The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny by Victor Davis Hanson. Free Press, 480 pp., $30.
January 16, 2000        

Of the many respects in which our culture and our biology are diverging nowadays, one of the most fateful is war. Most educated people regard war as abhorrent, unthinkable, obsolete. Yet for all but the last half dozen or so of the genus Homo’s 20,000 centuries, force has been the usual arbiter of conflict between groups, and even, for the most part, between individuals. Humans (primarily, but not exclusively, males) have evolved to fight; and no one with any understanding of how intricate and gradual evolutionary adaptation is will suppose that we can legislate or educate away our inherited martial sentiments and habits any time soon, even though the price of indulging them may be planetary destruction.

And perhaps even if we could eradicate them, we ought not to. Some of the wisest voices of our civilization, from Adam Smith to William James, have been raised in defense of the martial virtues. As James wrote in “The Moral Equivalent of War”: “We inherit the warlike type; and for most of the capacities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank this cruel history. … Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.”

Some such reflections may be necessary before one can appreciate a book as deeply archaic in its attitude to war and glory as “The Soul of Battle.” It is a stirring tale, in highly wrought prose, of three brave generals and the daring campaigns by which each saved his society’s freedom and conquered its villainous foes. Could anything sound more absurdly old-fashioned? Nevertheless, it’s a superb book: forcefully argued and narrated, profoundly meditated, boldly and fruitfully at odds with contemporary political morality. Victor Davis Hanson’s subject is, fundamentally, the soul of democracy. Though he sometimes sounds corny, even cranky, he illuminates this subject like few other recent writers.

Hanson is a man of parts. He is a leading historian (“The Wars of the Ancient Greeks” and other books) and interpreter (“The Other Greeks: The Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization”) of the ancient world. He is an Achilles of the culture wars, a devastating critic of contemporary higher education (“Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom”). And he is a yeoman: a sixth-generation raisin farmer in California’s Central Valley, about which he has written a fascinating memoir that is also a compelling critique of mass society and its political impoverishment (“Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea”).

“The Soul of Battle” describes three campaigns: Epaminondas the Theban’s expedition against Sparta in the winter of 370-69 BC; General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous (or == to some Southerners, even now == infamous) march across Georgia in November 1864; and General George Patton’s dash across France to the Rhine River in late 1944. What links these three episodes, so widely separated in time and space? They were all the stuff of myth == the myth of democracy embattled. All three armies were “armies of a season,” citizen-soldiers mustered largely from the rural heartland, led by an ornery and profane but fearless and beloved general, maneuvering rapidly and improvising brilliantly, bringing fire and sword into the homeland of a haughty authoritarian enemy, destroying its prestige and morale, liberating its oppressed and enslaved subjects, and then -- having no imperial ambitions -- quickly dispersing. The belief that democratic amateurs can outthink and outfight even a warrior elite when necessary, and that a free people may be defeated but can never be conquered by an unfree enemy -- these are virtually articles of faith in the republican creed. Certainly that’s how most Americans felt until, after the Second World War, we ceased being a republic and became an empire.

Sparta had long enslaved its neighbors in southern Greece and bullied many of the other Greek city-states. In the early 4th century BC, Spartan harassment prompted the cities of central Greece, led by Thebes, to federate under an unprecedentedly democratic and egalitarian constitution. This made it possible, for the first time, to enlist an entire population in arms. Under the philosopher-general Epaminondas, the Thebans won a crushing victory over the Spartans in 371. At his urging, they followed it up the next year by marching across the Peloponnese, burning Spartan farms, freeing their helots (slaves), and building fortified cities for the newly liberated peoples. Though Sparta’s fortunes eventually recovered somewhat, its mystique and its hateful slave system were gone for good.

Sherman, like Epaminondas, recognized that a conventional military victory would not decisively settle an ideological war. Once he had taken Atlanta, he could have dug in or gone chasing one of the remaining Confederate armies. He decided instead to evacuate and burn the city, abandon communication with the other Union armies, and cut a 50-mile swath of destruction through the heart of the Confederacy, the rich farmland between Atlanta and the coast. When Southerners protested, Sherman uttered his notorious apothegm: “War is hell.”

This was not, however, a justification for barbarism. What Sherman meant was that the Southern elite had plunged the country into an infernal war solely to preserve its privileges and comforts, which had been scarcely affected thus far (except for the loss of sons, which the Southern martial tradition, like the Spartan one, regarded as a positive good). It was time to bring the cruelty of war home to these selfish and frivolous people.

Patton’s Third Army campaign requires a little stretching to fit Hanson’s paradigm. Epaminondas and Sherman were unquestionably great and noble men. About Patton there are questions, though Hanson is far more persuasive on this score than I would have thought possible. And then, World War II has been so intensively studied that every novel argument immediately encounters a dozen objections. Hanson makes a strong case that Patton could have ended the war six months earlier == with a colossal saving of lives == if he had enjoyed the same freedom of action as Epaminondas and Sherman. But many ifs remain.

Considering modern weaponry, no sane person today can think of war calmly, much less fondly. And yet no democrat and patriot can be unmoved by Hanson’s summation: “What, then, is the soul of battle? A rare thing indeed that arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement. Only then does battle take on a spiritual dimension, one that defines a culture, teaches it what civic militarism is and how it is properly used.”