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Summary Article: Hanson, Victor Davis from Encyclopedia of Military Science

In the decades around the turn of the 21st century, the historian, classicist, and opinion journalist Victor Davis Hanson emerged as one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States. Born into a farming family in California's central valley in 1953, Hanson worked on the family raisin farm before and after earning a Ph.D. from Stanford University in classical Greek history in 1980. In the years since, he has authored or coauthored more than 15 books and scores of articles, book chapters, and opinion pieces. This entry discusses Hanson's writings and his views on war making.

Hanson's importance to military science comes in two areas. The first is as a scholar of the ancient world, in particular warfare in ancient Greece. The second is as a commentator on contemporary military affairs, especially in the time after September 11, 2001. Hanson's particular attribute has been to link these areas, drawing ideas from antiquity into the present day.

Hanson emerged as a leading classical scholar and military historian with Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983, 1998, rev. ed.), The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Ancient Greece (1989), and The Other Greeks (1995), books that made groundbreaking arguments for connections between agriculture in Greece's terrain and climate and the manner in which the Greek city-states waged war. In short, Greek agriculture and individual land ownership led to a style of warfare that emphasized decisive battle according to mutually agreed-on rules of conduct. That fundamental style, with many small variations, came to dominate Western war making all the way until the present. In making his case, he used his experiences as a farmer to inform his understanding of the past. It is not surprising that for him the process also worked in reverse—he came to see clear connections from the distant past to the modern day.

Indeed, much of Hanson's early career focused on making the classical age relevant to the present. Those efforts included a number of coauthored arguments for a revival of classic studies in higher education and, more germane to this entry, for a chain of continuity in a Western way of war from antiquity to the present. For example, Carnage and Culture (2001) drew out the argument of The Western Way of War, reviewing battles between Western and non-Western forces throughout history to demonstrate the particular traits—freedom, decisive battle, mobilized citizenry, individual land ownership, reason, free markets, discipline, individualism, and self-critique— that together allowed for the rise of the West in world history. Ripples of Battle (2003) made the case that battles, the most intense and unforgiving of human activities, became embedded in human society and culture through history, memory, literature, and art, all of which gave war great power as a shaper, for good and ill, of civilization.

When the present became more violent after September 11, Hanson had placed himself perfectly to comment on the current state of affairs. The first run of Carnage and Culture appeared in the summer of 2001, and at the same time, Hanson, a lifelong Democrat, began writing regularly for the conservative publication National Review. In the years since, he has been an ardent supporter of the American war effort, and a strong critic of those who oppose the war. Many of his writings in this vein have been captured in two collections, An Autumn of War (2002) and Between War and Peace (2004), and he has also been a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Claremont Review of Books, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, and Weekly Standard, along with giving frequent television interviews and providing a steady stream of writings on various weblogs. His direct influence on policy reached its highpoint during the presidency of George W. Bush, when he met with the president, and when Vice President Dick Cheney brought him in for a discussion of war, history, and human nature.

Hanson's views have not gone unchallenged. Although his views on the nature and dynamics of Greek warfare are generally accepted, including his later work on the Peloponnesian War, A War Like No Other (2005), many influential military historians have strongly disagreed with the Western way of war thesis and all of its derivatives. Most critics offer two major counters to Hanson's argument. The first is that non-Western powers have, on multiple historical occasions, decisively defeated Western forces. The Mongols offer a striking example of a non-Western way of war having no difficulty whatsoever crushing European armies in battle. The second is that they see nothing like an unbroken chain linking the Greek hoplite (soldier) to the fighting men and women of Western powers today. For example, in his book Battle (2004), the historian John Lynn took particular issue with what he called Hanson's “universal soldier” argument. Lynn found it highly questionable to try to link the experiences, motivations, and actions of individual soldiers across so broad an expanse of time and place as all of Western history. The resulting debate has informed and enriched the fields of military and world history.

Nor has Hanson, now a scholar at the Hoover Institution, commented on current affairs without opposition. Critics of the Global War on Terrorism have also turned their attention to Hanson from time to time, maintaining that his interpretations provide nothing more than historical justification for faulty or even criminal acts of war.

There is a certain irony to Hanson's professional career path and his success in linking scholarship and commentary. To a degree, the critiques of Hanson the scholar and Hanson the pundit have also been linked. The linkage has been largely unfortunate, because the politics of punditry tend toward a heated style of discourse that overshadows historical debate. Hanson's very success has led to a penchant among some to too readily or blithely dismiss his scholarly work. Nevertheless, whatever his specific interpretations on matters historical and contemporary, the work of Victor Davis Hanson is always informed and has been an interesting and constructive contribution to military science.

See Levels of War

Further Readings
  • Black, J. (2004). Rethinking military history. Routledge New York, NY. doi:10.4324/9780203337462.
  • Lynn, J. A. (2003). Battle: A history of combat and culture. Westview Press Boulder, CO.
  • Thomas Bruscino
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