Book – Soul of Battle – Victor Hanson

The Soul of Battle : From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny

Hanson’s theme is “Never in human conflict have such vast democratic infantry forces appeared out of nowhere, wrought such havoc and then dispersed among the consensual culture that fielded them.”

Union infantry fires volley
Union infantry fires volley
  • Epaminondas of Thebes and his campaigns which destroyed Sparta
  • Sherman’s March to the Sea and march through the Carolinas in 1864-65
  • Patton’s Third Army campaigns from Normandy to Czechoslovakia in 1944-45.
Jumping back and forth while discussing each leader in historical context, Hanson shows that these seemingly different men are very similar.  
These were ideological wars to overthrow slave or apartheid systems and each of these generals realized that merely defeating armies was not enough. Instead they found similar methods to keep casualties low while striking hard and dramatically at the underpinnings of the three slave based societies of Sparta, the Confederate South, and Nazi Germany.   Epaminondas of Thebes was the first of Hanson’s trio of generals to discover the need to do more than defeat an enemy army in the filed.  Despite a major defeat at Leuctra, the Spartans recovered quickly and soon were as threatening as ever.  It required an invasion of their homeland. The Spartiate nobility “hid in the streets with their sobbing women and children – like the females who were left to beg from Sherman on the plantations, and the once proud German citizens who took down their portraits of Adolf Hitler and approached Patton’s army with white flags.   The only way to end Spartan aggression was to fight it far beyond the battlefield, destroy the material and spiritual capital that fuelled the army in the first place: plunder its farmland, free its castes of inferiors, and exhibit how shallow was the entire “Spartan mystique”.  The elite of all militaristic slave states, with elaborate pseudo-scientific claims to ethnic and racial superiority, must fight and fight well when invaded.  To huddle in town, to avoid the army of the enemy, to flee his onslaught is prima facie evidence of the lie that permeates such societies, as terror quickly gives way to humiliation.  No Spartan, like no Confederate, like no German could ever claim that “a stab in the back “had brought the enemy among his women and children; it was now plain to see that only the failure of a militaristic society’s military was to blame.  (P93)   Hanson points out that long before Kant, Epaminondas realized democracy is the only way to avoid wars.  “For better or worse, after Epaminondas’s great invasion the free citizens of the entire Peloponnese would now vote when and when not to go to war.”   Soul of Battle is compelling history, mixing biography, background history, and detailed military tactics and strategy.  The Epaminondas section will be new to most readers, even those who’ve read Hanson’s earlier Western Way of War. At best, we know this short decade as the ‘Theban hegemony”, filling the gap between Sparta’s victory in the Peloponnesian War and Philip and Alexander’s Macedonian conquests.  Hanson shows that Epaminondas and the Thebans deserve more attention.  This was recognized by both Sherman and to an even greater extent by Patton. Hanson remarks, “It is more than likely that there was not a single American general in Normandy who had ever heard of Epaminondas – a figure that had lived with Patton in the forty years before he took command of the Third Army “  

The Thebans set out in 370, as they had at Lecutra and would again at Mantinea, ready and eager to meet the Spartan phalanx – but on their terms only.  They were not particularly interested in either chasing or waiting for its appearance.  Rather, like Sherman in Georgia, the strategy of the army was to march through enemy territory, destroying property and humiliating its citizenry, displaying to subject states and underlings alike the impotence of their masters, with the confidence that if the enemy chose to fight, it would lose even more dramatically.    Epaminondas ‘s Thebans were not a light army of plunderers or skirmishers, nor a plodding phalanx that existed for battle alone, but rather both.  He is neither predecessor to Alexander nor successor of Pericles, but rather innovator of this new balance of movement in force against the human and material capital of the enemy – a paradigm that other democratic musters would follow in the centuries to come.  At any point, Epaminondas was prepared either to meet the Spartan phalanx in battle or to continue his march at its periphery and to its rear – thereby in Sherman’s words putting the enemy “on the horns of a dilemma”.  (p 115)  

Epaminondas’s proper legacy is no less than the beginning of the great tradition of self-appraisal and military self-critique in the West – which at the core is the very struggle for the Western heritage itself. …  the more liberal tradition of civil rights, democracy and consensual government that must fight to reclaim the Hellenic legacy from its fringe elements and rival claimants… When Epaminondas destroyed Sparta as a military power, he helped to reassert the humanity of the West, and so established a precedent for centuries to come: when there arose a distortion of the main evolutionary course of Western civilization — Spartan helotage, Southern slave society, National Socialism – there would often be an eventual terrible response from the more liberal societies in order to reclaim the Western legacy that was properly theirs alone. (P119)   Sherman’s section brings many new ideas and insights to an oft-told tale.  The tactical innovation of Sherman’s skirmishing foragers are vividly realized:    

The foragers became the beau ideal of partisan troops.  Their self-confidence and daring increased to a wonderful pitch, and no organized line of skirmishers could so quickly clear the head of column of the opposing cavalry of the enemy.  Nothing short of an entrenched line of battle could stop them, and when they were far scattered on the flank, plying their vocation, if a body of hostile cavalry approached, a singular sight was to be seen.  Here and there, from barn, from granary and smokehouse, and from the kitchen gardens of the plantations, isolated foragers would hasten by converging lines, driving before them the leaden mule heaped high with vegetables, smoked bacon, fresh meat and poultry.  As soon as two or three of these met, one would drive the animals, and the others, from fence corners or behind trees would begin a bold skirmish, their Springfield rifles giving them the advantage in range over the  carbines of the horsemen.  As they were pressed they would continue falling back and assembling, the regimental platoons falling in beside each other till their line of fire would become too hot for their opponents, and these would retire reporting that they had driven in the skirmishers upon the main column which was probably miles away.  The work of foraging would then be resumed.  

But tactics takes a back seat to ideological and political argument. Nearly the entire population of Sparta could be considered elite, relying on hundreds of thousands of non-Spartan, enslaved helots. Epaminondas destroyed the Spartan system by liberating the helots and assisting them in creating new city-states like Messena and Megalopolis In the South, conditions were different, with slave owners, and particularly owners of large numbers of slaves, being a minority.  Yet Hanson shows how even here slavery dictated an entire culture   The idea of states’ rights, the notion of fighting for their home ground and the common cultural ancestry of the South were strong and understandable incentives as well.  But once again behind the entire social fabric of the South lay slavery.  If slavery eroded the economic position of the poor free citizen, if slavery encouraged a society of haves and have-nots, if slavery alone drew the hostility of Northern abolitionists, then it alone offered one promise to the free white man – poor, ignorant and dispirited – that he was at least not black and not a slave.  That was often a great comfort to those who otherwise had found very little material or psychological capital under Confederate plantation culture.    To return to the classical paradigm, slavery is often cited as the reason for the astonishing absence of class conflict in the classical world, in which … the poor almost never arose in mass against the wealthy.  Ancient historians.. attribute this curious absence .. to the ubiquity of chattel slavery – whatever the exploitation of the free man, he was one with his bettors on at least 3 counts: there were particular menials, certain ‘slavish; work .. from which he was exempted; like the wealthy, the poor man could vote; and he was entitled as a free citizen to fight in the militia of the polis.  In general, the classical example seems a reasonable explanation at least in part for why the poor white of the South felt the slaveholder’s cause was also his own – he would fight as if a planter, vote as if a planter, and in exchange receive assurance from the planter that he was not a member of the 44 percent of the Georgia population who really were both legally and naturally “inferior”   The Patton section is written in reverse chronological order, starting with Patton’s accidental death after the war.  These flashbacks intensify the feelings of what-if and if-only as multilayered decisions by Bradley and Eisenhower are peeled back to expose how they the lengthened the war.   

In every tactical crux of the Normandy campaign, Patton alone offered the correct advice – from the rapid follow-up on the breakout in early August 1944, to the need to hurry on to Brest, to the entrapment of the Germans at the Falaise Gap, to the critical goal of sealing off the exists of the German armies once he crossed the Seine, to the idea of approaching and crossing the Rhine rapidly at the end of August, to the notion of enveloping the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes and slicing off the enemy salient at its base, to the desire to trap and destroy two entire German armies west of the Rhine, and to the final question of preventing Soviet occupation of eastern Europe.  In each case, had the Americas allowed the Third Army and its seemingly insane general to have his way… thousands of Allied soldiers would have been saved, the war shortened, the horror of the death camps ended months earlier, and the calamity of postwar communism for a few millions perhaps averted.     

Hanson’s piercing analysis of the fall and winter campaigns of 1944-45 adds up to solid support for Patton’s diary entry:  “I could not help but think our delay in pushing forward would probably result, after due course of time, in the erection of many other such monuments for men who, had we gone faster, would not have died.”:   (Of course, especially for the considerations of dealings with the Soviets,  Eisenhower’s decisions often had more political than military ingredients, but that’s for a different book and another review.)   In summarizing, Hanson brings all 3 men back onstage:     For a few brief months in the winter and spring of 370-369 a single man had created a vast democratic army that changed the course of Greek history.  So too in a matter of weeks Sherman fashioned the Army of the West into the most lethal army the world had yet seen.  In less than a year George Patton had turned 250,000 amateur American recruits into a mobile and lethal force that could charge ahead at forty miles and more a day through enemy occupied territory.  Superior discipline, pride in accomplishment, unit morale, devotion to an eccentric and brilliant general can all explain much of those remarkable victories.  But not all.  In the end, Boeotians, Northerners, and American GIs advanced so rapidly and so lethally because they saw themselves as more moral troops than their enemies.  As agents of a long-overdue reckoning, they really did believe that they were democracy’s ultimate vengeance against a slaveholding society that they were fighting a culture, not merely an enemy army. (p403)   Hanson realizes that it may surprise and even shock or insult some readers to name Sherman, Patton and Epaminondas as marchers for freedom, but he emphasizes that their thinking led to faster and more solid peace rather than to further brutalizing war.  “True, they had no delusions about either human nature or war; but this realism grew out of humanism, not cynicism, as they practiced a brutal war-making in order to prevent casualties and establish an enduring peace.   What Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton did was very rare in military history, for democracy itself is rare in the larger history of civilization, [ dawn of everything ] and rare still its great armies of victory that seek no gold or land, but rather the enemy in its heartland only for the freedom of others.    When a free and consensual society feels its existence threatened, when it has been attacked, when its citizenry at last understands an enemy at odds with the very morality of its culture, when a genius at war leads the army with freedom to do what he wishes, when it is to march to a set place in a set time, then free men can muster, they an fight back well, and they can make war brutally and lethally beyond the wildest nightmares of the brutal military culture they seek to destroy.   The antithesis is equally valid: democratic armies do not fight well when they are not attacked, when they are stationary with nowhere to march, when they fight to preserve privilege or empire, when they are not supported at home, when they are led by careful clerks and bureaucrats who command by consensus – in short, when they are not moving forward with every means at their disposal to destroy the enemy in the cause of freedom.  The entire American experience in Southeast Asia, like the Athenian disaster in Sicily, is proof enough of just how mediocre under those conditions – strategic, tactical and spiritual – a democracy at war can become.     An epilogue looks at how Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton might have conducted the Gulf War.  
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