Memo to Bin Laden: blame the Greeks! When the time comes to write the latest Afghan war's chronicles, one question will surely entertain historians. About 120,000 Soviet troops couldn't win victory there in 10 years, but a relative handful of Western soldiers took only a few weeks and a few Western casualties to wrest control of the country from the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. How come?
Some answers spring to mind: massive air power and an alliance with local forces exploiting the Afghans' disenchantment with the Taliban's cruel excesses. But a new book Carnage and Culture by Victor David Hanson (Doubleday; 492 pages) published a month before the Sept. 11 atrocity suggests a more fundamental reason: a facility for swift wars of annihilation that Westerners began acquiring in the valleys of Greece 2,800 years ago.
Hanson, a classics professor at California State University at Fresno, first analyzed Western military dynamism in his 1989 work, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Ancient Greece. He argued that the Western military ethos is traceable to warring Greek city-states, which contracted among themselves to meet at an agreed-on battlefield, fight to a decisive conclusion and not yield that field until one side was broken. The idea took root that war's central purpose was to "find and engage [the enemy] in order to end the entire business as quickly as possible." Subtitled Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, Hanson's latest book traces the evolution of this "ideology of brutal frontal assault." His case studies range from the Greeks' destruction of a Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis (480 B.C.) to the U.S. victory (in strictly military terms: the author acknowledges the political defeat) over the Viet Cong's Tet offensive in 1968.
The Greek phalanx columns of spear-carriers drawn largely from free property owners with a substantial stake in a battle's outcome established infantrymen as the centerpiece of European military power. At the Battle of Poitiers (A.D. 732) Frankish infantry, the phalanx's latest adaptation, routed much-feared Muslim cavalrymen. The Franks' victory confirmed, says Hanson, "that good heavy infantry, if it maintained rank and found a defensible position, usually defeated good cavalry."
Once firearms arrived, "Europe, far more easily than other cultures, was able to convert ranks of spearmen" into deadly infantrymen. They "fired as they had stabbed in unison, on command, shoulder to shoulder and in rank." From this flowed astonishing Western military feats: Hernán Cortés' 1,600 men slaughtering more than 1 million Aztecs (1519-21); a Christian fleet's crushing of a larger Ottoman Muslim armada at Lepanto (1571) and the creation of an empire on four continents by a British army that in 1879 had only 180,000 men.
Meanwhile, the West was developing what Hanson calls "the only economic system that works, a rationalist tradition that alone allows material and technological progress, the sole political structure that ensures the freedom of the individual, [and] a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind."
If that sounds too much like a Westerner's triumphalism which it is the author hastens to assure readers that he does not believe the West has a monopoly on individual bravery or strategic genius. It's just that culture and history have made Westerners more skilled on the killing fields. And in a passage Osama bin Laden (or Japanese militarists) might have profited from, Hanson points to the way in which the West's Greek-originated ethical ideas generate a murderous indignation: "We in the West call the few casualties we suffer from terrorism and surprise 'cowardly,' the frightful losses we inflict through open and direct assault 'fair.'"
Hanson's command of a broad historical canvas is impressive. But his analysis becomes less convincing when he speculates about the future. Today, he says, "deadly Western armies have little to fear from any force other than themselves." His corollary: the West need not worry about non-Western flare-ups (e.g., in the Middle East) as much as a war between two Western armies.
So who could find themselves fighting? The U.S. and Europe, says Hanson. He points ominously to "the specter of a pan-European state [that] seems to create unity among its members by collective antagonism and envy of the United States."