Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Soul of Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson writes today that, yes, 2000 soldiers have died in Iraq, but A) that’s really not that many; B) Americans only care about that number because we’re soft and; C) it’s all the media’s fault.

I admire some of Hanson’s earlier books. I read The Soul of Battle in a class once and thought his description and defense of Sherman was brilliant. In the past few years, though, I have watched him sliding into blather; he has become a self-contradicting waterboy for a crowd of hawks who, well, might not have fucked up so much if they’d actually read some of his earlier works. (Or Barbara Tuchman’s. Or Liddell Hart’s. Unfortunately, the only strategy that concerns them is political. Thucydides may be a stranger to them, but Machiavelli they turn to as to an old friend.)

What was brilliant about Hanson’s writing was that he showed readers how the so-called “butterfly effect” worked historically. An acquaintance of mine—who, like Hanson, has spent some time teaching in a military academy’s history department—lamented V.D.H.’s lost focus to me in a recent e-mail, writing that “what is sad these days is how much (Hanson) has lost one of his early insights, namely, that he unintended and unexpected consequences often have greater historical impact over the longer run.” This is being generous, actually. I think what is sad is that Hanson has decided to continue to serve as the Bushies’ academic Aquarius at the expense of any semblance of intellectual integrity. I hope that, whatever he has gained from his foray into Republican advocacy, it was worth the cost of his credibility and scholarly reputation.

Consider this, from today’s op-ed.
Television and the global news media have changed the perception of combat fatalities as well. CNN would have shown a very different Iwo Jima - bodies rotting on the beach, and probably no coverage of the flag-raising from Mount Suribachi. It is conventional wisdom now to praise the amazing accomplishment of June 6, 1944. But a few ex tempore editorial comments from Geraldo Rivera or Ted Koppel, reporting live from the bloody hedgerows where the Allied advance stalled not far from the D-Day beaches - a situation rife with intelligence failures, poor equipment and complete surprise at German tactics - might have forced a public outcry to withdraw the forces from the Normandy "debacle" before it became a "quagmire."
Not only is this not an argument, but it’s all but stolen from one of Hanson’s fellow travelers, David Gelernter. When Gelernter made his comments, I said that this was a ridiculous argument. You cannot compare the motivations of troops and their supporters who can see the possibility of an endgame with those of a people facing an interminable and inexplicable war. Hanson himself has said as much.
The American military fights best when it is asked to keep on the move and go from point A and end at point B. The very idea that troops “were going to Baghdad” was worth a division — like “on to Germany” or “Next stop, Tokyo” and, tragically, so unlike “on to nowhere” in a static Vietnam.
Hanson also hopes that you don’t know anything about the media in World War II. In 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually decided to treat Americans as adults. The War Department lifted restrictions on photos of American losses. They argued that Americans needed to get a more complete picture of the war. Photos of wounded soldiers began appearing in newspapers and magazines. Hanson might say that there’s a qualitative difference between nearly real-time television news and the print media of the 1940s and I would agree. CNN and Fox News work in a fractured media environment and will never achieve the power that Life magazine once wielded. Everyone read Life.

Today, newspapers are losing their readership at an increasing pace and broadcast media are beginning to see a slip in their ratings as well. That Fox News continues to lead the cable news pack is further proof that Hanson’s thesis is flawed. Consider that it has a larger number of viewers and cheerleads around the clock for the Iraq war, yet has not kept American opinion from souring on Bush’s adventure.

Also, we may remember the wartime reporting of Edward R. Murrow’s peers as entirely supportive, but by the standards of today’s self-appointed media watchdogs they would be accused of treason. Charlotte’s Web author and journalist E.B. White chafed at the early censorship of the military and had the gall to once write, “In a free country, it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty. Only under a dictatorship is literature expected to exhibit an harmonious design or an inspirational tone."

Ernie Pyle’s most famous and oft-quoted piece is called "The Death of Captain Waskow.” An excerpt.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed to the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking awkwardly from the other side. bobbing up and down as the mule walked…

We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. "This one is Captain Waskow," one of them said quietly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don't cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow's body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.

One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, "God damn it." That's all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, "God damn it to hell anyway." He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.
Can you imagine that article appearing anywhere today? Those, like Hanson, who have blamed the press (at least in part) for the debacle their war has become, would be beside themselves. John Hinderaker wrote this a couple of months ago.
News reporting on the war consists almost entirely of itemizing casualties. Headlines say: "Two Marines killed by roadside bomb." Rarely do the accompanying stories--let alone the headlines that are all that most people read--explain where the Marines were going, or why; what strategic objective they and their comrades were pursuing, and how successful they were in achieving it; or how many terrorists were also killed...

The sins of the news media in reporting on Iraq are mainly sins of omission. Not only do news outlets generally fail to report the progress that is being made, and often fail to put military operations into any kind of tactical or strategic perspective, they assiduously avoid talking about the overarching strategic reason for our involvement there…
Doesn't it reflect badly on the purpose of the war in Iraq that, three years later, most people don't even know why we're there? Do you think that Ernie Pyle needed to explain to the American people why we were fighting in World War II? Do you think that the Roosevelt administration had 27 different reasons to fight the Germans or the Japanese? Could the press have dismantled his single reason?

It's doubtful. Americans are notoriously willing to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. James W. Loewen reminded us just how willing in Lies My Teacher Told Me (p. 306):
In late spring 1966, just before we began bombing Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam, Americans split 50/50 as to whether we should bomb these targets. After the bombing began, 85 percent favored the bombing while only 15 percent opposed. The sudden shift was the result, not the cause, of the government's decision to bomb. The same allegiance and socialization processes operated again when policy changed in the opposite direction. In 1968 war sentiment was waning; but 51 percent of Americans opposed a bombing halt, partly because the United States was still bombing North Vietnam. A month later, after President Johnson announced a bombing halt, 71 percent favored the halt. Thus 23 percent of our citizens changed their minds within a month, mirroring the shift in government policy.
Is it likely that the tone of press coverage shifted that much in a month? No.

Americans want to know why their soldiers are fighting and dying and, by God, they expect to not be lied to about it. Even if Bush had 27 reasons for invading Iraq, we only heard about, say, 24 of them after the fighting had begun. Victor Davis Hanson has argued that this is an improper view of history. It's all so much more complicated than we wish it were.
Had we acted wisely in Vietnam…the Gulf of Tonkin legislation would be seen instead as an irrelevant if improper effort to prompt needed action to save millions from Communism rather than the disingenuous catalyst that led to quagmire.

Again, this is not to suggest the ends justify the means, but rather to acknowledge that there are always deeper reasons to go to war than what lawyers, diplomats, and politicians profess. Those underlying factors are ultimately judged as moral or immoral by history's unforgiving logic of how, and for what reason, the war was waged — and what were its ultimate results.
It could be argued, however, that such relativist arguments don’t work well for countries fighting wars of choice. In fact, that argument has already been written.
In war, clarity of purpose—which is not a relative construct—counts for everything…
Personally, I think that’s both oversimplifying and overstating the case, but it’s not my argument. It’s Victor Davis Hanson’s.

He directly opposed relativism in “The Tyranny of ‘But,’” one of the first essays Hanson wrote for The National Review, in which he argued it was a plague upon our nation.
The conjunction BUT, in discussions about the current war, has become endemic in the year since the victory in Afghanistan. So are its wishy-washy siblings of American conversation — the kindred "although," "however," and "nevertheless." A few experts employ the more formal "on the one hand… on the other hand…." "One could argue" is another, though weaker, method of qualification.

The current proliferation of these words reflects the popularity of equivocation, of covering all bets. Or maybe it is deeper — proof of an insidious relativism that now infects our thinking generally. There must be various explanations why so many of us cannot flat-out distinguish between right and wrong, smart and dumb, evil and good, or stasis and action — period…
He goes on to list the ways that so many Americans used BUT to argue against the war: I am no fan of Saddam Hussein, BUT…, Remove Saddam? Sure, BUT…*

I admit to using this “equivocation” myself a few times. My use was slightly different though. It went something like If Saddam Hussein has weapons then we should take him out, BUT Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell said he didn’t have any. Or, Yes, we should have kept after Saddam when we could have prevented him from filling mass graves in the early 1990s, BUT now I’m worried that we might cause more Iraqi deaths than we’d prevent.

Again, I must mention E.B. White, who wrote about loss of life once, "Living in a sanitary age, we are getting so we place too high a value on human life — which rightfully must always come second to human ideas." You’d almost think that White would support Hanson’s feelings about the body count in Iraq, that he would join Hanson in saying that 2000+ dead soldiers is a small amount in the grand scheme of things.

White, however, believed that ideas needed to remain consistent. I doubt he would have taken very kindly to Hanson ranting about equivocation only to write a week later that (Emphasis Nitpicker's):
Perhaps we will never have 100-percent proof of Saddam Hussein's direct connection with terrorists who use weapons of mass destruction until we are hit; but

Third, it is necessary in a free society to audit and question the government. But…

We must be vigilant about our civil liberties, but…

We must worry about collateral damage in war and will always strive to prevent civilian deaths, but...
And let me only briefly mention that for all his claims of “moral clarity” and arguments against relativism over the past three years, he was awfully quick to tell us after the Abu Ghraib photos were released that
without minimizing the seriousness of these apparent transgressions, we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective…we must keep the allegations in some sort of historical context. Even at their worst, these disturbing incidents are not comparable to past atrocities such as the June 1943 killing of prisoners in Sicily, the machine-gunning of civilians at the No Gun Ri railway bridge in Korea, or My Lai.
Does Hanson remember that he was against relativism before he was for it?

(As an added irony, Hanson urged us to relax and rely on the “self-correcting mechanisms of the U.S. government and the American free press.”)

Hanson had a suggestion to do away with the “insidious relativism” of guys like me.
To dethrone the reign of BUT, I suggest a revolution led by therefore — a better adverb which follows from, rather than sidesteps or elides, the truth:

Saddam Hussein murders his own, attacks others, and threatens us; therefore let us remove him.
In the end, I’m all for this new age of logic and reason which follows from truth and the facts. The fact is, Victor Davis Hanson wrote the following:
February 7, 2003: (I)f it comes to war, we will win and most likely win quickly. We will be safer — and Iraq immediately a better place — for our efforts. And we can at least say that we did not leave a madman with frightening weapons in an age of mass murder for our children to deal with.

March 18, 2003: The fact is that U.S. Marines will find more deadly weapons in the first hours of war than the U.N. did in three months.

April 17, 2003: In the aftermath of the incredible three-and-a-half week victory we should not post facto make the mistake of assuming that Operation Iraqi Freedom was necessarily an easy task.
You must, of course, read more.

Here’s my simple, non-waffling statement: Victor Davis Hanson has proven to be foolish, intellectually dishonest and wrong in his every prediction, therefore the man should never be taken seriously ever again.

* This argument against relativism was gleefully stolen by all manner of conservatives. In Deliver Us From Evil, Sean Hannity wrote:
Even when (liberals) can bring themselves to acknowledge the brutality of a venal tyrant such as Saddam Hussein, they qualify it. “We are not denying that Saddam is a repressive dictator,” they say, “but we don’t believe we should have attacked Iraq without giving him more time to comply with U.N. resolutions.” For the appeasement-minded liberals of our country, there’s always a “but.”
Quotation marks, huh? Then someone must have said that, right?


Blogger Spooked said...

Great piece, thanks.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

It's as though Hanson, Hannity et al are writing from the same circulated press kit entitled: "Dear Leader's Guide to the Proper Ridiculing of Liberal Straw Men"

Awesome essay. I think we can safely close the book on Hanson forever. It's kind of hard to imagine him ever regaining any credibility after a tarring and feathering like this one.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Chadwick said...

Nice place you got here- Thanks for saying what needed to be said.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Spooked said...

stupid comment formatting!

Once again: great piece, thanks!

2:28 PM  
Blogger Nittacci said...

Terrific column, nitpicker. Well done. I wish every American would read it today.

2:37 PM  
Blogger JT Davis said...

Excellent post. Been reading B.H. Liddell-Hart for over 30 years.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Grumblecakes said...

One of my personal bugaboos is tied up in that knot that appears to equate "but" to "moral relativism." Heck, it's not even reasonable to equate the use of "but" with a lack of moral clarity:

World War II, insofar as it was an action against fascism, was justified BUT the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, which were intended to mainly kill civilians, were not.

Now, one can dispute the assertions in there and what not, but it contains a perfectly clear moral position, and is in no wise 'relativist' or even 'wishy washy.'

Moreover, if you're not "doing nuance," then you're not really thinking.

I wonder at the number of people whose brains appear to have curdled in the wake of al-Qaeda's insanity.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Brando said...

That was an excellent analysis.

The whole "how would today's media cover WWII" is the lightest strawman of the conservative commentators. In many ways, I think today's media would be even less critical than the press of the 40s. Furthermore, that comparison implies that Saddam is Hitler. While Hussein may be murderous and messianic, he was a third-rate dictator rendered more or less militarily impotent after the Gulf War.

3:05 PM  
Blogger ddoodd said...

Wow, really great post. All the links are broken, though.

3:11 PM  
Blogger JT Davis said...

Today, newspapers are losing their readership at an increasing pace and broadcast media are beginning to see a slip in their ratings as well. That Fox News continues to lead the cable news pack is further proof that Hanson’s thesis is flawed. Consider that it has a larger number of viewers and cheerleads around the clock for the Iraq war, yet has not kept American opinion from souring on Bush’s adventure.

Chis Bowers at MyDD has been tracking this trend.

The Death of the Mainstream Media

Liberal Blogosphere Surpasses Cable News

Dailykos Is As Large As The Entire Conservative Blogosphere

3:21 PM  
Blogger Friendly Fire said...

Brilliant writing and analysis.

3:31 PM  
Blogger James Robertson said...

I'm pretty sure that today's left, transported back to 1942, would have questioned the "Europe First" policy. Using the same logic they use about Iraq.

There would have been endless carping about the rationale for fighting in Europe at all, given that we were attacked by Japan.

All your "analysis" misses that point from vdh.

4:06 PM  
Blogger The Liberal Avenger said...

Fantastic piece - thank you! You're my new blogstar! Wooo!

The links are broken, however.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I linked to this, and added the comment:

Even before I saw HBO's Rome and even though I am not a classicist, nor a military historian, I knew this:

"Crossing the Rubicon" means "bring troops into the capital city and establish a military dictatorship".

I don't doubt that this is exactly what Hanson wants.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

"Unfortunately, the only strategy that concerns them is political. Thucydides may be a stranger to them, but Machiavelli they turn to as to an old friend.)"

No, it's Strauss that they prefer.

James Robertson said...

'I'm pretty sure that today's left, transported back to 1942, would have questioned the "Europe First" policy. Using the same logic they use about Iraq.

There would have been endless carping about the rationale for fighting in Europe at all, given that we were attacked by Japan.

All your "analysis" misses that point from vdh.'

And I'm pretty sure that your grossly offensive appeasement counterfactual is one that you don't really even believe yourself.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Carnacki said...

Well said. No ifs, ands, or buts.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

I get the sense that Hanson is trying to become Cal State Fresno's answer to Charles Murray.

I panned him at Mercury Rising for a recent NRO column in which he calls on Bush to "cross the Rubicon." For a classics scholar to use that particular phrase at the very moment when a prosecutor is announcing indictments on what are probably impeachable offenses is outrageous. In context, what he means is clear.

Hanson is very bright and well read. But he seems increasingly amoral, willing to advocate doing evil in the name of doing good.

5:07 PM  
Blogger melior said...

I agree with The Liberal Avenger, and I'm not afraid to use the evil conjunction:

Excellent piece, but none of the links work unless you cut and paste them and clean off the front part.

(And at risk of nitpicking, please warn your readers when linking to a browser-hostile .pdf!)

Thanks! And keep up the great work.

5:31 PM  
Blogger SorbesF*cks said...

James Robertson said...

'I'm pretty sure that today's left, transported back to 1942, would have questioned the "Europe First" policy. Using the same logic they use about Iraq.

There would have been endless carping about the rationale for fighting in Europe at all, given that we were attacked by Japan.

All your "analysis" misses that point from vdh.'

It was Germany that declared war on the US you twit. It was party time for U-boats up and down the US East Coast for the first half of 1942.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...

It's the strangest damn thing. I go in and the "nitpicker" part isn't there on the links, but when I publish the post, the links don't work. It's all freaking bloggered.


9:18 PM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...

Got it. It was the "smart quotes." Hope all is forgiven.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Phoenix Woman said...

James Robertson: Does "today's left" include Brent Scowcroft and Chuck Hagel? (Knowing how right-wing you are, it probably does.)

9:48 PM  
Blogger Lancelot Link said...

The right always brings up WW2, but nobody ever mentions that the American left-wing was fighting the fascists in Europe as early as 1937.
Haven't any of these "military historians" ever heard of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade?

12:02 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

to vdh:

the cost is easy to bear when you're not paying the price.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...


You've got an interesting point there. I've been reading George Packer's book and there's all this pissing and moaning from the neocons about how Clinton failed to do something about Saddam in the 1990s. Why didn't some of these fuckers put their lives on the line against him like the lefties did against Fascism? If they really believe what they're selling, then we should have seen "Field Commander Feith" charging the Republican Guard on horseback, right?

10:12 AM  
Blogger Kierkegaard said...

I realize that I stand absolutely no chance of changing anyone's mind here, but I should like to point a few things out as a new reader. To begin with, it's difficult to tell whether you are against the current Iraq 'War' or against all war, since your response to Hanson's rather shallow reference to the way the modern media might view the Normandy landings is to quote commentary from the time which focused on its misery and violence. That would seem to support your antagonism to war in general. If you are a pacifist, like the actor James Mason, for example, who during WWII urged his fellow-Britons to stop fighting Hitler but instead to fast and pray, then hats off to you; we can all admire a saint. If, however, you are one of those who endlessly parses history for a 'justifiable' war, as did the Roman Senate to excuse their conquests of half the world, then this is simply reacting to the politics of the moment. 'Justifiable' is an ever-shifting adjective pliant to any point of view.

Do I support the Iraq 'War'? Yes. Do I view it as any way 'justifiable'? No. Do I believe it even to be a war? No, again. It is, by every legal and historical definition, merely a police action. Athens lost almost 1,000 men a year while maintaining its commercial empire; Sparta nearly that just in military training and repression of its Helots--both of these from population pools less than that of one of our smaller cities. More to the point, our own law enforcement agencies lose almost that many while fighting an internal 'war on crime'; as with the abuses at Abu Ghraib, far worse goes on here at home, and it's high time to focus on that inside our prison system, as well. Moreover, the fate of inimical aliens is of no interest to any sane, self-respecting citizen--unless he considers himself a 'citizen of the world' first and a US citizen second. After living many years abroad, I do not.

Which brings me to my final point. Despite my respect, even reverence, for pacifism, I am by nature, I'm afraid, the exact opposite. I grew up loving war and continue, despite its horrors, to do so. It is a psychotic--but not a neurotic--endeavor, as natural to me (and most other men) as the natural foods I eat, the natural vitamins I take, the natural fibres I wear, and the natural emotions I am encouraged by the modern world to voice. I have devoted a large part of a long life to its study, and I see nothing wrong with it at all--in moderation, as with anything else. Unless, of course, one loses.

Which is why I support this 'war' and any other our nation embarks upon; it's the best possible way for a society to stay in fighting trim, so that it does not lose a more important conflict in future. This is the true 'butterfly effect' of such constant limited engagement. You mention enjoying reading Hanson's book about Sherman. Remember what Sherman really said about war?

10:45 AM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...


You. Are. Absolutely. Batshit. Crazy.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Kierkegaard said...

Absolutely correct; in fact, if you had bothered to read carefully what I wrote, you would notice that I admitted that a love of war is a psychosis.

However. I. Am. Absolutely. Polite regarding your views--something you have yet to learn, evidently, to extend to others whose views do not match your own.

Tolerance is more than a mere slogan--it is the mark of a civilized person.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...

Was G.K. Chesterton uncivilized? Was M. Somerset Maugham? They both argued that tolerance should have its limits. Mine limit is that when someone writes something dreadful, I call them on it.

I cannot tolerate a madness that would send young people to their deaths just to blow the cobwebs off our war machine any more than I tolerate the actions of suicide bombers. I denounce them and I denounce your lunacy. To tolerate truly uncivilized notions is not the mark of civilization, but its antithesis.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Tequila said...

Kierkegaard, you would have wasted a lot less time typing if you just had yourself a good jerk somewhere. You're one of those who really, really loves the sound of their own voice, right?

8:37 AM  
Blogger Gadfly said...

Hey, Kierkegaard, are you keeping your "precious bodily fluids" in fighting trim, too?

Oh, and if this psychosis is natural to you, then by psychological definition, you're actually a sociopath.

Keep that in mind, if you drop back here looking for a response.

11:36 PM  

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