The Abuse of Military History: An Introduction to the Problems of Victor Davis Hanson
I am a soldier, first and foremost, and this is as it should be. But I am also an academic historian.
As a member of two cultures, I find that they have much in common, at least in theory. Foremost among those is an inclination to distrust the first report, and to privilege the written word. In my historical writing, however, I seek to create a thesis for the reader which accurately represents a synthesis of facts and ideas that come from sometimes quite disparate sources. In developing that thesis, I am bound by the facts. This, also, is as it should be. But there is something else my two professions share. In short, members of both professions hate liars and those who twist the truth around.
My book on the events at No Gun Ri in 1950 devotes fully half of the text to understanding how lies worked their way into the historical record and people's understanding of what took place near that small South Korean village more than 50 years ago. The bottom line is that I have a strong sentiment against people putting falsehoods into the record.
In the case of the events at No Gun Ri there were fabrications constructed by actors on the historical stage, and they were exposed through straightforward historical spadework. Far more insidious, however, is the lie built by another historian in order to support an agenda that has little or nothing to do with history. Against that type of lie there has traditionally been little defense. Those who know better (academic historians in this case) often cannot match the volume of the polemicist who cloaks himself in the garb of legitimate-seeming history. It is a sad fact that "popular" usually trumps "academic" in the bookstore, so the falsehoods put together by the fabulist often drown out his academic critics. That is not to suggest that academic historians are entirely without blame. But still, the general public for its part, is often taken in by the fact that the fabulist appears learned and, therefore, should be trusted.
So what is an honest historian to do? Writing a competing academic book usually does not work, since such works are usually only read by peers within academe and even when the get some traction, it is often not enough. Blasting the offending book in the reviews sections of academic journals is similarly ineffective, the audience there is usually but a few hundred at best and the space is limited. An Op-Ed in a major newspaper is not viable, because there just is not enough space to engage in more than rhetoric there either. All of which usually meant that those with popular lies to tell won out most of the time. Enter the Internet.
Over the next several entries I plan to use this bully pulpit to demonstrate the perversions of the historical record by one of the most profound practitioners of same in the modern era. To wit, Mr. Victor Davis Hanson.
If you are not familiar with him, Hanson, or "VDH" as he is sometimes styled by his adoring and generally uncritical fans, is a linguist focused on ancient Greek and other "classical" languages. He has no academic training or education in history beyond that era, though he styles himself a historian. Now, however, I would note that he is something different. Since 2001 he has laid claims to being a military and cultural historian for the ages, in addition to becoming a columnist for the National Review Online and various newspapers via his syndicated column. Personally, I do not care what he writes about the present in an op-ed, so long as he does not torture historical facts in order to validate his own pet theories. But Hanson does exactly that, and so, from my seat, he is the worst sort of polemicist: one who hides behind academic credentials and claims that he is a neutral observer (in his case as a historian, though as I mentioned, his training is in language), but then insidiously inserts presentist and personal political interpretations of his own into the historical record.
Hanson's best-known general thesis, which he has pounded upon since his popular best-selling book Carnage and Culture came out in 2001, is that there are elements in Western culture (that is to say European culture, but only those who derive their heritage from the Greek/Roman traditions) that make us unique and overwhelmingly successful in war. His version of evidence is laid out in his interpretation of nine battles and/or campaigns which took place over roughly 2,500 years. In Carnage and Culture these are: Salamis (480 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Cannae (216 BC), Poitiers (732 AD), Tenochtitlan (1520-21 AD), Lepanto (1571 AD), Rorke's Drift (1879 AD), Midway (1942 AD), and Tet (1968 AD).
Hanson is tricky. He plays upon a uniquely American dichotomy. Generally speaking, we Americans respect academic qualifications, but at the same time harbor deep-seated biases against those we deem too intellectual. The line there is squiggly. Thus, Hanson tries to claim academic credentials as a historian, but then immediately switches gears and denigrates any potential opposition as mere "academic" history squabbles. Yes, academic history, with its unreasonable insistence on things like footnotes or endnotes so that your sources can be checked, is not to be trusted. Indeed, he dismissed the whole lot by saying, "Academics in the university will find that assertion chauvinistic or worse -- and thus cite every exception from Thermopylae to Little Bighorn in refutation." Ahhh, I love the smell of Strawmen burning in the morning...
He further eroded any potential critique by claiming that any such opposition to his magnificent thesis would actually be motivated by those who want to engage in "cultural debates." If you have not read Hanson's work before, "cultural debates" is his personal code. Roughly translated you could say that for Hanson this stands for "campus liberals who hate America." Indeed, that dismissal of any opposition occurred in the very first paragraph of his book when he wrote, "While I grant that critics would disagree on a variety of fronts over the reasons for European military dynamism and the nature of Western civilization itself, I have no interest in entering such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality of the West"
His technique worked. Carnage and Culture was a national best-seller, and Hanson is himself now invited into the highest levels of the executive branch of government to speak and advise. He has been invited to the White House by the President and to other locations by the Vice President. His work is cited near and far, in no small part on the basis of his use of history. And all of this came about because he twisted facts to tell a story as he wanted it to be, not as the facts themselves lay out. And because he silenced his critics.
Hanson's dismissals of those who would correct the record he distorted are based upon two biases: "Campus liberals" would engage in culture wars, and "non-military historians" don't know about military history and are thus unqualified to speak on the topic at hand. Sometimes he combines the two techniques when attacking those with the temerity to critique him. One typical Hanson response to a critic who did not identify their political party will suffice to illustrate. Said Hanson to the reader, "Unfortunately you know nothing of history and so like most on the Left think that your age, your circumstances, your views are always unique and transcend some 231 years of our America past. Do you know anything about the winter of 1776? Or the summer of 1864, or Spring 1917? Or the Pacific in 1944, or the Bulge, or November 1950? There an "incompetent group of people" did not manage a war that lost 3,000, but almost 100,000 dead and wounded alone in 2 months in the Ardennes, or 50,000 casualties in 6 weeks on Okinawa."
Well Mr. Hanson, it so happens that I do, in fact, know a wee bit about the Winter of '76, the Summer of 1864, and the Spring of 1917. (Though why you would cite the Spring of 1917 is curious in itself as a stand-alone statement. That Spring, you see, there were no Americans in ground combat yet. Indeed we were not yet at war until that Spring was halfway over. So why you didn't mention the much more appropriate Spring of 1918, when the German's Plan Michael/Spring Offensive created a crisis for the Allies and the first American ground combat forces were thrown into the line to stem the tide is beyond me. It does, however, seem to suggest that you don't know what you are talking about.) I also know about the Pacific in 1944, and the Ardennes Campaign of December 44/January 45, and I assure you that I know about not just November, but all of 1950.
I know all of these things, and because I am a military historian and believe that your personal technique of torturing the facts until they conform to your thesis is hurting America, and that your personal signal work, Carnage and Culture, is a pile of poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces. I believe it is my personal obligation to try and correct the record and demonstrate for as many people as possible, why they should not believe you when you try to cite history in support of any of your personal shiny little pet rocks.
Next Week: Cannae
A similar version of this essay appeared on War Historian and Altercation in the beginning of October. These opinions are those of Robert Bateman and do not reflect those of the DoD or any other government element. Write to LTC Bob Batemen.
SWJ Editors Links
A Reply and Other Things - Victor Davis Hanson
Bateman on VDH - Abu Muqawama