Most of us are best known by our first names or from some sort of professional prefix, but scholar and writer, Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, is often described by the simple acronym of “VDH.” His authoritative analysis of world events, foreign policy, classics, and military history has endeared him to many conservatives over the course of the last decade.
Dr. Hanson is a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and also a professor emeritus at California University, Fresno. His columns are nationally syndicated for Tribune Media Services. I first became aware of him in 2001 after coming across Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. It was also in that year that he first began writing for National Review. All told, Dr. Hanson has written or edited 16 books since his career began. Most recently he published, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. He also maintains a personal website that includes many of his works along with original insight from other writers. In 2002, he received the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism.
BC: Thanks so much for giving us some of your time, Dr. Hanson. First off, let me ask a general question. Do you think that, as a result of Iraq, the American people have a much more negative view of the military today than they have at any other point in history?
Victor Davis Hanson: Not at all. They realize that our military has fought both effectively and humanely in often impossible conditions. Most of the negative coverage—whether Newsweek's flushed Koran story, John Murtha's rush-to-judgment condemnation of the Marines accused of atrocities, or the New Republic's recent embarrassing fable about supposed American savagery-reveals bias of the left, not empirical research.
The military conducted a transparent investigation of Haditha, allows access to Guantanamo, rebuked those responsible for misleading statements about Pat Tillman, and punished those culpable for the roguery of Abu Ghraib. Can the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or the New Republic claim it makes fewer errors, or is as candid in redressing its mistakes? I fear only the ripples of a defeat in Iraq: quite unfairly the military would be blamed and Vietnam-like for a generation weakened by internal dissension, an external loss of prestige, and a new bellicosity from our enemies.
BC: With all the incessant criticism and umbrage caused by the invasion and our continued policing of Iraq, do you think it will be possible for America to fight and win any wars in the future? I mean, won’t we always lose the home front? Currently, it seems as if, among the mainstream media and the Democratic Party, no level of casualties is acceptable.
VDH: The richer, more leisured a society becomes of smaller and smaller families, the harder it is to deploy sons and daughters to the 7th ring of the Inferno like Iraq. And with world therapeutic news coverage, the postmodern dilemma is not only casualties (one can lose very few before open revolt at home ensues), but the morality of killing the enemy as well.
To many Americans, war is obsolete and can be legislated or condemned out of existence-as if an Ahmadinejad, Saddam, or Hugo Chavez cared much what the US, UN, or EU pontificates about.
In the present, we have used force in Grenada, Panama, the Gulf, the Balkans, and Afghanistan and Iraq on the principle of ending illiberal regimes before they threaten regional stability and cost us eventually far higher from neglect than intervention.
Under Bush this has been demonized as 'preemption' and 'unilateralism', even though, unlike Clinton against Serbia, he tried to involve the UN and got prior congressional approval. Like it or not, we will see less preemption, and more reaction, and the American people should be ready for the consequences, especially if we flee Iraq. Iran, North Korea, and Islamic terrorists, to say nothing of a Russia or China, operate on the principle of deterrence-their aggression checked only by a sober calculation of perceived costs versus benefits. Let us hope that American technology, a small cadre of 19th century brave souls in the military, and innate American know-how can save us from ourselves in the hours of war and peril to come.
BC: How do you think the current state of affairs will affect future Presidential decision-making in regards to military action? Perhaps I’m wrong, but how can any Commander in Chief function if the public begins referring to him as a “war criminal” after only a few bombing sorties?
VDH: He really can't. Almost all of al Qaeda's critiques of the US are recycled from Western leftists. Like rust, such Pavlovian hatred of a capitalist free West never sleeps, and the only way to counter it is with logic, reason-and victory. Should we win in Iraq—victory defined as something like Kurdistan—then even the most opportunistic critics will grow quiet. But seem weak and lose—and then even a John Murtha or Kerry can sound like Michael Moore or Sean Penn. We need more explanation of our aims and values in Iraq—and in postmodern war in general-less assertion if we are to counter the lies of the left, from "no blood for oil" to "Bush is a war criminal."
BC: What do you make of the political argument that only people in the military should speak of military affairs? Also, what of the practice of people like Michael Moore walking around wanting to know why Senators and Congressmen aren’t sending or signing-up their sons to fight in Iraq as if there is a personal basis for determining the course of national action?
VDH: And only oncologists can comment on cancer treatment or farmers the nation's food supply? As for the Chicken-hawk argument-first, there are no fronts in this war since 9/11; nearly as many were killed in Manhattan as during combat in Iraq. Second, this is a volunteer military where rights, responsibilities, and dangers are well understood. Third, each American according to his station contributes to the war effort-since out of a cohort of many millions of 18-25 year olds, only a few can serve in the front lines. In general, the military appreciates those who support its efforts more than those who either condemn it or think it is naively fooled by Halliburton profiteers.
BC: Over the years have you noticed, among the general public, a certain level of increased hostility towards the study of military history? If so, did such attitudes begin to form during the period of the Vietnam War?
VDH: Yes, then and during the 1980s, the rise of "theory" in our universities when there was a general withdrawal from empiricism, facts, dates, personages, etc, a movement that allowed the glib but uneducated to spin grand suppositions without the burden of proof or research. But there is a paradox—movies and books dealing with war and its histories are eagerly sought out by the public, while university press publications on the holy trinity of race, class, and gender go unread. And to repeat the cancer simile: do cancer doctors like cancer any more than military historians like war? Should we ignore studying tumors because, like war, they maim and kill?
BC: Another political question…this idea of American interests. In some quarters, it is only acceptable for the United States to take military action if it somehow does not advance our interests. Where does such an attitude come from? How did we reach the point wherein a nation is not expected to act in ways that further their interests?
VDH: "Interest" can be defined in a variety of ways, both material and spiritual. Bombing Milosevic was irrelevant to the security of the US, but important to the psyche of the American people that we did not allow a genocide to continue that we had the means to stop. Since the 1960s, we have promulgated the notion that the sins of mankind—slavery, racism, imperialism, colonialism—were uniquely the sins of the West, and the corollary that no other culture could be worse than our own. The result was this strange bifurcation on the left: liberal leaders and elites (more and more those affluent and exempt from the drudgery of 8-5 labor) still wished to live affluent lifestyles, enjoy the accoutrements of capitalism, and yet to damn the system in the abstract that produced such bounty as a sort of mechanism of alleviating guilt on the cheap.
Now we see the ultimate reification of that hypocrisy is someone like John Edwards whose house, hair, and speaking fees about poverty are in a quite different nation from the one he worries about. The left can quibble about what constitutes national interest, but that is a luxury of peace and affluence: even it, when gas for its Volvos is nonexistent, or its wood for its elegant floors forbidden, or the safety of its elite schools is threatened will consider that it has "interests" worth protecting.
BC: Is there a tendency among people on the left to view history as a means rather than an end? I ask you this because I have heard quite often, “why you would want to study that?” As if subjects devoid of political value are not worth examining. Could it be that, as a product of their own “political engagement,” leftists may believe that we only study those events which directly concern us?
VDH: Marxism lied to us that history is only the story of material interest, rather than the narrative often of the psyche, emotion, and only perceived self-interests. Nations really do go to war over principle, honor and pride. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I don't think there was oil in the Falklands. More generally, history has become in the university a medieval morality tale, in which we deconstruct the past to find those guilty of sins against gender, race, and class, and then use the standards of the present to condemn them postfacto on grounds of illiberality—as if someone illiterate five centuries ago without electricity, running water, a toilet, or antibiotics should have been as racially sensitive or tolerant of the "other" or as environmentally conscious as we are in Palo Alto or Madison.
In general we forgot that education is simply the ability to translate daily chaos into abstract wisdom of the ages—impossible without a data bank of names, dates, concepts, and a methodology of inductive inquiry; in turn both impossible without a liberal education of languages, literature, history, philosophy, and basic science.
BC: For what reason should non-policy makers study military history? What unique advantages does the discipline offer its students?
VDH: I wrote a long essay on this in the current City Journal [subscriber only, at the moment]. History started with Herodotus and Thucydides as the exclusive study of war, in which the crucible of human experience was best probed and understood. Like it or not, war cannot be legislated away; its best prevention is knowledge of why it starts, how it is conducted, and why and how it ends—and that is only learned by study of the past.
BC: Along the lines of the last question, what do you say to those who ask why you want to study “war?” Personally, I have always thought that in stressful conditions our true nature is most apparent.
VDH: War is a human phenomenon of the ages. Its manifestations—arrows, flintlocks, atomic bombs—change, but its essence is an unchanging human nature driven by fear, honor, and perceived self-interest, with emotions like envy, jealousy, and bullying its catalysts. I agree: as Thucydides put it, war strips off our thin veneer of civilization and reveals human nature in its most honest and disturbing raw essence. Studying war gives us an appreciation of that patina of culture, and why it is so critical to protect and preserve it lest we devolve into our innately natural selves.