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The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny Paperback – April 17, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0385720595 ISBN-10: 0385720599 Edition: Reprint
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On first glance, The Soul of Battle appears to be three different books: biographies of two well-known generals--Sherman and Patton--and one who is virtually unknown today, the ancient Greek leader Epaminondas. Yet Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor and author of The Western Way of War, makes a compelling connection between these three men. They were "eccentrics, considered unbalanced or worse by their own superiors" who led democratic armies on missions of freedom. Epaminondas crushed Sparta's military dominance of Greece in a single winter, Sherman delivered a deathblow to the slaveholding South in the U.S. Civil War, and Patton was the general most feared by his Nazi enemies in the Second World War. Hanson disputes the conventional notion that soldiers fight only for their buddies, rather than abstract ideals. He writes: "Theban hoplites, Union troops, and American GIs were ideological armies foremost, composed of citizen-soldiers who burst into their enemies' heartland because they believed it was a just and very necessary thing to do. The commanders who led them encouraged that ethical zeal, made them believe there was a real moral difference" between what they and their opponents stood for. Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton each became extremely controversial for his success, but Hanson argues persuasively that their efforts demonstrate "that on rare occasions throughout the ages there can be a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle." With this idiosyncratic approach, Hanson makes a unique contribution to our understanding of not only these three men and their troops, but also the role of the military in a democratic society. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Hanson, a scholar of classics as well as of military history (The Western Way of War), depicts three great armies under three great captains: Epaminondas of Thebes, William T. Sherman and George S. Patton. Their enemiesArespectively, Sparta, the Confederacy, the NazisAhad been considered unstoppable. Yet they were defeated not by professional soldiers but by citizen-soldiers turned quickly into ruthlessly efficient fighting forces. It is no contradiction, Hanson argues, that democracies can produce such fierce killers. On the contrary, democracies, he writes, are uniquely suited to quickly mustering forces, imbuing them with "near-messianic zeal... to exterminate what they understand as evil, have them follow to their deaths the most ruthless of men, and then melt anonymously back into the culture that produced them." To accomplish this, he says, a democracy requires both a clear cause and a leader of genius. Hanson presents his three generals as examples of such leaders. Each man led forces seeking to liberate others, whether serfs in Sparta or slaves in the American South or Europeans tyrannized by Hitler. Hanson's thesis, however, is not self-evident: it is still a matter of debate, for example, whether Epaminondas fought to liberate Sparta's serfs or, less idealistically, to strike a decisive blow against Thebes's mortal enemy; similarly, the Union did not fight the Confederacy solely or even mainly to liberate the slaves (and the Confederacy, too, was made of citizen-soldiers who had, if anything, more devotion to their cause than most Union fighters). Nevertheless, Hanson delivers an eloquent reminder that democracies under great captains, facing enemies challenging the essence of their cultures, can make war at levels beyond the worst nightmares of their warrior opponents. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (April 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720599
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720595
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #700,626 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

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 37 people found the following review helpful By C. Davis VINE VOICE on May 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
The Soul of Battle compares three "campaigns", for lack of a better word, that in the author's mind have very similar characteristics. While the timing of this book (it was written in 1999 and published initially in 2001) and the epilogue indicate that this book was written to either critique the limited war aims of the first Gulf War or to urge - in a rather abstract way - the liberation of the Iraqi people, it is a fantastic read that will long outlast the current war in Iraq. Mr. Hanson is viewed by many as an apologist for the Neo-cons, but that does not detract from his ability to create an interesting thesis, write a compelling narrative, and imply multiple levels of interpretation. In short, this type of book is exactly what a classics or liberal arts education is supposed to be about.

This book does a great service by introducing Epaminondas to the modern reader. It seems a safe assumption that most moderately well educated Americans knew nothing about this man until Mr. Hanson published this book. It also seems a reasonable assumption that Boeotian democracy has further lessons for the modern Americans.

One of the interesting characteristics of all three "liberators" shared is the fact that, to a large extant, they waged war not only on the army of the enemy, but also his culture or soul. One of the not so subtle points in Mr. Hanson's writings is that not all cultures are equal or morally equivalent. Therefore, it is necessary from time to time to beat back the evil that men do by destroying the culture and support infrastructure that makes such evil thrive. However, Mr. Hanson seems to argue that evil can be completely vanquished. The ancient Greeks would say that evil is part of human nature and must be dealt with as necessary.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Steven Zoraster on October 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found Dr. Hanson's latest book interesting, informative and controversial. In "The Soul of Battle" he describes the campaigns of three generals and the very successful armies they led, which - he asserts - were ideological armies driven by moral imperatives rather than loyalty to friends in the same unit. This is a revolutionary claim - at least to this reviewer - who has been fed for the last 3 or 4 decades on the theory that morale in any army was a product of the interpersonal loyalties of a few close comrades.
I don't know that I completely believe the arguments in the "The Soul of Battle," but the book is so provocative that I am going to have to wait a while and then read it several more times to figure out what I really believe. In the meantime, the book provided me with new insights into the short period of Thebean hegemony in Classical Greece between 370 and 360 BC, the daring success and real goals of Sherman's march to the sea during the American Civil War, and the outstanding accomplishments of the United States Third Army under General Patton in France in the second half of 1944.
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35 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Soul of Battle is a brilliant work crafted by a master of both ancient and contemporary sources in Military History. Shunning the relativistic analyses expounded by many recent military historians, Victor Davis Hanson offers instead three historical armies of liberation, each of whose commanders and soldiers fought for real moral imperatives. By comparing Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton to other giants of military strategy--Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon, and Hitler--Hanson accurately exposes the real difference between the former generals, who believed that armies could be vehicles of liberation, and the latter rulers who used armies as tools to subjugate, not free. Readers conversant with classical works will especially appreciate Hanson's exclusive use of primary source literature in his treatment of Epaminondas. The reforms of this Theban general, famous for his innovations of novel phalanx tactics--later borrowed by Philip and Alexander of Macedon--are supported by an abundance of ancient source materials. Anyone familiar with Hans Delbrück's Warfare In Antiquity will be delighted by Hanson's readable prose and illustrative accounts of how the Theban general altered the way Greek columns operated on the classical battlefield. We also learn that just after Napoleon made himself emperor through his effective, but costly, direct approach, Sherman, who eluded politics, utilized the indirect approach, saving the lives of his men by "cutting a swath" through southern slave-holding territories. Under Sherman's command most unionist soldiers aspired both to reunite the nation, and to give slaves a real share in the American constitutional ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.Read more ›
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Dave Tulka on February 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The reviews seem to focus a lot on the democracy of the governments fielding the respective armies. Certainly in a democratic society, the soldiers will have freedom of speech and private property or the hope of private property. To microcosm that down a little, I deduced the generals being examined lead their armies from the front; they were the most visible to the enemy and they also made sure their troops were cared for. Indicative of this, Patton made the health of his troops' feet a career-enhancing or career-ending criterion for his unit commanders. All of a sudden the troops got clean socks with their dinner.

I applied the principles I learned here to my job as an account manager for an IT firm. While my first efforts to implement bold leadership were definitely uneven, the lessons for anyone who dares to lead for a common good are to be taken to heart. Dr. Hanson's style here is captivating, accessible and engaging.

Growing up in the South, Dr. Hanson's assessment of the cowardice of the slave-holding society was a huge revelation to me.

I read this probably three years ago. I have to say it is one of the most formative and challenging books I have read in my life.
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