The Abuse of Military History

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

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Gentlemen, LTC Robert Batemen posted his critique of VDH on November 6, 2007 @ 8:20 PM. Maybe we could consider that the statute of limitation on Robert's paper has tolled?


Since my degree is in military history from a service academy, my eye was drawn to the title of this article. I've read a decent amount of mil history during my time (still got that MHQ subscription going strong) and nothing that Hanson has written on military history has struck me as unusual or untrue (most of it has been personally verified with what I've experienced in Africa, South America, Middle East, Korea, etc...)

In fact, a lot of what VDH has written tracks very closely with the writings of Dr. Dennis Showalter, an old history teacher of mine from my cadet days. Dr. Showalter is another civilian historian with zero days in uniform. Is he also guilty of producing "poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces"?

Also, exactly what about VDH's thesis does LTC Bateman disagree with? Does he believe that it is pure luck that prevented Montezuma from launching a fleet across the Atlantic and colonizing Africa or Europe under the banner of Aztec supremacy? Is it only by chance that Western European wasn't conquered by Chinese or Arabian military culture and not the other way around? Does Bateman dispute the idea that having an autocratic, totalitarian style of leadership (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russian) has serious military consequences that are not easily fixed or corrected? Does Bateman have some evidence that Western, English-speaking military organizations are, on the whole, NOT the 'gold standard' that the rest of the planet struggles to emulate (while bad-mouthing the whole concept, of course)?

If you're going to attack VDH's thesis, you have to address his claims, not just call him out. And that means no politics as well. Ranting and raving about 'neocons' and snide comments about Bush and Cheney may play well with the NYT set but times change. Someone not named Bush has been CINC for a while now and frothing at the mouth about 'illegal wars in the Mid-East' have no place in this debate.

I'm perfectly willing to give the LTC a fair shake, but he has to come up with some evidence to back up his claims. Being an Airborne Ranger with 18 years teaching at West Point is great. But I'm in a SOCOM unit as well, and he should know that "What have you done lately?" is the unofficial motto of SOF units. So here is your chance, Bateman. Ranger up and give us some good reasons to drop that copy of 'Carnage and Culture' in the dumpster. Or not, doesn't matter to me. Just curious to see if you have something relevant to say.

@Bobby - from reading the comments here, I don't get the sense that anyone is 'jumping' to defend Hanson. I believe his work either stands or falls on its own merit.
No, I think the comments here are far more critical of Bateman's overall tone - snarky is perhaps correct, although I'd offer 'juvenile'.

Bateman clearly has an axe to grind; it shows in almost every paragraph with direct and implied ad hominems, unsupported assertions, and an overall 'smeary' tone that ultimately persuaded this reader that - far from casting a legitimate intellectual doubt about Hanson's work - instead makes it very hard NOT to dismiss Bateman's complaints offhand as some sort of irrelevant personal screed.

Interestingly, the text at Media Matters is DIFFERENT from that above.
At media matters, paragraph 12 above changes after the words: "...topic at hand."
"...Well, Victor, I am afraid that I'm not going to be so easy to dismiss. Although I teach at Georgetown now, I used to teach at West Point, and the topic I taught is the same that I have studied for 18 years, military history. It is one thing for you to brush off an inhabitant of, say, the history departments at Yale or the University of Wisconsin as knowing nothing of the military or military history. It is quite another to attempt the same with an Army Airborne Ranger who also happens to be an academic historian and who thinks that your personal signal work is a pile of poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces."

Really, Bateman refers to someone else's work - someone whose credentials are relatively sturdy - as "intellectually dishonest feces", and expect to be taken seriously?

Having read LTC Bateman's work I would have to say that he has every right to challenge Mr. Hanson. I believe that everyone who writes or asserts himself into the public domain is subject to challenge include LTC Bateman. I like Mr. Hanson's work but who amongst us is unquestionable? I see all of you jumping up to defend a great writer and popular author with comments that continue to slide towards disparaging Bateman. "A snotty know it all," really? You write like that but Bateman's challenge to Hanson embarrasses you?

Perhaps that officer groupthink = promotion syndrome has set in, sir?

Seems like LTC Bateman particularly dislikes what he perceives as VDH's dismissal of "campus liberals" (which phrase, to my knowledge, Hanson has never used). Seems like Bateman is looking to take offense here, stemming from some defensive attitude. Does Bateman see himself as a "campus liberal?" Does he hold that "campus liberals" have never ever written, spoken or acted against the interests of America and national security?

It can't be that Bateman is an adherent to the belief that only soldiers can write military history, can it? Or that he believes that Hanson has unjustly "styled himself a historian" because he doesn't have a degree in history from the NATO college in Rome and has never taught slack-jawed jocks at West Point?

This is all too amusing for me, not the least of which is Bateman's snarky asides ("aah, the smell of strawmen burning in the morning" [with a link to the wikipedia definition of "straw man" for us morons who haven't been to a NATO college in Rome]). Judging from his post, he writes like a snotty know-it-all second john, not a supposedly educated field grade. It embarrasses me as a fellow officer and, yes, trained/"educated" historian.

I have read two of VDH's works, one about the nature of Greek infantry combat, the other was "A War Like No Other". Both are solid works and well worth the time to read. I can not see why Bateman has attacked VDH with such anger. OK, he dislikes the book, but does that warrant such a reaction? Bateman's review seem , well, emotional and childish. They are certainly not clearly presented, and for that reason I think they are not worthy of this forum, which is, more often than not, conducted in a very professional and well reasoned (although occassionally emotional) manner. Bateman's piece seems to be a very strange--very strange.

I really think its unwise to so quickly dismiss the critique offered here as being "off topic." We do that too much when discussing historical issues, and then the "popular" works are more widely read. Its nice to have a discussion about small wars, but we need to actively debate the larger point of history as well among ourselves and the general public. Devoting a little space to reminding the rest of us about either the opportunity or the danger of popular historical works is not a waste of time. We should all be conscious that ultimately most of our funding will come from that wider public audience.

Actually, I think there is a Small Wars connection here, if for no other reason than people like Hanson can shape public (or at least policy maker) opinion, possibly shifting their responses to situations in directions that might not be in the best national interest.

The study and interpretation of history is a vital part of Small Wars; be it an analysis of past operations or the history of the region currently engaged in a Small War. Any sort of slant or warping of that study certainly deserves to be discussed, and should be discussed with great frankness. Some may recall that I'm in the corner with those who would like to see the citations from 3-24...mainly so I can trace the thought process that went into the manual. All of that goes into proper historical study. The US has a long history of getting involved in areas where we are tragically ignorant of the region's history and culture...and by marginalizing the study of history as it relates to Small Wars we are only condemning ourselves to repeat that mistake.

For those who complain about Bateman's's actually somewhat moderate when compared to what one might see in the book review sections of academic journals. I do agree that it distracts from the substance of his comments, but that doesn't (at least to me) detract from the substance of what he's trying to say.

Unlike Dunbar, I do not see an automatic exclusion of large wars from a discussion of small wars, nor do I see the reverse. That seems to me yet another classic example of the American "either/or" mentality. If, for example, you class the Cold War as a "large" war, there were a number of "small" wars going on within the framework. Warfare by proxy, or any number of the post-colonial struggles that drew in the superpowers, went on within that large war framework. It's always good to be familiar with both ends of the scale, as well as what's in the middle.

I must say that I agree with the very first comment made on this post. Also, I find Dr. Hanson's response(s) compelling and convincing, and commend them to the reader. However, I would like to address one issue that seems to be made out to be important in this piece, and in reality, I believe it to be a point of confusion or lack of understanding (or possibly, disingenuous on the part of the author of the article).

Regarding Dr. Hanson's training being in language, this issue is a nonstarter in my opinion. A man's training can be whatever he wishes it to be (and follows through with), and it doesn't stop after his formal education. I have always claimed and believed that a man becomes probably more competent at his hobbies than he does at his work, and if the two happen to coincide, he will truly be an expert.

Dr. Hanson's training, I suppose, was like most undergraduate liberal arts programs, but it is his graduate training that the author finds so insulting that he has to call it out. Frankly, I don't think it matters. Dr. Hanson either knows the era (history, milieu, people, language, etc.) and is qualified to weigh in, or he doesn't. It appears to me that he does, but the point is that his graduate studies have no bearing on his qualification to weigh in.

A PhD is a very targeted degree that may in fact have little in common with a person's particular chosen field after completion of the studies. An engineer, for instance, may choose to take four years writing and debugging a 100,000 line computer code to perform computational fluid dynamics, but then never actually do CFD in a career. A recent anthropologist was travelling the NASCAR circuit studying the whole culture of NASCAR (fans, cash flow at races, interactions of people, etc.), and while I will not weigh in here on what I perceive to be the value of this this study, it is certain that this PhD anthropologist will not find work studying NASCAR after he finishes his program.

A high level graduate degree has as its purpose something quite different than the broadness or quantity of learning. It has depth as its goal, and shows / hones the ability to do high level research and study, document it, and orally defend it before other doctors. As I commented to another commenter on the waterboarding post Nance wrote (without weighing in on the article), attacking the idea because of the person is a formal logical fallacy (genetic fallacy). Attacking an idea or set of ideas because of a person's alleged qualifications is in the same category.

It is best to address ideas without the high emotion and personal attacks. These things detract from the prose to the point that it makes it almost unreadable to me. I lose interest quickly. This would be better done had the original article been linked, Dr. Hanson's responses linked, and then a tidy, unemotional set of responses given.

I agree that LTC Bateman seems to be taking Dr. Hanson's book very personal, but I don't agree there is no relationship to small wars topics.

Dr. Hanson's book seems (I have not read it) to be telliing us that there is a viable military solution to the war in Iraq if we only stay with it. Unless I am not reading the name Small Wars Journal correctly, the idea behind this community is that there are no more options for "large" wars like what Hanson is talking about in his book.

Is Dr. Hanson's purpose of his book to inform us about past wars, that are no longer humanly viable in todays world, or is it to promote some by-gone era when we had the simplification process that war meant back then?

If you belive that a large war is still possible, then why are you signed up for the Small Wars Journal?

I agree; there does not seem to be any relationship to small wars topics. However, if LTC Bateman's essay is posted for comment, Dr. Hanson's response should be available for readers as well.

LTC Bateman:

You are of course entitled to your opinions and to state them anywhere you wish. However, I fail to see any connection between this essay and Small Wars.

Since I pay little attention to Hanson -- or any other talking heads who prattle in the various media -- I thought perhaps it was just me but I find myself in full agreement with Abu Suleyman.

Ken White

I would second the comments posted above. This essay, has no apparent connection to the topics found in Small Wars.

It appears to be the opening shots of what is becoming a personal vendetta between you and Hanson.

LTC Bateman,

I look forward to your individual analysis of these historical battles. I am neither a classicist nor a professional military historian, but I enjoy reaping the fruits of the labors of those who are.

Nevertheless I would caution you in your writing. You seem to have a personal animosity for Dr. Hanson. Apparently it has carried over from the Chronicle of Higher Education's weblog (which apparently does not offer permalicks or access to past entries, by way of Dr. Hanson's own blog. Whether that animosity is founded or not I cannot say, nor would I presume to say. Regardless, you can severely damage your standing by repeated allowing that animosity outshine the academic points you are trying to make. One of the hallmarks of academia is dispassionate analysis, in place of emotionally invested rhetoric. I admit that Dr. Hanson is a master of rhetoric (no doubt stemming from his study of classical rhetoricians), and that seems to be an issue of contention for you, but strong use of rhetoric is not necessarily and argument for or against a given point.

Also, I object to and oppose the use of ad hominem attacks or defenses. In this forum especially, but in every forum, it is not what the speaker is, what he has studied, his rank, or his degree that make his point valid. It is the facts and the way in which they are laid out that make the point. A valid explanation of military history is just as valid coming from a classical historian, a computer programmer, or a cabbie as long as the facts supporting it are valid. Obviously, someone who has studied military history has an advantage in terms of readily available information stored in their mind, but all that means is that they should more readily be able make an excellent argument.In grunt terms (I'm one too, BTW) know off the smack (edited for public consumption) talk and name calling and make your point.

Finally, the most common problem I see is taking things out of context. You need to cite people if you are going to quote them. This prevents things being taken out of context. For example when Dr. Hanson criticizes an unamed writer
"Not knowing about..." (Again, no permalink), he was responding to a reader who claimed that "...this is the most incompetent group of people ever to run a war in our nations history." The implication, while somewhat ham handed, is that the other instances of incompetence are far more egregious than those in Iraq. In another article, Dr. Hanson addresses in a much more finessed way, the woeful lack of historical perspective that modern society seems to have. This is is an assertion with which I happen to agree. It would seem from your article that you do to.

I would just say, choose your words carefully. Cite everything, and let the debate begin. I revel in new knowledge, since that is the only way we will ever know the truth.