Friday, October 13, 2006

Victor Davis Hanson: On to Asculum!*

Billmon has an excellent post up about my good friend Victor Davis Hanson's most recent essay, another in a long line of slight-of-hand tricks from Hanson, who intends not to enlighten but to obfuscate.

Billmon calls Hanson's writing since the beginning of the war "deluded crap," but I think he's got it wrong. Hanson isn't deluded. Not by a long shot. Hanson seems to me to have realized the same thing that the Coulters and O'Reillys of the world learned well before the war--prostitution pays better than respectability.

Consider this: Hanson used to be simply a respected professor (see note at bottom) and author of some well-received histories. But being "well-received" in academia and among military strategy-types, while nice, doesn't set the accountant's estate tax alarm off, if you know what I mean. Since he began writing for National Review and giving faux-military-tough-guy cover to the Bushies, however, things certainly have changed for Vic. According to the Los Angeles Times, he received an advance of 500 thousand dollars for his latest book, another history of the Pelopennesian War called A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

So, what would make Random House fork over a half mil for a history of a war which occurred over 2400 years ago--despite the fact that previous histories had been published by respected authors in each of the two years prior to Hanson's retelling? Well, it wasn't the effort, that's for sure. In the book, Hanson treads the same ground he's walked in previous books and even picks slices of it up once trod upon and tosses them forward a few pages so he can step on them all over again. You used to be able to nitpick Hanson's scholarship and his desire to overlay his views over history without seeming to attach them completely, but this is the first book of Hanson's which bored me.

Random House, I'm sure, is fine with that. They weren't buying Hanson the scholar, but Hanson the neocon prostitute, who cherrypicks facts from the past to provide "context" for the present:Yes, thousands of dead Americans is unfortunate, but, of course the War of 1812 Pearl Harbor The Spanish-American War The Civil War killed many, many more, so weep not, ye widows. Or:
(W)e must keep the allegations (of torture at Abu Ghraib) 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.
And then, like the hooker forgetting the moans of a minute before as she counts the money at the bedside table, he rails against the moral relativism of the left.

Don't worry, Random House, as long as they get the moaning first, rightwingers will buy anything the whore slaps his name on. (Don't count on them reading it, though.)

How does Hanson do it with a straight face? Well, it's possible that he's simply deluded. One reviewer wrote of a Hanson book that "there is a concentration on the military confrontations themselves, with certain downplaying of the political and cultural contexts." Perhaps, to Hanson, battles are the only context needed to understand battle--or, for that matter, the boring stuff in between battles we call peace, commerce, love and other like folderol.

I think, however, that Hanson has realized that he's mostly read by a pack of folks who aren't, shall we say, detail-oriented. Like the RCA victor mascot--or any good dog--they recognize voices and tone, but they only learn simple phrases: Sit! Stay! Death tax! Islamofascism! All VeeDee Hanson has to do, then, is to cloud the waters a bit and collect his money.

Which brings us to his most recent essay.

Hanson argues initially that there's something a bit queer about the books Cobra II, State of Denial, and Fiasco. There's just too darn many anonymous sources. Of course he's right. Why, Lord, haven't we learned from the Watergate scandal, when a single anonymous source duped the country by telling tales which proved to be the God's honest truth? How can a Republican administration compete with that? Why can't people realize that Karl Rove is the only official source of anonymous quotes? And, if the sources are anonymous, how can the Bushies "fact check" their statements in a habeas corpus-free Caribbean environment?

A pity. And damn unfair.

The crux of Hanson's piece, however, comes near the end of the piece, in three small bits. First he says:
Usually the unidentified source supports the author's critique -- and thus is almost always critical of the present policy in Iraq.
Hanson is more than likely putting the chicken before the egg here. For example, Hanson left George Packer's Assassin's Gate off his list. It's really the first of the recent, devastating critiques of the Bushies' fumbles in Iraq and Packer unabashedly supported the war. Tom Ricks is no ideologue, either, so I'd be willing to bet Fiasco wasn't the first title he had planned for his book. In other words, fiasco came before Fiasco and that isn't Tom Ricks' fault.

Hanson goes on with point two:
here is the cardinal rule for anonymous sources in this new genre of pseudo-history: Talk to reporters as soon as possible "off the record" in hopes that they will be sympathetic.
There are two things that piss me off about this. First, Hanson wrote a few paragraphs earlier that these writers were trying to give their books a "patina of scholarly credibility" and, in order to demonstrate what that means, talks about the controversy surrounding Thucydides' habit of putting words in his subjects' mouths. He also says that historians have now "agree to draw on information that can be checked by others." So, where does this "scholar" get off reading the minds of those who chose to remain anonymous? How, exactly do I check his assertion?

Secondly, Ricks has a thing for guys' in uniform and exalts their views above others. So Hanson is primarily saying that military officers are spinning to cover their own failures. While I've met some venal bastards with brass on their collars in my time in the military, they were few and far between. What a piss-poor view Hanson must have of our warrior clase to think they would find it better to lie about their leaders than to accept responsibility. On the contrary, I'd be willing to bet that they consider their actions, as I do, the proper duties of patriots.

In his recent letter to John McCain which prematurely applauded the senator's seemingly firm, but ulitmately brittle, stand against torture, Colin Powell talked about a book. It appears General Jack Vessey brought it up first, but Powell endorsed Vessey's reference of it.
I am as familiar with The Armed Forces Officer as is Vessey. It was written after all the horrors of World War tell the world and to remind our soldiers of our moral obligations with respect to those in our custody.
But that isn't nearly all. The Armed Forces Officer is still an official military document (pdf link) was recently updated, but still includes this paragraph.
Within our school of military thought, higher authority does not consider itself infallible. Either in combat or out, any time a situation arises where a majority of military-trained Americans become undutiful, that is a very good reason for higher authority to resurvey its own judgments, disciplines and line of action.
Again, I wouldn't say these officers have been "undutiful," but they're certainly talking out of school and better civilian leader would ask themselves if they might be somewhat culpable.

Finally, though, Hanson offers this warning.
When one writes military history in the middle of a war, there is a responsibility to be extra careful. Real-time interpretations don't just offer lessons about the past but may change the very course of events as they happen.
As much as Hanson would like you to think that journalists peeking into the box are responsible for killing Schrödinger's cat, he was either dead or he wasn't. Iraq is clearly fucked and book after book--not to mention every new episode of the nightly news--just drives that point home.

The most important point, though, is that these books aren't "military history," but journalism, which leads to a point that Hanson either fails or refuses to grasp: Journalism is supposed to "change the course of events"! In a free society, journalism should be the means by which an informed public decides which direction they want their nation to take. What is that, if not changing the course of events? In fact, that's why people like me were so disappointed with the media before the Iraq war. If they'd done their job better, Hanson might still be pissing and moaning about America's "failure to exercise moral authority," but 2,800 American service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive.

And we'd have fewer terrorists. Perhaps Hanson, as a military historian, can explain to me the historical context which will make me feel better about a war which provides our enemies with a net manpower gain and seems to have convinced others that we are no longer a military concern.

In the end, though, Hanson never really wants to deal in meaningful discussions of history or context. He just wants to dangle history and his reputation before his readers like a bright red ball, swing his arm in fake throwing motion and giggle to himself as they run far afield, chasing nothing.

Note: I received the following in an e-mail:
"Respected" my ass. I mentioned his name once on the blog and the classicists nearly shit themselves. They said he was regarded as a joke in their field, a second rate writer at a third rate school. Some of his earlier works weren't bad, but in terms of classical historians, he is regarded as little better than a buffoon.
The reason I believe he was regarded with respect prior to 9/11 is because I had reason back then to look through many military history syllabi--I am not a military historian myself, but was considering the study--and saw his books on many of the reading lists, especially The Soul of Battle.

* Wikipedia: "A narrow Epirotic victory, it is this battle which gave rise to the phrase "Pyrrhic victory," meaning a victory so costly that the victors do not gain much. Pyrrhus is reported to have said afterwards, 'One more such victory and I shall be lost!'"


Anonymous Richard said...

"...prostitution pays better than respectability."

I believe you have, quite accurately, named the big game of life in this day.

Thank you.

3:44 PM  

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