Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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

          The first major problem with his thesis is his claim of a 2,500-year continuity rooted in Greek hoplite warfare. Hanson argues that what produced the present Western superiority in arms was “not a fundamental alteration and improvement in arms and…the classical military paradigm, but rather its gradual spread throughout Europe and the Western hemisphere.” However, professional Roman legionaries, mounted medieval aristocrats, Germanic tribal levies, and disenfranchised mercenaries of early modern Europe had very little in common with the agrarian hoplites of ancient Greece (Lynn, 2004, p. 26). The most common challenge to rupture Hanson’s line of continuity is the fact that there was a thousand year period in which Europe was completely on the defensive against Islamic armies. Instead of explaining practices like siege warfare in terms of what he calls a Western cultural tradition and chronicling heavy European losses in this period, he chooses to focus on Lepanto as the embodiment of this period and argues that most states in Europe managed to retain the cultural traditions of Classical antiquity over this time.
Hanson posits the emergence of civic militarism combined with the proclivity toward decisive battle among other factors as a distinctly Western phenomenon. Of course, his analysis begins by easily drawing a line connecting Greece and Republican Rome, but this line of continuity starts to fray as the republic evolves into an empire because civic militarism became almost non-existent when the demands of foreign wars engineered a shift from citizen militia to professional mercenary force whose allegiance rested with generals and emperors; this development was a key factor in fueling the Roman Civil Wars that ultimately contributed to the empire’s demise and would be an important cultural legacy left to the successors of the empire.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Classical traditions did not persist with the “barbarian” armies that defeated the Western empire. The sheer diversity of combat styles among the Germanic tribes that raided the Western half of the Roman Empire after Adrianople in 378, ranging from Goths who came out of the steppes emphasizing their cavalry to Franks who came down from Northern forests accentuating their infantry, seriously test the validity of Hanson’s idea of a unique Western way of warfare. Although proponents of Hanson’s thesis point toward the fact that, once settled, these tribal societies picked up some old Roman practices and institutions, but they rapidly disappeared and such egalitarian societies were governed by custom and not a continuation of Classical practices. Later, in the high and late Middle Ages, regardless of relatively weak attempts by scholars like Keegan and Hanson to make knights seem like they followed Greek shock combat tactics (which were very rare at that time), it is quite difficult to reconcile the importance of aristocratic cavalry with the Greek infantry-based ideal. Although some armies emphasized formations like Swiss pike squares, such configurations were not the norm and were responses to military realities of the times rather than results of careful perusal of Greek precedent. Even in the Hundred Years War in which infantry was the largest component of the fighting force, there was no appearance of any phalanx or legion type formation. The historical aberration of centralized polities such as that of Charles Martel in the age of feudalism is not, as Hanson says, a “continuation of a 1,400-year tradition.”
While Hanson focuses on the era of chivalry, he misses out on the other half of the story of that period in which devastating “chevauchees” painted the story of combat in blood red. Again, the Hundred Years War is again illustrative of the places where Hanson’s thesis falters; during the campaign leading up to, and ultimately, the Battle of Crecy in 1346, there was a varied and incongruous relationship “between reality and discourse in medieval warfare.” Moreover, feudal armies were composed not of citizen soldiers, but of peasant and serf levies and mercenaries, which certainly does not help the claim that these armies exhibited a strong tradition of civic militarism. At the end of the Middle Ages, the so-called representative institutions that emerged in some European monarchies like Louis XIV’s Fronde, the French Estates General, or the English parliament, were merely manifestations of the authority of nobles or the king himself and cannot credibly be used as evidence toward Hanson’s thesis regarding equality among the middle classes and consensual government. Hanson even disparagingly references Berber, Mongol, Arab, and Ottoman armies that employed the same types of people to fight in their armies, further diminishing the force of his theory.

The crucial point in terms of the continuity debate is the Renaissance. However, instead of the gradual spread model propagated by Hanson, the aforementioned historical context demonstrates that the Classical practices and institutions of the Renaissance were adapted to the technological and socio-political context of early modern European armies (Lynn, 2004, pp.16-19). Even if opponents of Hanson’s line of continuity were granted a complete Classical revival in tactics (engineered by Maurice of Nassau and others), there still remains the fact that these armies (like the Italian condotierre) were battle-averse, did not seek decisive battle, and did not feature any semblance of civic militarism. In fact, the desire for decisive battle only returned with Napoleon’s ascendancy, which coincides with the return of civic militarism at the eve of the French Revolutions. Subsequently, “from Marius to Robespierre is a gap of nearly 1,900 years in a claimed continuity of 2,500 years” and even if the Roman Empire is credited with a degree of civic militarism, this breach in an alleged Western tradition persisted for over 1,400 years.