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International Socialism, Spring 2003


Dave Renton

When superpowers lose


From International Socialism 2:98, Spring 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Victor Davis Hanson
Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam
Faber and Faber 2002, £16

We live through a time of war. The US ruling class saw the destruction of the Twin Towers as a terrible, symbolic defeat of its power. The Bush government was already gearing up for further conflicts, before committing itself, in the days following 11 September, to a war without end. Military spending has escalated dramatically, even as the rest of the economy threatens to fall into recession. The destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan has not cured this bloodlust, nor will the removal of Saddam Hussein. From Britain, New Labour offers its full support. There is no danger that the US will have to act alone. Instead, the prospect of further war looms, against other members of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’. In this context, it is perhaps useful to take a step backwards and imagine ourselves in the place of a US officer being trained at the Virginia Military Institute, or among their allies at Sandhurst or in the School of the Americas. How are they taught, what do the cadets read?

Victor Davis Hanson’s book Why the West has Won makes a play for this market. It comes recommended by British and US university professors, by the right wing pundits Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, and by, which listed the US edition of Hanson’s book as one of its ‘best of 2001’. Even The Guardian gave Hanson a generous review. The book is well written and appears erudite. Hanson is familiar with a small number of translated Greek authors, from whom he quotes extensively. His central argument is superficially compelling. Why the West has Won suggests that the secret of military success is to be found not only in better tactics or superior munitions, but in a culture of freedom. The tradition of liberty ensures that when ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ armies have met, the Western soldiers have usually supported their seniors, and have been more willing to exert themselves further for a cause, and have thus ensured their repeated victory.

Hanson selects nine ‘great’ battles, which seem to him to have decided the shape of modern warfare. They are the Greek naval victory over a huge Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BC, Alexander the Great’s success at Gaugamela in 331 BC, Hannibal’s tactical success (which could not be sustained) against the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, the defeat of an Islamic army at Poitiers in France in 732 AD, the destruction of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán in 1520, the defeat of an Ottoman navy at Lepanto in 1571, the British success at Rourke’s Drift against the Zulus in 1879, the defeat of the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway in 1942, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. Hanson’s narrative approach is based on an old genre of writing, dating back to Greek models. Hanson’s 20th century influences include Sir Edmund Creasy, who argued that military history provided moral instruction, and Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, the British strategist of tank warfare. [1]

Hanson’s argument initially appears liberal. It implies the need for an army in which discipline is loose rather than tight. Hanson’s conception of history is hardly Marxist, or even social democratic, but it seems to demand a future in which ‘the Western states’ (meaning Europe, the US and now Israel) remain liberal democracies. Indeed Victor Davis Hanson goes out of his way to distance himself from the traditional arguments of political conservatives. Such passages may indeed explain part of the book’s popularity. Hanson loudly rubbishes racism as a form of ‘pseudo-science’. He rejects the old ‘great man’ conception of history. Hanson insists that the West has never embodied any higher morality than its opponents. Indeed part of the reason he gives for the military success of Europe has been the willingness of Western armies to wage war murderously, even to the point of genocide. [2] The Zulu fighters killed according to conventions of individual military honour. The Aztecs fought mock-battles, ‘flower wars’, to show which side possessed superior weapons. The weaker society surrendered without having to suffer casualties. What chance did such soldiers have against Spanish troops armed with guns and the ‘brutal’ and ‘notorious’ ideology of the Inquisition? [3]

The education systems of Britain and North America have long been based on the principle that whatever gruel may be fed to the children of the middle and working classes, the rich require a proper schooling. This explains why Marx remains on the reading lists at Oxford, Cambridge and in the Harvard Business School, while lesser institutions have consigned Capital to the rubbish bin. A similar principle applies to Hanson’s book. It needs to appear intelligent and well argued, and must bear in mind all awkward contradictions, if future US soldiers are not to die in vain. Yet there are also problems with Why the West has Won, and it is worth dealing with some of them before coming to the central question. Can we turn Hanson on his head, can we use the bellicose account of history that appears in his book, in order to explain the current US war effort, and the limitations it faces?

The legend of ‘the West’

From a historical perspective, the most obvious and glaring weakness of this book is its claim that ‘the West’ has enjoyed a continuous history of political freedom, an identical and continuous political culture ranging from ancient Greece to the modern US. Hanson teaches classical history at California State University, and seeks to link the conflicts that he has studied to those of the present day. As this is the most original part of his argument, it is worth considering at length. The problem with his approach is not just that it commits him to a pro-Western chauvinism. It also limits his conception of freedom. Distinguishing between West and East, Hanson writes, ‘Wall Street is much closer to the agora than to the palace at Persepolis and the Athenian court akin to us in a way the pharaoh’s and the sultan’s law is not.’ Indeed, if freedom can mean both the freedom of the people to live free from state control, and also the freedom of the rich to enjoy profits without taxation, then it is clearly the second definition that appeals to Hanson. The whole history of European civilisation from the 5th century BC to the present becomes, in his hands, a very dull and limited account, tending only to the rise of capitalism. [4]

Would the ancient Greeks have understood his emphasis on Europe? In one passage, Hanson argues that a racial theory of Western civilisation is illegitimate, because it would not have been recognised by the Greeks. [5] Yet exactly the same problem applies to the claim that the Greeks were ‘European’. Such early historians as Herodotus may have divided the world into three continents – Europe, Asia and Libya – but he did not ascribe any moral or social differences to the people living in each region. Many of the towns that he thought of as Greek were located in Asia, while the European Greeks, he pointed out, were descended from recent migrants. [6] Even the Romans, with their giant empire, rarely described Europe as a single entity. Instead, as Martin Bernal has demonstrated in his history of classical civilisation, both the Greeks and Romans recognised that their culture was only the development of previous languages and religions. Both recognised the Egyptians as their model. Indeed right up to the 18th century all classical scholars accepted the idea that ancient Greece was neither ‘Eastern’ nor ‘Western’, and certainly not ‘European’, but a Mediterranean society in contact with others right across the region of Europe and North Africa. With the rise of slavery, such ideas were rejected, and the Egyptians relegated to the status of barbarians. The idealisation of Roman and Greek ‘classical civilisation’ was a selective knowledge motivated in part by racism. [7]

Although Hanson teaches classical history, he dislikes making his sources public, and rarely cites the original languages. His discussion of ‘liberty’ in Greek society is weak, serving as it must the contention that all Western civilisation culminates in contemporary US capitalism. Hanson claims that the Greeks and the Romans possessed one word for freedom, the Greek eleutheria, roughly equivalent to our own. Yet the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome understood better than Hanson the complex promise of freedom, and used different words to refer to different social realities. The Roman word libertas often meant little more than freedom from a despotic monarchy. [8] The Greek word eleutheria had a slightly stronger sense, of freedom from all unjust authority. It was also accompanied by grander terms, including isonomia (’freedom’, meaning sensuous freedom, the ability to make real choices, such as active participation in democracy) [9] and eudaimonia (’happiness’, including a sense of joy achieved through deliberately joining oneself to the cause of general liberation). Marx pointed out long ago that if Western workers enjoyed ‘freedom’ (they were not slaves), then they were also ‘free’ of possessions, and therefore victims of poverty and exploitation. The best of the Greek philosophers knew Marx’s point, and made it, differently, themselves.

For much of their history, the Greeks enjoyed a system of direct popular rule, as the American socialist C.L.R. James has described:

The principle of Greek democracy was this: that every single member of society, the tailor, the shoemaker, the factory worker, the cook, as well as an educated nobleman or merchant, was fully able to take part in the government of the state. The Greek democrats believed this and practised it to the extreme limit. [10]

Of course, women and slaves were excluded from this democracy, and the large landowners were often able to turn popular institutions in their favour, against the wishes of smaller farmers. The conflict between classes was a common theme of Greek drama. Yet permanent state functionaries were kept to a minimum. Judges, admirals and governors were all elected. These early city-state societies were at least as democratic as our own.

Hanson discards the Greek notion of isonomia in favour of a very ‘Republican’ idea of freedom, in which ‘citizens should own their own farms, provide their own weapons, be free from taxes and centralised government’. [11] Against this limited conception of democracy, the Greek notion of ‘radical political freedom’ strikes Hanson as ‘a virus’. [12] Hanson’s account of the victories of Alexander the Great is especially troubling. For while our author claims that what motivates him is a love of Western liberty, it is clear that he finds in Alexander’s despotism a better model of a properly governed society. The admiration for a single ruler, free to dominate society at will, has contemporary echoes, as Hanson admits:

Had Alexander died at the Granicus on his entry into Asia (his head was almost cleaved in two by an enemy cavalryman) and had Hitler’s Panzers not stalled a few miles outside Moscow in December 1941, a few historians might consider the Macedonian merely an unbalanced megalomaniac whose insane ambitions ended in a muddy stream near the Hellespont, and the latter a savage but omnipotent conqueror who through brilliant and decisive battles vanquished Stalin’s brutal communist regime. [13]

Several writers have recently used ancient Greece as a metaphor to explain present-day society. Christopher Hitchens has argued that post-war relations between Britain and America were long based on the conception that the US was like ancient Rome, and Britain like Greece – a dispossessed former empire which continued to exist in order to give cultural sustenance to the greater power. [14] Meanwhile Donna Tartt’s novel, The Secret History, describes US campus life through the prism of a class of students studying the Greek language. Her Greece was a crueller world that threatened to infect our own. [15] Something of this latter approach seems to have contaminated Hanson’s book, for while he makes a great parade of his liberal claims, Hanson is really concerned to argue that the contemporary West (meaning the US) must become a fully militarised society, in which the space for free discussion is seriously curtailed, and where the willingness should exist for the public to accept that their rulers must fight dirty, even genocidal wars. Such preferences become especially clear in Hanson’s account of the Vietnam War, in which he treats all anti-war activists as self deceiving, Communist dupes.

The historical sections of this book are seriously distorted by Hanson’s heady, conservative ideology. The writer makes the point repeatedly that non-Western peoples never write their own history. If he just visited his own college library, Hanson might be pleasantly surprised. [16] Hanson’s account is weak on the Islamic conquests. His history of the development of capitalism is also unimpressive. He suggests that the advantages of the Western economy were always obvious. In which case, why were the cities of medieval Mexico larger than those of medieval Spain? Hanson also misunderstands the traditional account, which states that one reason for the early success of Western capitalism was the relative ‘backwardness’ of previous feudal society. [17] The very success of the Chinese or Indian states in grabbing surplus from the small farmers – their high development – was one factor retarding the later growth of a class of merchants or industrialists. Conversely the weakness of the Western European states made it easier for an independent class of agrarian capitalists to emerge. Hanson gets simple historical arguments wrong, and contradicts himself repeatedly.

Yet for all these criticisms, Hanson’s account comes alive when he is allowed to roam where he is happy, on the field of battle. Whole sections of the book are detailed, even loving accounts of violence, designed to win a military audience. Hanson describes at length what it must feel like to drown at sea, [18] and dwells throughout on the statistics of mass slaughter – the 250,000 killed at Salamis, [19] the ‘charging, killing and still more killing’ of Alexander’s armies, [20] and the murderous fanaticism of Christian warriors at Lepanto. [21] Because our author is motivated by the desire both to say something new, and to get at least his military facts right, so he does provide genuine insights into the conduct of war. His accounts of the imbalances between the arms used by Western soldiers and the weapons of their enemies are usually convincing. He also makes an original point in suggesting that an army based primarily on heavy infantry should usually defeat one based on cavalry, or, in contemporary terms, air power. [22]

When superpowers lose

In reading the book, the main question we must ask ourselves is as follows. Is the author so blinded by right wing ideology that his description of military matters is unsound? If so, then the book nevertheless has its uses. Hanson could be placed within a set of US imperial advocates, alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski, Dick Cheney, Samuel Huntington, Henry Kissinger and the like. [23] What Why the West has Won would show us would be that, beyond the immediate circle of George Bush and his cronies, there exists a body of opinion at the head of US society which is eager to demand further battles, the extension of police and military power, long after the Saddam Husseins of the present have been dispatched. Yet we can make greater use of Hanson than that. Let us suppose that his military writing is more accurate than his cultural history. How does Hanson explain the frequent military defeats of the West, and does his account offer any hope to anti-war activists in the future?

The core argument of Hanson’s book is that the Western powers (armed with a superior conception of liberty) have won all battles of any significance. Yet our author is forced to admit certain counter examples, including such 19th and 20th century cases as the defeat of the British army by Zulu forces at Isandhlwana, the destruction of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the loss of French and US troops in Vietnam in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Placed on the spot, Hanson acknowledges (1) that at certain times, non-Western armies have enjoyed greater ideological strengths than the superpowers; (2) that the most powerful militarised nations have not always enjoyed a similar level of economic dominance over their rivals; and (3) that conflict at home can undermine the most powerful state. Each of these three factors is worth discussing.

Hanson’s defence of Western liberty is that it has been a system of both discipline and autonomy. At times, individual soldiers have been allowed to make real choices, and have therefore identified with the system for which they fought. Yet non-Western societies have also embodied aspirations, and gained similar contracts of support between the state and the people. One obvious example of this process would be the Civil War in Russia in 1918–1921. The Whites embodied all of Hanson’s ‘Western’ virtues – a belief in free markets and the sanctity of private property, a military command structure copied from the previous imperial army – and were willing to use unrestrained violence even against civilians. The strength of the Reds was that they were motivated by a higher set of values, a belief in a classless society. Even under the terrible conditions of war, the Red Army was less profligate in its use of terror, more friendly towards members of racial and national minorities and oppressed classes, and more likely to enjoy the support of the local population. [24]

Similar wars of social or national liberation have been fought throughout the 20th century. [25] Hanson allows himself to consider only one such battle, the Tet Offensive, which proved a turning point in the US war in Vietnam:

As long as the Soviets and Chinese supplied top-notch weaponry, as long as the Vietcong could pose to influential American journalists, academics, and pacifists as liberationists and patriots, rather than truce breakers and terrorist killers, and as long as the American military tried to fight a conventional war under absurd rules of engagement and over corpses counted and not ground taken and held, the North Vietnamese would recruit ample fresh manpower on the promise of a free nation to come. [26]

The first sentence in this passage is significant. Hanson admits that Western military superiority has frequently depended on economic power. The Spanish defeated the Aztecs in part because their weapons and armour were much superior. The US victory at the Battle of Midway was helped enormously by the fact that between 1941 and 1945 the US’s production of battleships outpaced Japanese production at a rate of 16 to one. [27] Such passages as these remind us that the organisation of human labour is always an important historical factor. In a different context, the post-war economic historian Sidney Pollard wrote that:

There are other ways of looking at what is of real significance in history than to charter the doings of that small number of men who, in every age, wrest more than their share of power and wealth from the community. First, their very eminence depends on the labour of millions of unsung heroes behind them: thus the role of Great Britain as a Great Power, holding the Balance of Europe and winning every major war, was not due to the skill of her diplomats and her admirals whose names are household words, but to the fact that Britain’s ironworks produced more iron, her cotton mills produced more yarn, and her shipyards more ships than other nations; and now that her industrial superiority has disappeared, the best diplomats cannot make us a power to be reckoned with, the bravest generals cannot win us any wars, and the finest adventurers cannot secure us an empire. [28]

Hanson acknowledges that the growth of military power can develop beyond the point that relative economic strength can sustain. Such is the condition of the present, where US spending accounts for nearly half of all global military expenditure, yet the US economy controls a smaller share of global output. The success of the post-war Japanese and West German economies derived from their low arms spending, but enabled the construction of greater armies in the future. Several US commentators fear a similar process in China – the creation of a major economic power without the US’s widespread obligations. While the US has no intention of fighting any power the size of France, say, or Germany shortly, a major concern must be that each assault on some smaller state risks drawing in an enraged patron. Hanson’s account of the Vietnam War suggests that America’s best chance of military victory would have been to invade North Vietnam. [29] Faced with this option at the time, the generals drew back, fearing that such a tactic could start an all-out war with China.

The most important explanation for the US’s defeat in Vietnam – even if Hanson never uses these words – is the prospect of class struggle at home. The final section of Hanson’s book is devoted to the treacherous conduct of US dissidents during the Vietnam War. The US army, much like the mythologised German army of 1914–1918, never suffered a single defeat. Even the Tet Offensive was turned back. Each time they went into battle, he claims, the US soldiers killed dozens of their enemy for each Western soldier lost. The only possible explanation for the defeat is that the US was somehow stabbed in the back.

’The American soldier,’ writes Hanson ‘remained disciplined’. [30] But every serious commentator has observed that morale collapsed. The soldiers were increasingly unwilling to fight using plans that had failed, for generals they did not trust, against an enemy they did not hate. Jonathan Neale writes that the Vietnam War ‘was carried out by American soldiers. But for them it was a working class war’:

It was not the children of the rich and powerful who were sent to Vietnam. For those who went, being there was part and parcel of their oppression at home, perhaps the worst part of it. And the killing and cruelty they found themselves doing was part of their oppression. What made it worse for them, and sometimes made them more cruel in their actions, was that they could see this. They learned that the people they were fighting in Vietnam were the same sort of people they themselves were in America. [31]

Of the three factors mentioned, it is this last which is potentially the most significant. If war is truly the continuation of politics by another means, then no matter how great the advantages that the superpower might enjoy, in terms of material and ideology, the US will always remain vulnerable. A truly unpopular war is almost never won.

The future military success of the world’s superpower will depend on its ability to fight the wars that Hanson wants – turkey-shoots, in which the US takes on despised governments with poor military technology, and without serious opposition at home. Yet the political logic of the war on terrorism would suggest that such easy victories will not be sufficient to quell the anxieties of the US’s rulers. 11 September seemed to them to be such a great reverse that a similar-sized victory is required. Simply in order to demonstrate that the US remains a superpower, there must be further conflicts on an ever grander scale. The US will be forced to fight again until the state faces greater challengers, against which she might actually lose. The greater the rival, the more civilians will die. As the war on terror continues, socialists may have to use such books as Hanson’s – against the author’s intentions – to explain our rulers’ plans, and with the urgent goal in mind of a world without war.


Many thanks to Anne Alexander and Dave Pinnock for comments on an earlier draft.

1. Fuller was a colourful but shiftless character. He is best known these days not for his military writing, but for the public support that he gave first to Aleister Crowley and then Oswald Mosley.

2. Gilbert Achcar has recently shown that Frederick Engels expressed a similar idea, predicting that European armies were capable of fighting extraordinary wars, in which millions might die – G. Achcar, Engels: Theorist of War, Theorist of Revolution, International Socialism 97 (Winter 2002). The difference between Engels and Hanson is that the former understood that such conflicts were made possible by a total system of class relationships (capitalism), ideology (nationalism) and economic development (industry). Hanson, by contrast, reduces everything to one factor: this supposed, timeless concept of Western freedom.

3. V.D. Hanson, Why the West has Won (Faber and Faber 2002), p. 198.

4. Ibid., p. 53.

5. Ibid., p. 4.

6. Herodotus, Histories (Wordsworth Classics 1996), book 2, chapters 14–16; book 6, chapter 63.

7. M. Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation (Vintage 1991).

8. C. Wirszubski, Libertas (Cambridge University Press 1960), p. 12.

9. C.L.R. James, Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece (Correspondence 1956), pp. 4–11.

10. Ibid., p. 6.

11. V.D. Hanson, op. cit., p. 58.

12. Ibid., p. 59.

13. Ibid., p. 90.

14. C. Hitchens, Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1990).

15. D. Tartt, The Secret History (Penguin 1993).

16. The point is especially annoying in the context of Hanson’s discussion of South African history, where Hanson’s account is notably inferior to existing textbook histories, including P. Maylam, A History of the African People of South Africa (Croom Helm 1986); J. Peires, The Dead Will Arise (Ravan 1989); and F. Meli, South Africa Belongs to Us (James Currey 1986).

17. A vastly more impressive account of the transition can be found in C. Harman, A People’s History of the World (Bookmarks 2000), pp. 155–158.

18. V.D. Hanson, op. cit., p. 26.

19. Ibid., p. 31.

20. Ibid., p. 72.

21. Ibid., p. 235.

22. Ibid., pp. 239, 242.

23. For the rival views of such writers, see A. Callinicos, The Grand Strategy of the American Empire, International Socialism 97 (Winter 2002), pp. 3–38.

24. J. Rees et al., In Defence of October (Bookmarks 1993), pp. 37–67.

25. Even before 2001, some commentators used the evidence of such wars to argue that America was most vulnerable to attack from a Third World enemy employing low-tech methods. See for example M. van Reveld, Technology and War II: Postmodern War?, in C. Townshend (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War (Oxford University Press 1997), pp. 298–314.

26. V.D. Hanson, op. cit., p. 405.

27. Ibid., p. 341.

28. S. Pollard and C. Holmes (eds.), Essays in the Economic and Social History of South Yorkshire (South Yorkshire County Council 1977), p. v.

29. V.D. Hanson, op. cit., p. 407.

30. Ibid., p. 427.

31. J. Neale, The American War: Vietnam 1960–1975 (Bookmarks 2001), p. 3.

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