Victor Davis Hanson’s Review
of his new (2001) book
‘Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power’
and his comments on the Terrorist Attack on America
which he describes as
‘Mythologies about the Terrorist Attack on America’
C-Span 5:00 p.m. 9/30/01
Victor Davis Hanson is a professor of Classics at California State University – Fresno. He has written over a dozen other books on ancient Greek culture. They include: ‘The Other Greeks: the Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization,’ 1995; ‘The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece,’ 1989; ‘Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience,’ 1991; ‘The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny,’ 1999.
Hanson gave a brief summary of his book and then spent the remaining 60 minutes explaining the ‘Mythologies about the Terrorist Attack on America,’ in the context of that book. The constant theme of his book was an answer to the question; ‘Why is it that the Western World, from its beginning to the present, projects power around the known world and other civilizations do not? He identified several characteristics of Western culture that gave Western civilization power incommensurate with its number of people. The answer is the culture. The characteristics of that culture are:
· Freedom. Free people, slow to anger, but fierce in battle when mobilized have been more than a match for fanatics or mercenary armies.
· Civic militarism. A free people who demand that civil authorities have control of the military are ready to serve when called.
· Engage the enemy frontally. The focus of power is overwhelmingly devastating, using ‘modern’ military technology of the age.
· Divorce knowledge from religion. The application of Aristotlean science in the cause of freedom
· Free markets. Produces superior weapons of war when needed in vast quantities.
· Western discipline. Military marching in ranks, keeping position, firing on orders, concentration of superior firepower. Goes back to the ancient Greek phalanx.
· Free speech and public debate.
Hanson observes that real carnage occurred when Western culture turns on itself. The 20th century was the century of Western carnage.
With this as background, Hanson identified the following ‘mythologies’ concerning the Islamic terrorist attack on America on 11 September 2001.
This is just a preface to the contemporary crisis that we are in and I’d like to apply some of the things that I wrote about to the events that occurred last Tuesday. The first myth, I think, is that this was a terrorist act. This was an act of war and we only say that, again not out of pride or sabre rattling but through historical comparison.
We don’t know how many people have been killed in the World Trade Center. We know a little more about the Pentagon. I was surprised, however, that our reporters keep going down to the hospitals and saying, ‘The bodies haven’t come in yet.’ Well, the bodies haven’t come in, as sad and tragic as it is, because they have been vaporized. We had a temperature in those buildings of about 2,500 to 2,700 degrees. That dust cloud wasn’t just gypsum board and cement. It was Americans.
There are not going to be bodies. And this idea that we might have 4,000 dead – it could vastly exceed that. And that brings up what’s happened in American history. We went to war at Pearl Harbor because 2,400 Americans were killed. We went to war in World War I partly because of the sinking of the Lusitania a few months earlier, but there were less than 1,000 Americans killed. The Spanish American War started with far less killed. The Civil War, Fort Sumner, there was almost nobody killed and the North went to war.
So this idea that this is just a single incursion, the two greatest symbols of American power – military power being the Pentagon, economic power being the World Trade Center – have been devastated. So by any fair standard of history we’re not in a terrorist situation at all. We are in an act of war.
Which brings us to the next question. If I could use this hyperbole, this insane notion that we are somehow going to conduct a legal investigation and then indict those people and bring them to justice. It would be as if after your fathers and grandfathers woke up on December 8  and, my God, they would ask to bring the Japanese pilots to trial; we would offer them lawyers and then we would try to conduct this as if it was an investigation. Instead they got up and declared war. A very different attitude. So this is not a terrorist incursion. It’s not something for the legal system.
Another mythology is that the Islamic world and the Arab world are very strong. The fact is we are probably seeing them in their weakest state since the 19th century and perhaps the 8th century. The problems in the Arab world are not Western-induced. They are self-induced. And they are a result of a failure to adopt democracy – a preference for strong men, autocrats and religious fundamentalism. These things have ruined countries like Iran, like Iraq, like the Middle East. And it explains why Israel, which has a fraction of the population of the Arab countries along the coast of northern Africa, has a larger economy or it has more military power because it has adopted those things we talked about earlier, that which constitutes Westernism.
And this is also very important to keep in mind. I heard a commentator say lately, ‘Well, we deserve it for what we have done to Islamic people and Islamic fundamentalism.’ Well, my gosh, the last ten years no country in the world did more to save Islamic culture in Europe than the United States. Had the United States not intervened in Eastern Europe, you may have seen the decimation of all Albanian Muslims. Europe did not act. The United States acted. It was not in our national interest. It was in our moral interest as Western people and democrats not to let a people be exterminated. And those were fundamentalists, some of them. Islamic people. And yet, we were not given credit for that in the Islamic world.
The same is true, by the way, in Russia. We’ve heard this false knowledge that we went into Afghanistan to manipulate people. That may or may not be true, but the result of it was that Soviet totalitarianism did not destroy Afghanistan. And yet the same people we trained to resist the Russians are now killing our women and children.
Another great myth is this idea that you cannot eliminate Islamic fundamentalism. I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, if you were to kill them, they ‘d come back.’ And I thought to myself, ‘what were the four great scourges of the 20th century? Number one was German Nazi-ism. That lasted about 12 years and there’s not any government body that openly adopts Nazi-ism. It was completely destroyed by the Allied Powers. Second was Italian Fascism. It no longer exists. Third was Japanese militarism, which no longer exists. Fourth was Soviet Communism. It lasted longer but it no longer exists.
Throughout history, every ideology can be defeated, especially one as bankrupt as Islamic fundamentalism which cannot reconcile the fact that people like to use cell phones and charge their tickets on the way to murdering people with frequent flyer miles and American Express cards and yet they know that their own culture cannot create those things that they want. That’s weakness. It’s not strength.
Professor Hanson then opened the floor to questions.
[Question: In the aftermath of the 9-11 Islamic terrorist attack on America, where is the eloquence from our leaders?]
Where is the eloquence? Where are the people like Churchill, waking up and saying ‘What kind of people do they think we are?’ Where is Leonadis at Thermopolae when he was facing a quarter million Persians and he had less than 700 Greeks, and they asked him to surrender his arms and he said, ‘Take them.’ Or George Patton, ‘Audacity, more audacity, and still always more audacity.’
Where are these people who rise to the fore? We have an educational system that does not put an emphasis on the classical sources of eloquence. And what are they? Literature, history, philosophy, languages based on the old idea of a classical ‘tripos’ of a rhetoric, dialectic, philosophy. We have too much therapeutic education that teaches our children how to think they have self-esteem without giving them the tools to earn self-esteem. The result of that is today you can get a degree from Yale or Harvard, as the two candidates in the last presidential election both had, and not be eloquent.
I don’t think that was true, necessarily. So, we need eloquence. And that’s what I try to emphasize: that Sherman, whether he said ‘War is hell,’ ‘You asked for war, not me. I’m giving it to you on my terms, not yours.’
We need people to stand up and speak forcefully and draw on the very rich tradition of Homer and Sophocles and Dante and Shakespeare. But whether we have our elites today who have been trained in that – it’s very important. Remember, Napoleon said the psychological, the spiritual to the material is three to one.
We had a man of eloquence in Churchill. We saw John Major in the Gulf War but we see especially Tony Blair be a little bit more eloquent than our own president and I’m worried about that. I’m not being sarcastic. I think our own president has some virtues in the public arena by projecting sort of a down-home empathy that works sometimes. Eloquence is not his forte, but there’ll be other people, I hope, who will come to the fore.
[What about Lincoln for eloquence?]
I think you’ll start to see those myths disappear. In the Civil War we learned that men from Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio who marched with Sherman into the South were far more terrifying soldiers than the Southern Cavaliers. I think we are going to learn, whether we like it or not, there’s going to be men in the 101st or 82nd or whatever [airborne] group they are [in] and they are going to lead men into battle and we are going to have a radical shift in America and it is going to disturb a lot of people. We are going to have a cultural shift in this country, I think, that we haven’t seen [before].
[What role will politics play?]
Right not, politics – remember the Greek word of the ‘Polis,’ it’s going to reflect public opinion, and the poll I saw this morning showed that 80 percent of Americans supported reaction – violent reaction. So, our politicians will reflect that consensus. Politically, we’ve crossed the Rubicon and we’re going to make the world into a medieval world of black and white, I’m afraid. We’re going to ask countries, ‘Are you with us or against us?’ And it’s time that we Americans realized that there are people in the world who hate us – not for something that our elites tell us that we have done, but for who we are.
If I lived in a medieval world that didn’t want women to vote and I didn’t want technology to disrupt family structure, then I would hate some place like America where, where women bare their navels and men dye their hair, people talk back to their parents, there’s pornography – I’d hate that world even though I was fascinated with it. And that dichotomy of self-fascination and desire coupled with guilt is what plagues the Arab world, and the Muslim world in general. And I think we’re going to see a great dichotomy. We are going to have politicians and diplomats who are going to say to Pakistan ‘There’s no more support and then deny, support and then deny. You’re either with us or not and you’re gong to learn the power of the United States military.
Now, whether the American people are going to sustain that, I don’t know, because there’ll be a cultural backlash in this country. But I think it will not prevail.
[The cultural shift.]
The question is, how will that cultural shift, as it crystallizes about this conflict, affect the universities? I don’t think it will affect the hearts and minds of professors. But it will change students and it will change the public perception and they will feel that. One of the fascinating phenomena of the last ten years, I don’t know if we in the public realize it, is that my generation that came of age in the Vietnam War is now entrenched in the universities as full professors and administrators and they are very angry because they say that the new generation, 18 to 30-year-olds, does not listen to them and does not like to be hectored. Well, the new generation says, ‘We have to work. We don’t have free tuition. This world is competitive.’ They have a different life that they have to confront and they don’t really have anything in common with my generation, which is terrible for us because we are a narcissistic, youthful generation. And so this new generation, I think, has repudiated not only the ethos but also the ideology of my generation. I see it, not so much from what the students say, but from what the professors say.
This changing of generations is fascinating. There was a generation in Athens, the Escalean Marathon men, Aristophes called them, the men who stopped the Persians at Marathon and that gave way to a majestic generation, the Periclean, which was destroyed in the third generation by the generation of Alcebides. Whether we like it or not, that’s my generation. Rule of thumb – people have kidded about, ‘if you want to see common sense, talk to someone under 40 or over 60, because they represent in that classical stereotype a different generation. I have great confidence in today’s young people, much more than I have in my own generation. [Note: Hanson’s description above gives an interesting boost in support of the view of the role of ‘generations’ in history. Visit the link, Chaos Theory and Generations, at the bottom of this page for a discussion of this subject as applied to American civilization.]
[Islamic Fundamentalism – the threat ‘over there’]
One of the things I kind of tire at are people in the media ad nauseum explaining to the American people that there is a difference between fundamentalist Islam and Islam. I think Americans are already ahead of them. They realize that. The vast majority of Muslims, even if they are literal, have accommodated the modern world to Islam. In fact, brilliantly so. Islam, in that regard, is no different than Christianity. But there is this group of fundamentalist Islamic nationalists who believe in a medieval world and an Islam that’s literal and a Koran that’s literal and it’s not compatible with either modernism or the United States and the Western world. And they’re angry not because they are triumphant, they’re angry because their children watch C-Span when the can or they watch Gilligan’s Island reruns or they want to have Disney T-shirts or they want to go get Jurassic Park and they are losing control and this is not the expression of strength and confidence but a last gasp expression that’s important to keep in mind.
[American’s still believing that the war is ‘over there’ and not ‘here’]
I don’t know what the American people have to take. If you have something worse than Iwo Jima in downtown New York where we’re not talking about seasoned soldiers and Marines. Those types of people knew what they were in for. So as bas as Iwo Jima or Okinawa with 12,000 dead – this is something different. These people [the New Yorkers] were just going to work – to day care centers. And they are not going to bring them [back] in body bags. That cloud we see in New York is them. And as horrific as that is to say – it’s them. And if that isn’t enough to shock the American people, I don’t know what is.
Another mythology is that we have not engaged in a war against terror before. We have. There’s nothing more terrifying than kamikazis – nothing. And yet, our fathers defeated them even thought they lost 100s of people off Okinawa. I don’t think there is anything more terrifying than the Waffen SS and the Battle of the Bulge. But, my gosh, American soldiers not only were executed after they surrendered, they were blown apart in their trenches. Nobody said you could not defeat those people because they were using a form of terrorism. And so, I think you have to, instead of being caught up in the therapeutic culture today, very rationally and soberly look back through history, and I think if we do, it will give us great comfort and strength rather than this period of uncertainty.
Another myth, I think this is very important, and that is at certain points in history there’s a decisive change in culture. And I think this Tuesday will be a traumatic change in American culture. We don’t know completely the ramifications but I’d just like to touch on two. One military and one social and cultural.
Militarily, I think its going to change the way that Americans look at war. And I think its going to go back to the Western idea which we’ve always had since the Greeks. It’s not a therapeutic idea but it’s a tragic idea that war is not necessarily evil – it’s evil only when evil people make war against you.
In the 20th century, most of the people who were killed were not killed in wars – as horrific as World War I and World War II were. Most people were German and Eastern European Jews, killed by Hitler, innocent people killed by Stalin, and innocent people killed by Mao and later by the Cambodians. And we saw that in Africa recently. If you tally up those millions, perhaps 80 million, far more than were killed in World War II, we have to g back to that idea that war is tragic.
But, like the Greeks said, ‘It’s the father of us all. It’s there. You cannot eliminate it.’ This idea, we have been dealing with for over 20 years that war under any circumstances is evil only allows evil to perpetuate.
And we’re going to have a radical redefinition in this country of what constitutes humanity. When we have newspaper columnists saying that they pray that we won’t do anything and we’ve had a lot of them, then essentially you are saying, in classical terms, is that the people who were vaporized didn’t matter. I don’t know about you, but I cannot accept that. I had a father who flew 39 missions over Japan and the person I was named after was killed on Okinawa. And I’d hate to think that they went and fought and died and were ruined in their lives to hand over freedom that we bartered away to an Afghani thug. I just can’t accept that. That’s not, again, chauvinism, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s a natural feeling among a democratic people that’s existed in our culture since the Greeks. So we’re going to see a radical change in the way we look at war.
We’re also going to see a changing of the guard. In 1860 nobody knew who Ulysses S. Grant was – he was a grocer. George McClellan was a railroad president who made $10,000 a year. Sherman, who had been a failed ‘everything.’ Nathan Bedford Forrest was probably a thug – nobody thought he had any talent at all. And yet, in the crucible of war, they came forward as real talent. Same thing with George Patton in World War II. Same thing with Pershing in World War I. We are going to see people whose names we do not know who are going to step to the fore, men of genius and courage and women of genius and courage and the discredited voices of the past will fade.
I won’t mention two names but I saw two prominent people in the Clinton administration, an administration which I voted for, so I’m not picking on them – I’m a life-long democrat – and they said, ‘We don’t want to do anything that would upset the careful work we have done over the past 10 years.’ And I thought to myself – Lockerbie [the failure to bring the terrorists to justice in the 1990s], the destruction of the Americans in Saudi Arabia, the destruction of the embassies in Africa, the USS Cole and each time we either heard bravado, threats, or a cruise missile. And they gave us the situation that we are in today –because they took a great power that traditionally had overwhelming military power and they allowed people to think it was weak.
And so, they are going to fade into the past and we are going to start to see people come forward in the same situation that we did after similar disasters. After Pearl Harbor, U.S. naval operations were in different hands. After the disaster at the Kaiserine Pass in 1942, a man named Patton came forward. The other people went to the rear because their time was over with.
Let me finish by saying we’re gong to see the same revolution in the culture in this country. I think we’re at the end of a 20-year stupor of what I would call the triumph of the therapeutic culture. Grief counselors, yellow ribbons and the like are not going to get us out of this crisis. So, when we hear people advocating these avenues of resistance [to the war on terrorism], I think they are going to fade. And I think the people in the media, people in academia are going to lose credibility. And we have new people who will replace them. We have a Secretary of Defense, we have an Assistant Secretary of Defense who sounds brilliant. We have people in the State Department, we have people like – I just listened to Fuad Ajan – a brilliant man – who are [now] advocating things we have not heard in this country for 20 years. Not radical at all, but common sense.
You know, we have a strange culture of self-loathing. There was a news report that said that Harvard University accepted money for scholarships in Middle Eastern studies from the bin Laden family. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I thought to myself, if that were true, how odd that Harvard University would accept money from a person’s family who may have been under suspicion for years of terrorism and Yale University would reject money for the promotion of Western culture. We have a very strange dichotomy where we’re almost infected with self-loathing, and yet, as I tried to point out in the book, the real danger is not that we are weak – but that we are powerful beyond our wildest imaginations. We have to exercise that [power] with care.
A final comment is that we are going to see, just as we do domestically and with our cultural leaders and our military leaders, a new guard, we are going to see a radically different situation in the world today. And these [changes] have always followed great transactions in human events such as World War II or the Civil War. I think you will see, whether we like it or not, and there are historic grievances on both sides, a fundamental difference in the Middle East vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians.
One of the things I urge all of you to do is not to watch United States TV but to watch British TV or German TV on cable and you will see celebrations about the incineration of Americans [in the World Trade Center] in these countries that you will not see on American TV. You will hear stories about stewardesses who were described as having their hands [tied] behind themselves while they were tortured or killed that will not be on American TV. And I think you’ll start to see that, whether it’s fair, whether we like it or not, there will be absolutely no support for Yasser Arafat. The American people have had enough. Thirty seconds of that celebration [in the streets of Palestine after the World Trade Center attack] is enough.
The second thing you will see is there will be a radical alignment in the Islamic and the Arab world will be weaker than ever because I think you will see closer ties with what I would call 19th century allies. And that would be people like India, the world’s largest democracy which borders Pakistan. It has a lot of problems, but is an English-speaking country and will start to forge ties with the United States. You’ll probably see a much closer relationship with Russia. Until the rise of communism, we had always been allied to Russia – there were strong ties. Now that it is a democracy, it will play a far larger role. In some ways, we have not taken advantage of that. We’ve been a little bit unfair to the Russians in the last 10 years.
You’ll start to see the Eastern Mediterranean, and this is something I feel strongly about, is closer ties with Greece. And I think this idea that people in the world who are democratic and who are Western or trying to be Western, who have an element of freedom and open markets are going to gravitate to the West.
One last thing. If we do redefine what humanity is, I think we have to be prepared for some very tragic times coming ahead. But that shouldn’t daunt us. I am reminded what Don Juan said at the Battle of La Ponto in 1571. Only three states participated; the Papal States, Venice, and Spain. And they were outnumbered by a horrific fleet. The Ottomans had not only defeated them but had waged a war of terror along the coast of Italy. And after the squabbling [among themselves] was over, the admirals wanted to not reply or to back off, Don Juan said ‘Gentlemen, the time for counsel is over, and the time for battle is upon us.’ And I think he was right. And he led his fleet to a great victory. I think that will be the same case here.