Sunday, March 23, 2014

Book Review: Carnage and Culture (Part One of Three)

            Dispensing with more static explanations of Western hegemony such as technological or ecological determinism, Victor Davis Hanson adeptly tenders a cultural argument that enables a more complex appreciation of the variety and change that have characterized military thought, practice, and institutions over thousands of years. Granted, the alternative accounts of such prominent scholars as Jared Diamond, Fernand Braudel, and Charles Beard represent significant contributions in concretely rationalizing the ascendancy of the West; yet, these variables are necessary, but not quite sufficient pieces of the puzzle of Western cultural dominance. As for ecological explanations, it suffices to say that few civilizations were situated more disadvantageously than Greece. With respect to the technology-driven thesis, Hanson co-opts much of its strength by explaining technological superiority as having a causal relationship with certain Western cultural attributes; and, many landmark battles like Salamis and Midway featured a technological stalemate (even a Western disadvantage in technology at times) with cultural variables such as the status of freedom, individualism, and civic militarism among the opposing forces. Additionally, there were really only a handful of watershed advances in military technology ranging from the breeding of horses specifically for war and the transition from bronze to iron to the refining of gunpowder and even a historical event as seemingly crucial as the Industrial Revolution has been described by many ultimately as “a tide that raise[d] all boats.”
                  Despite the strength of the cultural approach in terms of its analytic utility and explanatory power, Hanson’s overarching thesis that seeks to explain the politico-military dominance of the “West”[1] over and against “the Other” over a continuous period of the last 2,500 years suffers from problems regarding continuity, uniqueness/universality, reductionism, and essentialism. In other words, the cultural approach is still superior to the aforementioned alternative theories, but Hanson falls prey to the tendency toward causal generalizations and linear postulates that even he cautions against by encouraging his readers to not “judge the Western military record in absolute terms, but always in a relative context vis-à-vis the conditions of the times.” Hanson’s prioritization of a rigid conceptual framework that omits or distorts any information that does not fit conveniently within its preconceived, strictly delineated boundaries is a grave historical solecism. In addition to such cherry picking of information, Carnage and Culture exemplifies the penchant for describing present social behavior in terms of past institutions and practices too much and thus exemplifies spurious continuity.[2] Hanson himself acknowledges the tendency for historians to regard such a strong thesis with a certain degree of skepticism and tries to dispel this sentiment with a disclaimer in the preface of Carnage and Culture that “[it] is not a book…written for academic specialists.” But, for the student of history, such a disclaimer does not insulate his work from the burden of historical specificity.

***Citations Omitted

[1] Hanson dismisses some of the debate surrounding his definition of “Western” by acknowledging that not all European states had exactly the same values and that institutions and practices have indeed evolved to some extent. However, the adequacy of this attempt to avoid criticism on this front is outside the scope of this paper and as Hanson states, “I have no interest in entering in such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality, of the West.”
[2] See Norman Jacobs’ The Sociology of Development (1966) for a more in-depth discussion of the tunnel-vision style tendency to explain present behavior strictly in terms of past institutions and practices and exemplify spurious continuity and vice-versa.