops (bow and javelin).

    Wear down the enemy heavy infantry with bow, sling and javelin fire. The Spartans depended on the ‘dwellers round about’ for light troops – and marching all the way to Athens left the Spartans greatly outnumbered.

    Or outnumber them (see above) – and take them in the flanks and rear whilst pinning them to the front.

    Better – BOTH.

  4. NickM says:

    My answer as to “why study war” is that it is the beating heart of history. I find military history – primarily aerial warfare – fascinating because it is about decision. And there is an essential tension between the big battalions and single acts of awesome courage or individual brilliance. For example it is difficult to imagine the Japanese Navy defeating the US Navy in the long-run but just look at Midway. Adm Nimitz laid a trap and the Japanese fell for it. A lesser Admiral might have laid his plans less well. A smarter Japanese Admiral might have smelled a rat. But there are other things. The badly damaged USS Yorktown was jury rigged quicker than imagineable. It really was like when Scotty moans “Ye cannae change the laws of physics cap’n!” and quotes some ridiculous time-scale until Kirk replies, “Look pal [I've known plumbers like you] get it ‘effing well done because we’ ve got two hours until the entire Romulan battle-fleet pitches up!” Well, fixing the Yorktown was like that but turbocharged. Months in dry dock by the professional pushers of the cap back, sucking through their teeth and saying, “It’s gonna cost..” Well Nimitz told them to “Make it so”. And whilst I’m sure there was salty lingo used it was made so. And the rest is history.

    But that was US Industrial might? Yes and no. I also saw on TV an interview with a grizzled vet who flew a USN dive-bomber. He sank a Japanese carrier. One 500lb bomb right in the pickle changed history. That is what I mean about essential tension. Out of a squadron of 8 aircraft his was the only one not shot-down, his was the only one to score and it sank a carrier and turned the battle, which turned the war, which turned history. If the USA and allies hadn’t won by 1945 Uncle Joe would have wanted a slice of the pie and he’d have had the divisions in theatre to prove it. Imagine a divided Japan like a divided Germany. What difference would that have made. At the least it makes a non-communist state in Korea unthinkable and it could have easily precipitated WWIII with nukes.

    And possibly, just possibly a single aircraft shifted history staggeringly. That is what is fascinating.

    And yes, as Paul says it is not just theoretically interesting. Though it is as well.

  5. Edward Lud says:

    NickM, that is what I call the Horseshoe Nail school of history. As in, “for want of a …., the battle was lost”

  6. Sam Duncan says:

    Ann, Thomas Jefferson:

    “Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it. But the temper and folly of our enemies may not leave this in our choice.”

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