Right Makes Might

May/June 2000

Reading time min

Right Makes Might

Photo: Dennis Irwin

FIERCE. RUTHLESS. MURDEROUS. These are the hallmarks of armies produced by dictatorships, not democracies. But this is a false impression, argues Victor Davis Hanson, professor of classics at CSU-Fresno. In The Soul of Battle, Hanson, PhD '80, tells three stories of democracies that crushed famously belligerent enemies. Epaminondas (the Theban general who invaded Sparta in 370 B.C.), William Tecumseh Sherman and George Patton all led epic crusades against oppressive regimes -- and won, quickly and decisively. They prove, Hanson says, that when provoked, democracies can turn out the world's toughest warriors: men who do battle with the higher purpose of saving lives and liberating the enslaved.


To associate the names Sherman and Patton with history's marches for freedom will startle and perhaps anger some. Epaminondas, were he better known, might be held in as much prejudice. Nonetheless, it is time to rethink what constitutes real brutality in war and who are the real peacemakers. All three generals practiced a brutal war-making in order to prevent casualties and establish an enduring peace.

Contemporaries assumed that Spartan hoplites, Confederate soldiers and Hitler's panzers were the preeminent warriors of the age. Sparta had defeated Theban armies for decades. The South had a record of nearly three years of stout resistance to the North. Germany had been invincible for most of World War II.

But soon, all those armies, which had boasted they were unconquerable, fought on the defensive, anxious to stop foreign entry onto their soil. They faced democratic armies keen on destroying their very soul. After the terrible marches of retribution into their country, none of these cultures of slavery would field a credible army again. Their entire infrastructure of racial separation would go up in flames.

All three marches for freedom -- hostilities were to cease immediately after each reached their objective -- were led by eccentrics, considered unbalanced or worse by many of their own superiors. These generals were keen students of history and gifted impromptu orators. They devised entire tactical plans alone and often told few of their ultimate intentions. All three were censured by their own governments, threatened with loss of command and ridiculed for their belief that a militia could make its way into the heart of enemy territory in a matter of months. But Epaminondas did more than any Athenian to destroy Sparta; no abolitionist did as much as Sherman to dismantle slavery; and the most die-hard antifascist could not match Patton's destruction of Nazi military power. It is tragic that the architects of such humanity still today are either unknown or misunderstood. Epaminondas warrants little in Greek history textbooks; Sherman is mostly remembered as the father of "terror" warfare against civilians; and Patton is caricatured as a dangerous zealot.

But Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton were the most erudite commanders of their generations. They were, in fact, intellectuals in the true sense of the word. All three generals agreed that grand envelopment was the proper paradigm for an army that was a reflection of a restless, democratic citizenry ever eager to abandon the fray should the war be prolonged or go bad.

Never in human conflict have such vast democratic infantry forces appeared out of nowhere, wrought such havoc, and then dispersed among the consensual culture that fielded them. What Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton did was very rare in military history, for democracy itself is rare in the larger history of civilization.

Yet if history offers only three examples of democratic marches for freedom, the record is at least clear. When a free society feels its existence threatened, when its citizenry understands an enemy at odds with the very morality of its culture, when a genius at war leads the army -- then free men can make war lethally beyond the wildest nightmares of the military culture they seek to destroy.

The antithesis is equally valid: democratic armies do not fight well when they are not attacked, when they fight to preserve privilege or empire, when they are not supported at home or when they are led by careful clerks and bureaucrats. The American experience in Southeast Asia is proof enough of just how mediocre under those conditions a democracy at war can become.

Is the age of Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton long past? In an era of the global village and postmodern relativism, is the idea of an invasion against clearly defined evil, by a democratic nation, the stuff of fantasy? Decidedly not. Rather, the study of what these three armies once did holds wisdom for all democracies at the millennium. We are told that the presence of nuclear-tipped missiles makes large land armies seem, in comparison, small and redundant, or that the specter of terrorism, insurrection and insurgency ensures that they are, in fact, too big, untrained and unwieldy. Yet neither proposition is a valid criticism.

Marches for freedom are not frontal assaults but rapid inroads into the enemy's heartland. They're not the horrors of classical Western warfare taken to its logical extreme but throwbacks to the Hellenic ideal of mustering, invading, conquering and disbanding. If it comes to a general nuclear exchange, not just armies, but whole cultures, will not matter, and it will be the end of us all.

In contrast, if we are to fight with professional commandos against the terrorist or freedom-fighter, then de facto we will not be warring to preserve our existence, but our influence in places far from our homes. It is precisely when nuclear weapons are ruled out, and yet when our opponents are bellicose nations that field armies in the thousands, that our civilized interests will be imperiled and that an army of a season may well need to arise to battle afar. Today's defense analysts worry about America's lack of preparedness, but their concern should transcend shrinking defense budgets. Every bit as important as our equipment and organization is the soul of our people, and their willingness to march out against an evil that threatens our safety.

That notion is not as lunatic as it seems. The greatest democratic victory of infantry during the last 50 years was achieved in the Persian Gulf, where a huge conventional American army and its allies materialized out of nowhere, its combatants convinced that they were fighting for a just cause against an evil aggressor who killed the weak and enslaved the conquered. That such an army encircled rather than charged the enemy, that it sought to ruin through the air the infrastructure of its foe without a bloody encounter, that it believed it was fighting for people, not oil, that it lost few of its own combatants as it wrecked the very economy of its enemy, and that within six months it had disappeared as quickly as it emerged, was remarkable only to those who did not understand the great strengths of a democratic society.

Critics of such a reactionary infantry expedition to free Kuwait, who warned of thousands of dead Americans rotting in the sands and of the bellicose record of the Iraqi Republican Guard, knew little of the destructive power of the Theban, Northern or American militias under Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton. The real problem for a democratic American army was never defeat by the enemy, but rather the maintenance of a moral high ground in the midst of destroying, on television, the enemy's very will to resist.

By the same token, even some supporters of the Gulf War, who worried about the carnage that their army wrought and the wisdom of invading Baghdad, were equally unaware of the ultimate reason for this sudden muster. They were ignorant that a march of a few days or weeks into the heart of Iraq and then a sudden exit and dispersal were, in fact, entirely consistent with the democratic tradition of war-making. Such a continued march, in which Americans destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, humiliated its army and military culture -- and then left -- would not "bog" Americans endlessly in an overseas war.

Rather, such an epic march to Baghdad may well have been the only way to rid the world of a great evil. Questions of power vacuums and postwar political realities are important, but they pale in comparison with the central mission of destroying evil. Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton were all concerned about the repercussions of their invasions, but not concerned enough to halt before their central task of overthrowing a slave regime was finished.

Everything in the Gulf War went well until the finale, when planners mistakenly felt that great armies of democracy either cannot destroy the culture of their enemy or cannot, after doing so, dissolve as quickly as they arose. But as Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton knew, armies of a season can and do melt away -- but only when they have ended the ability of their enemies to make war. Had Sherman ceased operations at Atlanta and negotiated with Southern commanders, McClellan might have won the 1864 presidential election on the promise to let slavery survive in the South. Had Patton been content with his assigned role in Brittany, the killing of Americans in Europe would have dragged on well into 1946 -- and the death camps may have finished their work with the extinction of all European Jewry. The cessation of American advance in the Gulf War and the armistice that followed were the greatest American military blunders since Vietnam.

The danger of the present age is that democracy may never again marshal the will to march against and destroy evil. In the era of television, the image of war's brutality in our living rooms may stop the attack. The education system of the present, with its interest in self-esteem, sensitivity and the therapeutic, may not turn out sufficiently idiosyncratic, audacious -- and well-read -- leaders. And instant communications may serve to bridle a mobile column at its moment of victory. But an even greater peril is that we may simply have forgotten that there finally must be a choice between good and evil, that the real immorality is not the use of great force to inflict punishment, but the failure to exercise moral authority at all.

Passage excerpted from The Soul of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson, copyright 1999 by Victor Davis Hanson and reprinted by permission of the Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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