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Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power [Paperback]

Victor Hanson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (173 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 27, 2002
Examining nine landmark battles from ancient to modern times--from Salamis, where outnumbered Greeks devastated the slave army of Xerxes, to Cortes’s conquest of Mexico to the Tet offensive--Victor Davis Hanson explains why the armies of the West have been the most lethal and effective of any fighting forces in the world.

Looking beyond popular explanations such as geography or superior technology, Hanson argues that it is in fact Western culture and values–the tradition of dissent, the value placed on inventiveness and adaptation, the concept of citizenship–which have consistently produced superior arms and soldiers. Offering riveting battle narratives and a balanced perspective that avoids simple triumphalism, Carnage and Culture demonstrates how armies cannot be separated from the cultures that produce them and explains why an army produced by a free culture will always have the advantage.

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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.

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 (173 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #176,704 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
260 of 287 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For the sophisticated student of warfare December 19, 2001
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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152 of 166 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Timely But Controversial Book January 1, 2002
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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60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Victor David Hanson superbly argues that "Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works, a rationalist
tradition that alone allows us material and technological progress, the sole political structure that ensures the freedom of the individual, a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind---and the most lethal practice of arms conceivable." The author offers abundant evidence found in the historical documents of battles fought in ancient times until the present. Soldiers of Athens, Rome, and the United States, unlike their foes, enjoyed a great degree of freedom and true citizenship. Warriors were not always soldiers, but civilians called upon temporally to fight for their nation. "To live as you please" is a value taken very seriously. A sense of fairness and justice pervades the ranks of the Western soldier. Virginia Military Institute officer candidates, for instance, "are largely protected through a system of military justice from capricious punishment--and (also) accept that gratuitous violence on their part will be severely punished."
Embracing traditional methods solely to honor the ancients is alien to the Western mindset. Killing the messenger who brings forth bad news is the normal practice of the less free non-Western powers. Not so for those in authority within Western regimes. Individualism is highly cherished. Dissent and the questioning of past practices underpin the western military model. "A military command may steal secrets daily over the Internet, but if it cannot discuss those ideas openly with its civilian and military leadership, then there is no guarantee that such information will find its optimum application to ensure parity with the West," warns Hanson.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful text on western culture's positive influence on the world
Wonderful text on western culture's positive influence on the world. Explains in enjoyable and easy to ready language why some cultures have succeeded while others continue to... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Russell McDowell
5.0 out of 5 stars Western Military Excellence-Culturally Driven
There is nothing like luck to make a book and its theme perfectly line up with a major political event. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Carl Robinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Although some with an agenda might claim that this is ...
Although some with an agenda might claim that this is work of historical determinism or chauvinism, it is not. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Intellectually gripping
This book had me hooked from the beginning because of the intellectual way it presented an argument which I had not previously considered. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Well worth the read.
Published 4 months ago by Mendol
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting read
The author was somewhat repetitive however he did an excellent job analyzing pivotal battles and the reasons the west has tended to win those.
Published 7 months ago by James R Griffin
5.0 out of 5 stars A book every historian should read
I've read this book as a teen and it has stayed with me ever since.

In it Victor Hanson obligingly goes through all the worse errors that can be committed by a... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Benjamin Guilbert
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book!
This book is extremely insightful regarding the rise of western and American military superiority. If you have ever wondered how we could win WWII againsed such military... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Clint
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific right up to what he is really talking about, the war for Viet...
Victor Davis Hanson carries an attractive thesis about war forward from more than two thousand years ago then loses me entirely at what he is really talking about, the war of my... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Dan Duffy
5.0 out of 5 stars THE WESTERN WAY OF WAR
I've read a lot of military history in my 70 years and didn't expect to find anything new. Instead, I was stunned both to learn new facts and - much more than that - a new... Read more
Published 11 months ago by B Leyden
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