Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think. Victor Davis Hanson. Doubleday. 278 pages; photographs; maps; index; bibliography; $27.50.
Three Great Battles That Shaped the Western World
Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson is a series of three extended essays that show how people and events connected to a trio of disparate battles effected momentous ramifications for the Western world. Battle, Hanson says, transforms history like nothing else because it compresses the timelines of human ability and chance and allows indiscriminate fate to level human achievement, elevating some and destroying others. The best among us are often the ones who die in the fighting. The battles he discusses are Okinawa in the spring of 1945, Shiloh in April 1862, and Delium in November 424 B.C. These three battles, according to Hanson, have shaped the development of Western thought, American culture and more particularly, the American way of fighting wars. All three have therefore conditioned America's response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Hanson's approach argues against the idea that individuals make little or no difference in the sweep of history. On the contrary, Hanson makes a strong case that the deeds, experiences, deaths and survivals born of battles create waves of vast cultural, political and economic significance. The experiences of individuals involved in these three battles in particular have precipitated immeasurable consequences for the modern world.
The first part of the book describes how the slow grind of head-on fighting on Okinawa led to the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, how a strategy of intentional sacrifice aimed at destroying as many Americans as possible in hope of a negotiated armistice backfired on Japan. It is compelling reading.
Hanson's discerning analysis reveals deep psychological and ideological influences resulting from the fighting there, making an implied ethical argument. Hanson suggests that the contemporary moral debates surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki have lost sight of the horrific killing on Okinawa, a battle whose actual facts no one seems to want to remember. His analysis is reminiscent of the exchange of essays between Michael Walzer and Paul Fussell, most notably Fussell's rejoinder, "Thank God for the Atom Bomb." Hanson is firmly in the camp of Fussell in assuming that the use of terror bombings against Japan can be somehow separated from the larger ethical question of an American imposed unconditional surrender.
Diving into the historical facts of the ruthless, bloody nature of the battle for Okinawa reveals how and why America could use atomic weapons against innocent noncombatants in 1945. The implied moral argument urges that the number of lives ostensibly saved by Japanese surrender in the wake of employing atomic weapons justified their use. Hanson uses references to E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed to underscore the moral point of the horror of Okinawa and the anticipation of even more extensive horror on the Japanese home islands. This explicit historical argument impresses itself on the reader with absolute clarity.
The ripples of this battle in American culture led to a series of unfortunate assumptions, among them wrongheaded American analogies to conducting the later wars in Korea and Vietnam. One of the unfortunate assumptions Americans took from the Okinawa experience was an attitude long held to be a truism in the West: "After the startling array of suicides on Okinawa, Americans were convinced that Asians in general did not value life-theirs or anyone else's-in the same manner as Westerners." That attitude grew out of the Japanese strategy of fighting to the death and of using the civilian population as much as possible. The result was horrific casualties among Japanese soldiers and civilians, 10 times as many as the Americans in combatants alone. The employment of the suicidal kamikaze or "divine wind" attacks also contributed to that awful toll and to the resulting impression.
Hence one of the most interesting aspects of Hanson's discussion of Okinawa is the issue of kamikaze attacks as terror tactics. He points out that Americans were not the only ones to draw some bad conclusions from Okinawa. We see the ripples of Japanese suicide attacks today in terrorists who are willing to destroy themselves while criminally destroying the lives of innocent people. As Hanson points out, what the terrorists have failed to grasp in their weak analogy is that suicide as a weapon always fails. It strips away the moral reluctance and restraint of the targeted population, and inevitably results in a crushing backlash. Hanson's analysis implies that American reaction so far to terror is only the beginning of the extent to which the responses will reach.
One point Hanson alludes to is the real difference between the Japanese kamikaze as a tactical weapon of terror and the fanatical suicide zealot as a terrorist. Where the uniformed Japanese kamikaze attacked combatants, partly to instill terror in armed opponents, modern terrorists ape the tactic to terrorize noncombatants and to ambush combatants by criminally appearing to be something they are not. While the kamikaze attackers sacrificed selflessly, modern terrorists believe ardently in an ultimate, other-worldly, personal gain. Where the kamikaze are revered by their nation as warriors, the murderous actions of modern suicide bombers will be remembered in criminal infamy, even among their own people eventually. Hanson's analysis, however, is right on when he suggests that "the terror of suicide [at Okinawa] brought out the greater terror of the Western way of war." As he points out, fanaticism would be met with industrial and technological escalation. In that conclusion, he points toward the ripples of Okinawa lapping upon the conduct of the war on terror for many years to come.
Hanson's discussion of Shiloh is equally compelling but not as morally didactic as his discussion of Okinawa. The butchery at Shiloh also led to changes in the way America would fight its future wars and battles, including that on Okinawa. Unfortunately, some of the lessons of Shiloh were lost on the senior American commander and repeated on Okinawa.
In spite of his subordinates' pleas to envelop the Japanese fortified line, Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr. insisted on frontal assaults. The American emphasis on mass instead dominated the thinking at Okinawa, and it was Shiloh that made mass an American obsession among the principles of war. Shiloh was also the genesis of another American tradition in war, that of the power of moral retribution in galvanizing the attacking army's determination to undermine those who began the war. Through the survival and elevation of key individuals at Shiloh, modern war would forever depart from its preindustrial ideal of the chivalric past where armies sought battle with armies. After Shiloh, the Union turned toward attacking supply lines and industrial power bases. Shiloh's influence therefore on the American way of fighting World War II was enormous.
This first of the Civil War bloodbaths overflowed with the presence of future luminaries whose experiences would shape the ultimate course of the American people in nearly every aspect of society, not only in war. Some of those spared in the killing in April 1862 would transfigure American popular culture in ways that will be felt for the remainder of our history because of how the battle transformed their subsequent lives. Echoes of the recriminations in the aftermath of the battle changed the political landscape of the nation as well. Likewise, some of the most profound evil in the nation's history can trace its virulence to critical events at Shiloh. For American readers in particular, this part of Ripples of Battle is a significant and valuable history lesson with insights unique to Hanson's analysis.
With the defeat of the Athenians at the battle of Delium in 424 B.C., Hanson saves the best for last. This discussion begins with diagrams of the battle, the first of the Peloponnesian War's massive hoplite heavy infantry clashes. Delium occurred just over the border from Attica in Boeotia, home of the Theban confederacy. The Thebans were de facto political allies of the Spartan alliance, sharing enmity with Athens' empire. Athens attacked their northern neighbors in an effort to close down a potential second front. Hanson makes the point that the Athenian army that fought the battle was a "home guard" consisting mostly of the older men, the flower of the Athenian heavy infantry having embarked on ships in an abortive attempt to outflank the Boeotians.
One glance at the diagrams reveals a startling fact to those who have studied the evolution of tactics in the West. The immediate implication is that Epaminondas, the celebrated innovator and victor of Leuctra in 371 B.C., tutor to a young Phillip II of Macedonia and intellectual benefactor to the world's greatest conqueror, Alexander, had followed already known tactical principles in the 4th-century war against Lacedaemonia and he did not invent them, as so many have thought. The question that comes to mind is whether or not some other military genius, not known to history, had bequeathed the ideas to later generations of Thebans. Hanson cleverly saves the explanation of this mystery until the end, realizing his diagram will have hooked anyone seriously interested in military history.
Delium also served as the vehicle that advanced the aspirations of the brilliant and dangerous Alcibiades. Because of his conduct in his retreat from the battle, he was able to rise to prominence and eventually take the lead in propelling Athens through the ruinous war to satisfy his personal ambitions. Hanson's analysis of his rising and falling star throws into new light what one reads about him from Plutarch and Thucydides. After two decades filled with a series of horrendous debacles, Athens' empire would collapse and surrender to Sparta and her allies. Hanson convincingly traces the roots of that disaster directly to Alcibiades and to events in the rout of the Athenian army following Delium.
Perhaps the most significant ripple that emerges from this momentous clash of Greek hoplites is that Delium unleashed the inspiration that would lead to the two greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, Plato and Aristotle. The Athenian defeat can be said in this sense to mark the watershed between Western philosophy's focus on science and cosmology, and its subsequent focus on ethics and a metaphysical basis for ethics.
For similar reasons the battle made for fertile reflection on the nature of war and society that produced the high period of classical Athenian art in all its forms. What Hanson does not remark on, but what is implied by his analysis, is that all subsequent Western philosophy and theology, in all its later merging with Eastern ideas from Persia, would have the imprint of the battle of Delium stamped upon them. A cool head and a fighting retreat ensured that the 45-year-old Socrates would survive the Athenians' rout, and his experience in the battle would cement his relationship with Alcibiades. The battle also provided him much grist for philosophical thought until the day he was executed at age 70.
Ripples of Battle has an impressive annotated bibliography and a substantial index. Pictures depict the major topics of discussion and support the text well. This book is fascinating reading. Hanson is in many ways a disciple of Russell Weigley whose seminal The American Way of War is obligatory reading for American military professionals. Hanson's own The Western Way of War is likewise read in American military colleges. Some of Ripples of Battle recalls Hanson's debt to Weigley, but the greater part of it is an original and insightful exploration of the interconnected structure of the human condition, punctuated as it is by conflict across time and place. In that sense it is not only great historical analysis but also an original philosophical exploration. When battles happen, the netlike web of human experience suffers a pull that causes the whole to distort from what would have been its dimensions otherwise. In a relative instant of conflict, the greater context of the sweep of human history radically alters shape. Ripples of Battle is thought-provoking material for those readers interested in understanding America's intellectual and cultural legacy, especially how that legacy has contributed to attitudes relating to war.
By Lt. Col. Peter D. Fromm
U.S. Army retired
LT. COL. PETER D. FROMM, USA Ret., taught English and philosophy at West Point for six years. He lives in Japan and studies political history and Eastern philosophy.…