Hanson On War: 'The Father Of Us All"

Historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that war is unchanging and tragically persistent through the ages. While technology improves and strategies adapt, human nature remains the same.

His collection of essays on war and history is titled, The Father Of Us All.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The current HBO series "The Pacific" is based in part on E.B. Sledge's memoir of two almost forgotten battles fought by the U.S. Marines during the Second World War. Anyone who's read "With the Old Breed" or seen the TV show emerges with a fresh appreciation for the brutality and waste of war. But there are other lessons from Peleliu and Okinawa about loyalty and love, about suicide attacks and fanatic enemies, and about human nature.

Military historian, classicist and syndicated columnist Victor David Hanson wrote an introduction to Sledge's book and then adapted that as part of one chapter in the new book of essays on war and history, ancient and modern, called "Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern." And the author joins us now from a studio at Stanford University, where he's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Victor, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (Author) Thank you for having me again, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder if you've been watching the miniseries.

Mr. HANSON: I have. I just watched the ninth episode last night.

CONAN: And do you think they're getting it right?

Mr. HANSON: I think they are. I think "The Pacific" was a lot more difficult to comprehend and a lot more - it was a lot more brutal and it was a lot harder on the American soldier than even Europe was. It was not as well understood. And remember, when Okinawa was going on, which was last night's episode...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HANSON: ...the country was occupied with the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the upcoming defeat of Germany, and people had no idea that we were going to lose 50,000 casualties in an amphibious operation after we had just supposedly learned from Iwo Jima and Tarawa and Peleliu. And yet, Okinawa turned out to be the most horrific American experience, in some ways, in the entire war.

CONAN: And the - what do you take as - you had a relative who was lost in that conflict.

Mr. HANSON: Yes. My namesake, Victor Hanson, was killed May 19th on Sugar Loaf Hill. And he was...

CONAN: Just a few hours before the end.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah, just a few hours before. And it really affected - I wrote a book once called "Ripples of Battle." It rippled out for that family forever. And much of the letters that he wrote are analogous to what Eugene Sledge wrote and I think most people wrote. And that is that when you go to war, you're in a - you have no good choices. They're bad and worse. And so, as a military historian, I see military history as didactic, that you want to get to a situation where you can avoid that type of war in Okinawa.

The moment they landed on the beach, there were no good choices. And those decisions that led to that no-good choices were taken probably in the late 1930s or, at best, in 1940-41. In other words, you want to be military prepared. You want to deter potential aggressors. But once a war starts, you want it to get over quickly and as - with overwhelming force. But unfortunately, the United States was not in a position by 1941. It took us until 1945. The worst months of the war, actually, were the ones right before the end.

And that happens so often in war, where the most costly months and -even weeks of the war are right before the final defeat or victory of one side or the other.

CONAN: In the European theater, true as well there, as it was with in the Pacific.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: And yet, you also go on to draw much broader lessons about human nature and about the nature of, well, our fate upon this earth. You take the, what you call, the tragic field.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah. The book is titled after a phrase from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclides, who said: War is the father of us all. And what he meant by that was not to glorify war, but to realize that it's in - within our human psyches, our makeup. And if we were to read history and to try to learn from it, then we would learn that people are aggressive, just as you individuals are in their own daily lives.

I pick up the paper every day and I read incredible stories about suburbanites who fight over things like leaves falling on one side of a fence. Often, it leads to violence. And yet, how do you deter those or how do you prevent those disputes? And history suggests to us that, unfortunately, given our Neanderthal, limbic brains, that we don't really do it in an enlightened way all the time. Sometimes, diplomacy is a great tool, and we're all reasonable people that sit around a table.

But other times, there are bad actors who only make one calculation. That is: Is it in my interest, or am I not - is it not in my interest to try something aggressive or stupid? Then they have to be told in advance, do not do that. Otherwise, I think something like Okinawa follows.

CONAN: And you return again and again in this book to Thucydides, of course, wrote the great history of the Peloponnesian War. And his conclusion that people go to war for reasons of quote, "honor, fear and self-interest, period."

Mr. HANSON: And that's sad, yeah. It was what Borges said about the Falklands, two bald-headed men fighting over a comb.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSON: There was nothing there of strategic interest at that time and there's really plenty of land in the Middle East. There's - Germany, today, has only, I think, three million more people but almost 20 percent less territory and nobody in Germany is talking about Lebensraum. So, people are motivated by fear and honor and perceived self-interest. And when you have somebody like the - a Hitler or the Argentine dictatorship, the only thing that can prevent them from doing something like invading Poland or invading the Falklands is to tell them in advance, dont do it. But by 1939, Hitler was convinced that he should do it, and I think that things the British government did as well, sent the message that they could go into the Falklands with little consequences.

CONAN: Indeed, similar kinds of messages sent before the outbreak of the Korean War and, indeed, before the outbreak of the first Gulf War.

Mr. HANSON: I think so, too. I think that if Dean Acheson hadn't have said that or implied that Korea was outside our sphere of influence, the North Koreans might not have invaded across the 38th. Same thing on the Gulf War. I think that an American ambassador gave the impression to Saddam Hussein that it was just a mere border dispute with Kuwait and that we werent involved strategically.

All these things are, again, the Thucydidean idea that perceptions rather than real need that people are starving or they need oil or they have some strategic necessity that forces them to go to war. It doesnt seem to compute very much when you examine the causes of war throughout history.

CONAN: You go back to November of 1979 and what became the Iranian hostage crisis and suggests that there might have been a difference if the affluent West had issued if the American government had issued something along the following lines: If the Iranian government does not release the 52 captured and illegally detained American diplomatic and military personnel, the U.S. will soon began a systematic aerial destruction of all its military assets. If the personnel are harmed in any way, the government of the United States will further ensure the destruction of the Iranian power grid, refinery capacity and general infrastructure.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah. I think that when Jimmy Carter looked at that crisis, there was a lot of guilt over backing the Shah rather than an analysis that, given the extremes between the Shah and Khomeini, the Shah may have had the ability to evolve in a way that would be more favorable to women or other groups in a way that Khomeini would never do.

And that was really the birth of radical Islam and led to a whole string of incidents, terrorist incidents of the type that we see now. And, yet, had we said to that illiberal government, you violated international law, you've attacked the United States by invading its embassy, and then give them a series of deadlines not to - and have them met, I think that we wouldnt have ended up in the situation where we are today.

And it was the perception on their part, I think, you could make the argument that Ronald Reagan might have done something different than Jimmy Carter that - that eventually won their release. Because there was probably a likelihood had Reagan been confronted with the situation that Carter was, he wouldve probably used force. Although later on in Lebanon, he seemed not to...

CONAN: Stick to it.

Mr. HANSON: ...understand that lesson.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah.

CONAN: Well, there was disaster.

Mr. HANSON: So it's not a Republican or a Democratic problem. It's the -it's very hard for a commander-in-chief to say that if I dont - if I act here, some people might be injured but a lot more people will be saved because I will reestablish deterrents and red lines. And that's very hard for a commander-in-chief because appeasement - if I could use that term - I know it's been used too loosely. But it's always the more enjoyable or the more attractive option in the short term because nobody is going to get killed in the short term.

CONAN: Yeah...

Mr. HANSON: And the idea that in the long term, it's going to get people - a lot more people killed is something that's always abstract and theoretical.

CONAN: Some would question, though, what they might consider your stark view of human nature, that we are still prisoners of the same kinds of traps that affected the ancient Greeks, that surely we wouldve figured out other ways, conflict resolution there...

Mr. HANSON: Yeah, absolutely. I'm depressed too because I see - I pick up the paper, I say, my God, this is what the - the promise of the Enlightenment was that educated, well-fed, well-taken care of individuals with suits and ties can adjudicate things in a way that cavemen couldnt. And, yet, we see these conflicts all the time.

But there isnt so much reason for pessimism because war - we have 2,500 years of it. So we do have case studies. We can look at it empirically and see how they arise, how they break out, how they end, what the course of events is during their duration and learn from them.

And it seems to me that if we sort of get rid of the intellectual arrogance that we're - we've arrived at the end of history and say, look, we have to be military prepared, we have to ensure that there's deterrence, we have to work with allies that have shared democratic values, we can deter people at a stage where violence will not ensue.

CONAN: Yet...

Mr. HANSON: ...where the opposite is pretty depressing, I think.

CONAN: Again, some people would say, what does Thucydides or Xenophon or the Roman authors have to say about the post-9/11 world? It's completely different.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah. You got a good point because a lot of people in the United States suggest that technology has changed the course of events, that maybe even that brain chemistry has evolved in 2,500 years so that we're not - we dont think, we dont react to stimuli - I've had people tell me that - as the Greeks 2,500 years ago.

It reminds me of my grandfather. The first time I turned on a pump, he walked over and said, you know, look at this, 1,500 gallons a minute, instantaneous water. I used to get three with my hand on the old hand pump. And he turned to me and he said, you think water has changed? His point was, dont be fooled by technology, that we're human, water is an element, it will never change. And therefore, the general principles of irrigation have to be understood whether you're delivering 1,500 gallons per minute or you're doing just two or three.

And I think that's the same with war. We're so caught up in technology and drones and all of this pizzazz that we forget that it's still a human enterprise and human nature, I don't think, has changed in a mere 2,500 years. So we have to understand what motivates us, what deters us, what makes certain collections of individuals, which that's all nations are, do things that don't seem rational or explicable in retrospect.

CONAN: We're talking with Victor Davis Hanson about his new book "The Father Of Us All, War And History: Ancient And Modern." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

There's also a fascinating aside that you go into, talking about Lincoln and the Civil War. And with, again, a modern application and that is that public regard for how you're doing in the war really dictates a great deal of how you are - will do and indeed how you are regarded by history.

Mr. HANSON: I think so. I think Lincoln said to the effect that public opinion is everything in a war in this constitutional consensual society. And remember, by 1864, after the Wilderness and Cold Harbor and Sherman hadn't taken Atlanta yet, he was not only probably going to lose to McClellan, he might not have been nominated because people were talking about Freeman.

Same thing with Truman. In the dark days of winter of 1950...

CONAN: And Korea.

Mr. HANSON: ...and then, in April with MacArthur, he had MacArthur incident and we could go on and on and on and on. And there are these -and public opinion, in March of 2003, 71 percent wanted to go into Iraq and were triumphant when the statue fell. And yet, by the time of the surge, the debate of whether to go in surge or not was only 34 percent.

People, whether we like it or not, they have ideologies but they're -the overriding impulse is to identify themselves with success and distance themselves from failure. And I wish that were not true, but I think it's true of everybody, of every ideological stripe and I think that commanders-in-chief understand that. And, boy, it's absolutely true if we look at our own recent history...

CONAN: And...

Mr. HANSON: ...no matter where we are.

CONAN: And true, certainly, even with the Civil War, which we now regard as a war of liberation, a war with the greatest moral purposes ever.

Mr. HANSON: I'm afraid you're right, Neal. I think if Sherman had not taken Atlanta on September 2nd, Lincoln would not have won that election. And I'm convinced of that. On the - because after all, Gettysburg was a distant memory. The idea that the Confederates had lost the big battle, they'd failed in the Northern invasion, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, nobody after Cold Harbor remembered that. All they remember it is that - the summer of woe, 100,000 casualties, the army at Potomac had been destroyed and there was crazy Uncle Billy Sherman who was up to and really saved the Union cause. And he did it in spectacular fashion, sent a telegram, Atlanta is ours and fairly won. And bingo, you couldn't find anybody who didn't like Lincoln and hadn't been for him all along.

CONAN: And we have yet to address the opening of your book, which is that we need to teach military history and we don't.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah, I think we should because I think there's two or three reasons. I mentioned one that it's didactic and we can learn from history and try to avoid wars in the future by learning what causes them in the past. But there's also a moral impulse that we drive by these military summaries off the freeway or we walk by them and we have no idea of the collective sacrifice of thousands of people who gave up everything at 18, 19, 20 in places that we don't even remember: Taroa or Belleau Wood or Shiloh Church. And people don't forget that.

And yet, when we watch "Oprah," we go order Pizza Hut takeout and go to Wal-Mart, all of that freedom and affluence and bounty is predicated on a very small number of Americans who were willing to give up everything. And I think - so there's a moral nature of, I think, involved in it. The final thing is that history inquiry started as military history, and only military history. So, Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, earlier, Herodotus, Persian War, Punic Wars, Polivius - I could go on and on.

But they saw that all moments were not equal. In other words, that when people were fighting over their very lives, that time was compressed or accelerated. And things happen - technology, political developments, revolutions, all of that happened and then Thucydides or Polivius would say to us, 1947 was not as important as 1945, 1918 was more important than 1921, 1864-5 was important than 1852. And for us that are - sort of believe in relativism, we think everything is equal and all history has merits or demerits but not in the classical sense of military history. I think it would be wise for us to rediscover that notion.

CONAN: And wise to remember, as you point out early in your book, that Socrates, the great critic of the war of his lifetime and the invasion of Syracuse and Sicily, was in fact a veteran of the army.

MR. HANSON Yes. Yes, at three places (unintelligible) and if I could summarize his ideas, whatever good that I can do by objecting to Sicily, the Sicilian Expedition of 415, and he did object to it, is overshadowed by the fact that I can do a lot of damage once my country makes a decision to go to war by helping its defeat.

And whether you agree with it or not, that's pretty much the final paragraph of Eugene Sledges with the old we sort of forget it but he says, Okinawas pretty bad. Things went wrong. There were a lot of atrocities. But if the United States is good enough to live in, it's good enough to defend in its entirety. And it's very, very that message is often lost because it's sort of anti-war memoir but we forget that beneath it, it's a very - it's a pay on to the United States' singularity.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, thanks very much for your time today.

MR. HANSON Thank you again, Neal, I appreciate it.

Mr. HANSON: Victor Davis Hansen is the author of "The Father Of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern." He joined us from a studio on the campus of Stanford University, where he's senior fellow at Hoover Institution.

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Excerpt: 'The Father Of Us All'

Cover of 'The Father Of Us All'
The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern
By Victor Davis Hanson
Hardcover, 272 pages
Bloomsbury Press
List price: $25.00

Studying War: Where to Start

The best place to begin studying war is with the soldiers' stories themselves. E. B. Sledge's memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, is nightmarish, but it reminds us that war, while it often translates to rot, filth, and carnage, can also be in the service of a noble cause. Elmer Bendiner's tragic retelling of the annihilation of B-17s over Germany, The Fall of Fortresses: A Personal Account of the Most Daring, and Deadly, American Air Battles of World War II, is an unrecognized classic.

From a different wartime perspective — that of the generals — Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs is justly celebrated as a model of prose. Yet the nearly contemporaneous Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman is far more analytical in its dissection of the human follies and pretensions that lead to war. Likewise, George S. Patton's War As I Knew It is not only a compilation of the eccentric general's diary entries but also a candid assessment of human nature itself. Xenophon's Anabasis — the story of how the Greek Ten Thousand fought their way out of the Persian Empire — begins the genre of the general's memoir.

Fiction often captures the experience of war as effectively as memoir, beginning with Homer's Iliad, in which Achilles confronts the paradox that rewards do not always go to the most deserving in war. The three most famous novels about the futility of conflict are The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, and August 1914, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. No work has better insights on the folly of war, however, than Euripides' Trojan Women or Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

Although many contemporary critics find it passe to document landmark battles in history, one can find a storehouse of information in The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, by Edward S. Creasy, and A Military History of the Western World, by J. F. C. Fuller. Hans Delbruck's History of the Art of War and Russell F. Weigley's The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo center their sweeping histories on decisive engagements, using battles like Marathon and Waterloo as tools to illustrate larger social, political, and cultural values. A sense of high drama permeates William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru, while tragedy more often characterizes Steven Runciman's spellbinding short account The Fall of Constantinople 1453 and Donald R. Morris' massive The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879. The most comprehensive and accessible one-volume treatment of history's most destructive war remains Gerhard L. Weinberg's A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II.

Relevant histories for our current struggle with Middle East terrorism are Alistair Horne's superb A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962, Michael B. Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, and Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. Anything John Keegan writes is worth reading; The Face of Battle remains the most impressive general military history of the last fifty years.

Biography too often winds up ignored in the study of war. Plutarch's lives of Pericles, Alcibiades, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Alexander the Great established the traditional view of these great captains as men of action, while weighing their record of near-superhuman achievement against their megalomania. Elizabeth Longford's Wellington is a classic study of England's greatest soldier. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command, by Douglas Southall Freeman, for all its detractors, remains spellbinding.

If, as Carl von Clausewitz believed, "War is the continuation of politics by other means," then study of civilian wartime leadership is critical. The classic scholarly account of the proper relationship between the military and its overseers is still Samuel P. Huntington's The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. For a contemporary J'accuse of American military leadership during the Vietnam War, see H. R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.

Eliot A. Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime were purportedly a favorite read of the former presidents. It argues that successful leaders like Ben-Gurion, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Lincoln kept a tight rein on their generals and never confused officers' esoteric military expertise with either political sense or strategic resolution.

In The Mask of Command, Keegan examines the military competence of Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler, and comes down on the side of the two who fought under consensual government. In The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, I took that argument further and suggested that three of history's most audacious generals — Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton — were also keen political thinkers, with strategic insight into what made their democratic armies so formidable.

How politicians lose wars is also of interest. See especially Ian Kershaw's biography Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis. Mark Moyar's first volume of a proposed two-volume reexamination of Vietnam, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965, is akin to reading Euripides' tales of self-inflicted woe and missed chances. See also Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle: France 1940.

Few historians can weave military narrative into the contemporary political and cultural landscape. James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era does, and his volume ushered in the most recent renaissance of Civil War history. Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August describes the first month of the First World War in riveting but excruciatingly sad detail. Two volumes by David McCullough, Truman and 1776, give fascinating inside accounts of the political will necessary to continue wars amid domestic depression and bad news from the front. So does Martin Gilbert's Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941. Donald Kagan's On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace warns against the dangers of appeasement, especially the lethal combination of tough rhetoric with little military preparedness, in a survey of wars from ancient Greece to the Cuban missile crisis. Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation reminds Americans that their idealism (if not self-righteousness) is nothing new, but rather helps explain more than two centuries of both wise and ill-considered intervention abroad.

Any survey on military history should conclude with more abstract lessons about war. Principles of War by Clausewitz remains the cornerstone of the science. Niccolo Machiavelli's The Art of War blends realism with classical military detail. Two indispensable works, War: Ends and Means, by Angelo Codevilla and Paul Seabury, and Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret, provide refreshingly honest accounts of the timeless rules and nature of war.

Excerpted from The Father Of Us All, copyright 2010 by Victor Davis Hanson, courtesy of Bloomsbury Press.

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