The Soul of Victor Davis Hanson
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…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.
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.
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...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?
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…
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.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.
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.
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.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…*
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…
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…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
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...
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: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:
Saddam Hussein murders his own, attacks others, and threatens us; therefore let us remove him.
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.You must, of course, read more.
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.
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?