Book – Carnage and Culture by Victor Hanson

A must read for anyone interested in either military history or the rise of the West. 

 Each chapter looks back to its predecessors and anticipates its offspring, weaving together examples from many timelines and cultures.  The result is a fluid presentation rather than episodic preaching.  Each chapter throws the reader into the battle, usually at the climactic moment, then follows the battle to its conclusion and immediate aftermath.  Only then does Hanson draw back to describe the campaign.  Finally, and most interestingly, are the analyses that make up the bulk of each chapter

.It is one argument of this book that the Western way of war is grounded not merely in technological supremacy but in an entire array of political, social and cultural institutions that are responsible for military advantages well beyond the possession of sophisticated weapons.  Superior technology cannot merely be imported; if it is not to become immediately static and therefore obsolete, the accompanying practices of free inquiry, the scientific method, unfettered research, and capitalist production must be adopted as well

Hanson slips into occasional anachronisms,

most troubling, his insistence on labeling ancient and medieval economies as ‘capitalist’ when most economists trace the emergence of capitalism from mercantilism during the Renaissance or even later.  This is a common failing when an author has a plan and all his examples need to fit it.  Instead, reality is more complex.  This oversimplification becomes problematic with his all too easy dismissal of the effects of geography and other theories – going so far as to claim that ” Japan is the classic refutation of the now popular idea that topography, resources such as iron and coal deposits, or genetic susceptibility to disease and other natural factors largely determine cultural dynamism and military prowess. ”  He sets this up as simple dialectic, without really demonstrating any major problems in these theories, instead claiming that his theory explains everything better.  Jared Diamond ( Guns, Germs and Steel ) and William McNeil’s Rise of the West, Power ) arguments are still strong, and Hanson is really showing complementary factors that gave the West its superiority in certain areas,  not a complete theory to replace these other factors.  Hanson has divided this superiority into multiple characteristics and provided an illustrative battle for each one:

  • Freedom – Salamis, 480 BC
    Decisive Battle – Gaugamela, 331 BC
    Citizen soldiers – Cannae, 216 BC
    Landed infantry – Poitiers, 732
    Techonology & the wages of reason – Tenochtitlan, 1521
    Market capitalism – Lepanto, 1572
    Discipline – Rorke’s Drift, 1879
    Individualism – Midway, 1942
    Dissent – Tet, 1968

Readers of Hanson’s other books

(Western Way of War, Soul of Battle) will be familiar with some of these examples, but all the chapters mostly contain new and intriguing material. The battle descriptions, as always, are excellent, but in addition, there are many set pieces that look at particular topics of the time, such as the Venetian galley industry, or Roman recruitment.  Most chapters bring new information, eg, the Spanish mining nearby volcanoes in order to replace their gunpowder.   

The final two battles are the weakest in the book – Midway presents little new information to build on other works about this well documented battle.  The Vietnam battle of Tet is an oddity – a Procrustean choice tailored to fit Hanson’s conservative ideology; he basically resorts to the tired “the media lost the Vietnam war”.  In previous chapters the lack of footnotes is a minor irritation, but here it becomes a major problem.  In the ancient history sections, Hanson is justifiably skeptical of the numbers presented by classical authors.  In Tet, however, he throws out numbers that only the most conservative of think tanks would support, without indicating his source, or any competing views.  Perhaps worst is his claim that the North Vietnamese were responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in the war, minimizing or excusing the massive US bombing and defoliation campaigns.

(For an extensive discussion of the campaign against the Ho Chi Minh trail, see John Prados’ The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War. )

Rather than support for his list of Western qualities, Hanson’s argument is instead is merely another example of the use of brute force

Hanson should have remembered his own earlier chapters

which show how a liberal, democratic, capitalistic, individualistic army and nation are difficult to defeat – when they’re fighting a war that they can believe in.  Rather than blaming what he terms treasonous action by antiwar protesters, and a overly liberal media, the real reasons for the US defeat in Vietnam have already been presented.  When the government lies about its aims, supports oppressive regimes, and covers up the real situation, then exposure by any media leads to disaffection.  The fault was not the media’s but rather that there was so much wrong for them to expose.  Hanson does admit some of this: 

Dissent at home was in line with the entire history of Western opposition to its own military practice on those rare occasions when victory proves elusive – often with results that are not necessarily negative to the long term interests of the state- … Once empires [my emphasis] commit such resources to military adventures, time becomes an enemy rather than an ally, as the inability to achieve immediate success sends ripples of doubt – fatal to any hegemon – beyond the battlefield to lap at uneasy allies and citizens at home.   

Hanson doesn’t seem to realize that he has exposed

the problem in his description of the US empire and hegemony.  His problem is in calling it the reason for the American loss in Vietnam.  Much more could be written on why we lost Vietnam. The fact remains, that the long process of analysis and self-criticism and accountability in the years after the war marks one of the greater strengths of an open culture.   I could write another entire review focusing on the other problems in this Tet chapter.  One final quibble must take Hanson to task for his gratuitous slurs on Martin Luther King and the Berrigans for their actions against the war.  Overall, this last example mars an otherwise excellent book, and the entire book is still highly recommended, if only to demonstrate the problems when a classicist moves from ancient history to modern politics and ideology.

By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us