Thursday, March 27, 2014

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

Given that the claims of continuity have already been debunked and the ideal of a universal Western warrior has been demystified, the next step is to address Hanson’s claims of uniqueness and the dichotomy he posits between West and East. In essence, Hanson’s argument reeks of Orientalism because of its essentialist and reductionist components. For Hanson and contemporaries like Keegan, the otherization of the East functions both to subjugate the East and to reflexively self-define the West. In this sense, the East is definitionally antithetic to the West; it substantiates the West’s self-understanding of itself as structured and modernized through the East’s own apparent backwardness. Intrinsic to this process, the European attitude toward the Orient[1] consciously underscores attributes that differentiate the two artificially constructed polarities (East and West), “exil[ing] the Orient into an irretrievable state of otherness.” Kegan goes as far as to describe all “Oriental” military cultures as being characterized by evasion, delay, and indirectness. The flaws of this over-generalization are not solely due to an innocent lack of knowledge about Eastern culture, but also can be attributed to overlooking certain Western tendencies. For instance, many armies in the 16th century were indirect in that they were battle averse and even Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, someone who had a large influence on Western military tradition, openly advocated an indirect approach. Drawing upon Gramsci’s theories about hegemony and Foucault’s postulations about the relationship between discourse, knowledge and power, Edward Said aptly demonstrates how the Orientalist trap can guarantee the sustenance of a system in which the West exercises hegemony over the Orient; as Said explains, Orientalism is a “Western style of dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. Said’s theories of Orientalism help to explain how the unrivaled dominance of the West has been solidified in the modern era and accounts for Hanson, Parker, and Keegan’s unapologetic, albeit nuanced, Western triumphalism.
Hence, Hanson’s argument is rooted in an ignorance of non-Western warfare. First and foremost, the claim that Eastern armies did not have the same discipline as those of the West as a result of some cultural feature is sheer naivety. During the Warring States period (403-221 BC) in China, rival Chinese rulers formed huge disciplined armies of conscripted subjects. Several Chinese writers of that period such as Han Fei-Tzu, and Ying Shao also frequently commented on the need for discipline, indicating that this was not a unique Western cultural feature; Chu-ko Liang (181-243 AD) even advocated a five-step training program to create a disciplined army. Also, the coordination of several weapons and warriors using bows, crossbows, spears, and halberds in close order while marching suggests expertise that could have only come as a result of drill.
Examples from the Warring States period also debunk Hanson’s claims about capitalism. During this period, polities fielded up to 600,000 troops and equipped them effectively with weapons and armor of the highest order. The same holds true for Vedic India and the campaigns of the Mughals under Aurangzeb, who campaigned with an army several thousand strong around the year 177. It is also important to note here the diversity of such forces in East Asia and South Asia in terms of differing moral codes, use of elephants, and varying degrees of infantry usage according to preferences and customs of each individual polity in question. Although the exact quality of arms cannot be ascertained, Asian, especially Chinese, technology was quite advanced as evidenced by excellent samurai swords, seagoing vessels, and ironworks. At this juncture, Hanson might reiterate that these societies could have never produced on the same scale as the West. But in light of the size of the armies indicated above and the fact that these were the times in which the Great Wall was built, is it that unbelievable that a system other than capitalism succeeded?
Another manner in which Hanson essentializes the Oriental “Other” is in regard to the concepts of legal freedom and separation of politics from religion, which he claims to be hallmarks of Western culture. However, for the Greeks, politics and religion were far from separate and freedom was often deified in and of itself. The poleis were rife with religious rituals; in fact, the Spartans did not arrive at Marathon in time for the battle because of an elaborate religious ritual. Also, all of these city-states relied on the advice of oracles and priests and engaged in ceremonial public worship. The Athenians worshipped the concept of freedom as part of the cult of Zeus Eleutherios; as Hanson oddly admits, “deities did more for the average Athenian than Ahura Mazda had ever done for the Persian subject.” Further, Hanson ignores the way in which secular ideology can be just as deadly as a force of religion and the similarity between the Puritan spirit that drove America to victory over the British and the moral codes of Islam. The argument about secular oversight of the military completely overlooks how figures ranging from Alexander to Augustus were deified.
Despite his proclivity toward Western triumphalism, Hanson’s thesis is certainly worth consideration and, for the most part, his scholarship is of the highest caliber. Unfortunately, he falls victim to overgeneralization and ends up with too many inconsistencies and inaccuracies as a result of distortion and omission. The cultural approach is certainly viable and perhaps the most important lens through which to view the history of warfare, but should not function as a vindication of Western hegemony. “In [Hanson’s] interpretation, [he] combines two visions of the West that have themselves been at war during the last 30 years: the celebration of the West for its democratic vision…and the condemnation of the West for militarism…the tendency is to see these positions as incompatible.” To contravene this tendency would truly require history to be written (or rather, rewritten) by Victor.

*Citations omitted

[1] It should be noted that European and American audiences interpret the term “Orient” differently. The “Orient” for Europe is more commonly associated with the Near East, or the totality of non-Western society, whereas the term’s semiotic extension in the West is more often associated with the Far East.