Book Review: The Western Way of War by Victor Davis Hanson

There can be no question that the nature of warfare has changed dramatically over the last 8,000 years or so of civilised history. The techniques that we use to kill other people have improved; the tactics that we use to accomplish victory have been updated as the times demand; the methods of training used to turn ordinary men into soldiers have progressed dramatically over the long and bloody history of Mankind's slow and often painful march to modern civilisation.

Yet despite these changes, there have been certain constants in the philosophies of certain civilisations. Islamic civilisation, for instance, places very little value on individual life, subsuming the concept of individual identity completely in favour of the tribal identity; this in turn leads to a very different and often very alien philosophy of warfare from the one that Westerners are used to facing and understanding. The same could be said of Communist regimes that argued in favour of an almost antlike approach to war- engaging the enemy with huge numbers of low-quality troops with the intention of bringing down a technologically or qualitatively superior opponent through sheer grinding attrition. The Asian philosophies of war, most closely embodied in ancient texts like The Art of War, Records of the Three Kingdoms (as opposed to its more prosaic and rather less factual counterpart) and of course the legendary Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings, emphasises the use of beautiful tactics and stratagems combined with an often annoyingly vague mysticism (that often did not work in practice, by the way).

And if we look at the Western philosophies of war, we see: an overriding concern for minimising civilian casualties, a strong belief in the qualitative superiority of heavily armed and armoured assault troops used to break enemy formations, tremendous emphasis on high-quality training, and high regard for trained and skilled officers capable of leading their men coolly and calmly in the heat of battle. The question that this book attempts to ask and answer is: where did this philosophy come from?

The answer, as with so many things when it comes to the West, is that the modern Western philosophy of war comes straight from classical Greece. And it is in showing us that answer that VDH demonstrates just why he is regarded as one of the finest classical historians alive today.

Military history can be either a fascinating or godawfully boring subject, depending on the writer. Historians of ancient battles tend to go one of two ways- either they enter into mind-numbing detail about their chosen subject, or they use a more deft approach to bring their histories alive (at the cost of some detail and therefore rigour). Finding a balance between these two extremes takes considerable skill; in this book, Hanson has found that balance. Despite the potentially weighty nature of the subject, Hanson writes with the style and lightness of a novelist cataloguing ancient battles long past.

His subject is the origins and evolution of the classical Greek infantry unit we know as the phalanx. Hanson doesn't just ask why the phalanx acted the way it did- he asks why the phalanx even existed in the first place. And if you think about it, this is an interesting question. He comes to some unusual and historically unique answers as well.

As the book makes clear, the phalanx would, in most other parts of the world, be regarded as a rather bizarre choice of infantry unit. Phalanxes were made up not of professional soldiers (with the notable and very exceptional case of the Spartans) but of citizen-soldiers, who for most of the year were simply farmers working their land. They did not fight for any king or emperor, but for their polis (city) and their families. Each hoplite within the phalanx was expected and even required to maintain his own bronze armour, which was passed down from father to son and preserved from generation to generation. In every way, the main Greek infantry unit was unique from those used by every other army in the ancient world.

The unique, farm-based origins of the citizen-soldiers of Greece also led to unique infantry tactics. As Hanson points out, Greek infantry tactics were predicated on a massed charge of one phalanx straight into another, with the intent of simply "pushing" the opposing force off the battlefield. The idea was to simply crush the opponent's wings and flanks as quickly and as efficiently as possible- with the intent of allowing the same citizen-soldiers who formed the army to return to their fields and resume their normal lives. The fact that the very source of a city-state's well-being and economy was out there on the battlefield meant that opposing armies had every incentive to keep combat short, sharp, brutal, and as far away from the cities as possible, thereby minimising civilian casualties in the process. Greek hoplites were trained to fight as a single, impenetrable unit, rather than individually or in small squads, with veterans massed in the right wing of the phalanx to stop the phalanx's infamous rightward drift. As Hanson describes using contemporary accounts of phalanx-vs-phalanx and phalanx-vs-other-formation battles of the time, in battle the shield wall and spear hedge of the phalanx looked like nothing so much as a hedgehog curled into a ball to ward off attack.

Hanson's research demonstrates conclusively that the Greek approach to warfare concentrated almost completely on the readying and deployment of hoplites as specialised assault troops, as the armoured infantry of their day. And as he shows in his research into battles between Greek and non-Greek formations, time and again the Greek approach to sharp, decisive battle through the use of heavily armed and armoured shock troops would prove superior in the face of vastly greater numbers and logistical support. From the time of the first Greek city-states in the early 1300s BC until the time of Philip of Macedon's and later Alexander the Great's use of layered and complex infantry strategies backed by chariots, cavalry, and mounted archers, the Greek phalanx proved its almost total superiority in battle against virtually every single adversary. Indeed it was not until the height of the power of the Roman Republic, nearly 1,200 years after the founding of the first Greek city-states, that the Roman legion finally shattered and destroyed, once and for all, the Greek phalanx at Pydna- and that too after the Romans themselves discovered the strengths and weaknesses of the phalanx formation in their wars against Carthage.

The book itself is divided into thematic "sections", concentrating first on the origins of the Greek method of warfare, and then moving on to the particulars of Greek arms and armament. Hanson goes into great, almost (but not quite) excruciating detail about the composition of Greek armour, starting with the helmet and shield (hoplon) and continuing on through the entire panoply of war. You might be startled to learn just how heavy the full panoply was- 40-50lbs in total weight, with the hoplon accounting for at least 20lbs of that weight. This also helps explain exactly why the Greeks placed so much emphasis on short, sharp, very brutal pitched battles in which men were wounded and killed in the lines, but in which the killing was over after just 20 minutes or so. Hanson's descriptions of the use of the Greek short sword and spear, in particular, are most impressive, and his research is impeccable; he delves deep into sources ranging from contemporary historical accounts by Thucydides and Plutarch, research papers and books by eminent modern historians, and even Greek pottery and artwork to bring ancient battles to life.

The third section is, I believe, the most important. In this section Hanson unites the origins and methods of Greek warfare into a coherent narrative to attempt to explain not just how the Greeks fought, but why they fought that way. The overriding Greek concern for reducing the entire cause of war down to a single glorious and terrible clash of sword and spear, flesh and bone, mind and body, has persisted throughout the entire canon of Western military tactics down to the present day. The desire to end a campaign in a single decisive moment is still one that modern generals believe in, despite their understanding of the need to prepare for long, protracted theatres of war with multiple fronts and massive logistical issues. Hanson points out conclusively that among the many great debts that Western civilisation owes to classical Greece, this desire to minimise the horror of war down to a few brief moments in battle has also given the West a better reason to go to war than most civilisations.

For unlike most other civilisations, the West, thanks to the Greeks, understands something very important: the purpose of war is not just to take life, but to preserve it.

It is the final part of the book, the afterword, in which Hanson's point is really driven home. We have come a very long way from the age of Greek infantry tactics, to the mass slaughter of European battlefields in the 19th and 20th Centuries, to the small-unit infantry engagements of the 21st. But for all of our increasingly automated and ever more efficient approaches to killing our enemies, our debt to the Greek concept of warfare remains immense. It is because of the Greeks that war is still viewed as something to be fought "over there", rather than amidst civilian populations. (Whether Western generals actually practice what they preach is an entirely different issue altogether, of course.) The dehumanising nature of modern warfare, in which drones controlled remotely by, in essence, highly paid video gamers, stands in stark contrast to the way the Greeks fought eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand against their opponents- and the latter's enduring legacy in our military histories and our imaginations are the reason why we regard the former with suspicion and disdain. As VDH points out in his closing remarks, the use of atomic weapons is abhorred precisely because we still believe, as the Greeks did in their time, that if war had to be fought, it should be fought on a limited scale by men with real stakes in the outcome- citizen-soldiers fighting for their homelands and their farms, rather than professional armies fighting for pay and treasure, or conscripts fighting for unknown and remote masters.

If there is one significant flaw in this book, it is the fact that Hanson constantly references battles of the past in completely jumbled-up fashion in order to illustrate his points. If you don't know much about the Pelopponesian War, the battles of Actium, Delium, Mantinea, Chaeronea, or Leuctra, and especially if you've never heard about the legendary last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, then Hanson's descriptions of these battles will leave you without any clue as to where and when these episodes of Greek history took place. That said, Hanson explicitly points out that he isn't looking to write a conventional narrative of history; he is instead attempting to put forth a theory of warfare that has remained internally consistent throughout the last three thousand years of its application by Western military strategists.

In short, if you enjoy military history, and you like reading a book that is written with a great eye for detail as well as considerable narrative skill, then you will very likely quite enjoy this one.

Didact's Verdict: 4/5, a little dull and somewhat hard to follow in places unless the reader happens to be VERY familiar with the intimate details of Greek history, but still a very solid read nonetheless.

Buy The Western Way of War here.

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