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Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power Paperback – August 27, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Many theories have been offered regarding why Western culture has spread so successfully across the world, with arguments ranging from genetics to superior technology to the creation of enlightened economic, moral, and political systems. In Carnage and Culture, military historian Victor Hanson takes all of these factors into account in making a bold, and sure to be controversial, argument: Westerners are more effective killers. Focusing specifically on military power rather than the nature of Western civilization in general, Hanson views war as the ultimate reflection of a society's character: "There is…a cultural crystallization in battle, in which the insidious and more subtle institutions that heretofore are murky and undefined became stark and unforgiving in the finality of organized killing."

Though technological advances and superior weapons have certainly played a role in Western military dominance, Hanson posits that cultural distinctions are the most significant factors. By bringing personal freedom, discipline, and organization to the battlefield, powerful "marching democracies" were more apt to defeat non-Western nations hampered by unstable governments, limited funding, and intolerance of open discussion. These crucial differences often ensured victory even against long odds. Greek armies, for instance, who elected their own generals and freely debated strategy were able to win wars even when far outnumbered and deep within enemy territory. Hanson further argues that granting warriors control of their own destinies results in the kind of glorification of horrific hand-to-hand combat necessary for true domination.

The nine battles Hanson examines include the Greek naval victory against the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C., Cortes's march on Mexico City in 1521, the battle of Midway in 1942, and the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In the book's fascinating final chapter, he then looks forward and ponders the consequences of a complete cultural victory, challenging the widespread belief that democratic nations do not wage war against one another: "We may well be all Westerners in the millennium to come, and that could be a very dangerous thing indeed," he writes. It seems the West will always seek an enemy, even if it must come from within. --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"The Western way of war is so lethal precisely because it is so amoral shackled rarely by concerns of ritual, tradition, religion, or ethics, by anything other than military necessity." Ranging from Salamis in 480 B.C. to the Tet offensive in Vietnam, Hanson, a California State at Fresno classics professor, expands the scope of his The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, offering a provocative look at occidental aggression as illustrated by nine paradigmatic battles between Western and non-Western armies. Hanson sheds the overly romanticized view of battles as nationalist or ethnic honorifics and vividly portrays the deadly killing machines Western powers evolved for the destruction of non-Western opponents. Throughout, Hanson stresses the technology based lethality of Western warfare, and the role of individual initiative as opposed to the more collectivist strategies of the Persians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Turks, Aztecs, Zulus, Japanese and Vietnamese opponents who get a chapter apiece. The single Western defeat chronicled in these pages, of the Romans in Cannae in 216 B.C., shows a victorious Hannibal unable to capitalize on his win. (The idea of the citizen/soldier, the role of civic militarism and the republican ideals of Rome seem to be the reasons why not.) A number of Hanson's conclusions will engender debate, such as his claim that America won in Vietnam, but failed to recognize it, as well as the larger claim that "free markets, free elections, and free speech" have led directly to superior forces. The book's last few chapters are fairly driven by that idea, which, along with precise, forceful writing, sets it apart from the season's secondary-sourced, battle-based military histories. (Aug.)Forecast: Hanson's direct, literate style and his evenhandedness should appeal to the liberalist middle of the left and right alike. By isolating the ingredients of military success via elaborate examples, the book can potentially draw on two separate military-history readerships: those looking for theory and those for action.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (August 27, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720386
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720380
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (183 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,346 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Victor Davis Hanson is Professor of Greek and Director of the Classics Program at California State University, Fresno. He is the author or editor of many books, including Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (with John Heath, Free Press, 1998), and The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999). In 1992 he was named the most outstanding undergraduate teacher of classics in the nation.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

267 of 294 people found the following review helpful By Newt Gingrich THE on December 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a remarkable book with profound implications. Hanson's argument about culture and warfare should be read with Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capitalism that argues that prosperity is also a function of culture and legality. The two books on very different topics actually make the same point and create a new analytical framework for understanding why some countries develop and become prosperous and powerful and others do not.
Hanson makes the case that western military capabilities (currently on display in Afghanistan) are a function of culture going back to the rise of the Greek city-states. He asserts that the combination of a polity in which the warriors vote on going to war in which they will serve (in effect the property owning voters were the heart of the Greek Phalanx so they were voting to put themselves at risk). They needed to have a short campaign between the planting and harvest seasons since the warrior-farmers had to both sustain the economy and the battle creating a style of war which involved short direct shock actions (the Greek phalanx so brilliantly portrayed in Pressfield's the Gates of Fire). This reliance on infantry combat by disciplined units in direct shock assault was compounded by the economics of Greek geography. Faced with the reality that in small valleys surrounded by mountains you could produce ten infantrymen for every cavalrymen because horses are far more expensive than humans, the Greeks really emphasized the development of high technology (long spear, short stabbing sword, big shield, very tough helmet) infantry combat with extremely disciplined teams.
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157 of 171 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes VINE VOICE on January 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Hanson's "Carnage and Culture" is worth reading for its vigorous style as well as its thought-provoking thesis. Books about military history are often fairly dry, but Hanson writes clearly and in the active voice, perhaps unconciously emulating the Western military tactics he describes.
He argues that Western success on the battlefield is a cultural phenomenon, not just the result of good fortune in the allocation of resources or the serendipity of technology. Free nations produce leaders and soldiers who take the initiative. Citizens who are protected by law against arbitrary action feel free to "audit" battles and criticize soldiers, leading to improved strategy and tactics. Western military commands are heirarchical, but not unduly so, so that they adapt well to changing circumstances. The result is an approach to battle that has been evolving since the time of the ancient Greeks, and that now involves applying maximum disclipline and violence at the point of engagement in order to annihilate, not merely defeat, an opponent.
Hanson discusses a series of battles to illustrate the differences between the "Western" style of war and the practices of cultures that he deems to be "non-Western": Salamis (480 BC); Gaugamela (331 BC); Cannae (216 BC); Poitiers (732); Tenochtitlan (1520-21); Lepanto (1571); Rourke's Drift (1879); Midway (1942) and Tet (1968). Each of these struggles illustrates a Western preference for decisive battle that inflicts enormous and disproportionate casualties on the loser.
Throughout, Hanson is very careful to stress that the losers are brave, smart individuals--he is not a racist and goes out of his way to explain that, person for person, the citizens of the West are no better than their non-Western counterparts.
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66 of 75 people found the following review helpful By T. Greer on July 10, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have a love/hate relationship with Victor Davis Hanson. Oft times I read his work and cannot help but exclaim the brilliance of his ideas. Other times I read his work and cannot help throwing his junk across the room.

Carnage and Culture belongs in the second category.

Before I attack Carnage and Culture straight-out, I should probably mention the good aspects of this work. Hanson, like always, has written an engaging book. It is highly readable, and though Hanson turns a tad repetitive before his work is done, he moves at a pace fast enough to work around his own cyclical thought process. Carnage and Culture's bibliography is suitably large for the subject matter. Indeed, Hanson's greatest triumph lies in his ability to translate his survey of the extensive historical literature surrounding his subject into terms readily understood by a high school graduate. That the reader does not need any previous knowledge concerning Archimedean Persia, Aztec "Flower Wars", or the naval tactics of the Second World War to understand the arguments presented in Carnage and Culture is a testament to Hanson's place as a master historical writing.

Yet it is the sheer readability and inclusiveness of the book that troubles me. Carnage and Culture does not encourage further investigation of the events, ideas, or peoples discussed. Only rarely does Hanson admit that there are gaps or biases in the historical literature, and never does he stop to acknowledge that many of the arguments that he is making are controversial and contested.
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