Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think

Article excerpt

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.

'Fascinating Reading'

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. …