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Monthly Archives: October 2007

A Reply and Other Things

October 31st, 2007 - 6:36 pm

Things to Watch

The more Iraq begins to settle down, the more Iran will begin to ratchet up the rhetoric, since the perceived momentum in the Gulf is beginning to return to the United States. A constitutionally stable Iraq next-door is nearly ipso facto fatal to the theocracy in Iran.

The more North Korea alleges it complies with new non-proliferation accords in exchange for money and aid, the more it is likely that its nuclear infrastructure will turn up in places like Syria. Since we don’t know exactly what the Koreans had, it is impossible to learn what is ‘missing’ when they ‘come’ clean. Instead, it is a sort of way of regaining some sort of satisfaction: while backing down to the United States, it nevertheless can cause it enormous problems elsewhere.

The problem with Iran is not just its breakneck effort to enrich uranium, but our inability to monitor how much is enriched and where it ends up. It could easily say that it has quit, while giving such material to terrorists, or if it announces it has a bomb or two, can confess it cannot ‘account’ for ‘missing’ uranium.

There are two ways of learning of the pulse of the Iraqi war: one, by the presence or absence of American mishaps on the front pages of American newspapers; and, two, the degree to which Democratic politicians cease talking about timetables and withdrawals without connection to the viability of the Iraqi government. By those two benchmarks, we are doing very well. If those trends continue, watch newspapers to begin emphasizing success and politicians claiming credit for the turn-about—since the human desire to associate with success finally trumps even ideology.

Another thing to watch is whether brilliant colonels in Iraq, who are mastering counterinsurgency, will be promoted to general. While our officer corps is exhausted by repeated tours, it is also not the same cadre that fought the 2003 war, but one of the most experienced and knowledgeable cohort of professionals we have produced in a long time. I look particularly at the career progress of Col. HR McMaster to be symbolic of how seriously the Pentagon begins to reward and utilize these gifted assets.

I suppose “devil” in not as bad as “pervert” or “feces”

Here is the response to more from LTC Bateman. My replies are again in brackets.

There is no need to reply to Mr. Alterman’s charge of McCarthyism, since the entire point of using his Media Matters website to attack Carnage and Culture seems political—a sort of surrogate effort to distract from my political commentary that is sometimes deemed too critical to the doctrinaire liberal agenda.

In any case, a simple internet search will reveal an extensive literature of tens of thousand of accounts, detailing the funding of Media Matters, which drew or draws on monies from Soros-funded organizations, but apparently argues that such third-party funneling is not “direct,” and, in Orwellian fashion, therefore de facto not really funding from Soros. The reader can survey these investigations, weight them against Media Matters’ passionate defenses—and come to his own conclusions.

I never understood the connection between a presumably egalitarian Left and an international speculator who found riches by betting on (and sometimes contributing to) wide currency swings, causing a great deal of losses and hurt in 1992 to the Bank of England and its depositors, and who was fined by a French court for insider trading. This is hyper-capitalism of the most cutthroat kind, a practice enriching an individual at the expense of the many. Given the moral pretensions of many on the Left, it would seem an unlikely source of subsidies.


Media Matters for America

Altercation by Eric Alterman

Mon, Oct 29, 2007 1:33pm EST
Bateman on Hanson, Round 1: Cannae, 2 August 216 B.C.

It may be moderately obscene, I admit, but I have always enjoyed teaching students about this battle. At the tactical level, it is the story of a force, outnumbered and fighting far from their base, defeating another force almost twice their size and doing so in such a decisive manner as to stun the world and be passed down for more than 2,000 years. At the operational level of war, competing philosophies of conflict are at play. Finally, at the strategic level of war, there is a lesson to be learned about the strategic vision of one leader, and the inability of another to grasp more than what happens on the battlefield. In short, the story of Cannae is complex and a challenge to teach.

Rather than rail overmuch here at the outset, however, I prefer to allow Mr. Hanson to light his own petard. Hanson’s basic contention is that face-to-face infantry battle is a cultural legacy exclusive to the “West.” In Carnage and Culture, he sets out to demonstrate this by resurrecting the hoary old 19th century model of “Decisive Battles” and claiming that the study of battle is the One True Way. Here is how he lays out the reason for his focus upon individual battles:

In an analysis of culture and conflict why should we concentrate on a few hours of battle and the fighting experience of the average soldier – and not the epic sweeps of wars, with their cargo of grand strategy, tactical maneuver, and vast theater operations that so much better lend themselves to careful social and cultural exegesis? Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing, which is ultimately found only in battle. (pg. 7)

[Despite the now familiar rhetoric and braggadocio—thankfully this time I am merely to be called a “devil” rather than a “pervert” or my work “feces”—this entire argument is sadly misguided. I apologize to the reader in replying to the serial misrepresentations in what inevitably will become tedious fashion.

First, Bateman quotes from an introductory section that is called “War as Culture”. There I argued against euphemism in military history and other historigraphical approaches that sometimes neglect the violence and tragedy of organized killing.

The point here at the beginning, then, is not emphasis on pitched battle per se, in contrast to other manifestations of war—that is one of the nine themes of the book and soon discussed at length in Chapter Three on Gaugamela—but rather the approach of the military historian who sometimes fails to describe the experience of everyday soldiers by instead focusing exclusively on “grand strategy, tactical maneuver, and vast theater operations.”

I am not arguing here for an either/or methodology, only recognition that wars ultimately are about individuals who must do the killing and dying in battle and their experience should be included in any military narrative. Battle, of course, is used here in the introduction in the generic sense of fighting per se, not as a particular kind of battle.

These quotes are part of a discussion about the unusual format of the book, which begins each chapter by describing fighting and killing in mediis rebus, and then tries to discuss the larger undercurrents that might explain why these thousands died and why thousands of others did not.

Again, the entire point here is the focus of the military historian; it is not an argument here over something Bateman calls The One True Way—a silly term of course I never used.]


There is an inherent truth in battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory.

[Again, apologies to those who are already bored, Bateman does not understand the very quotation he reproduces: I am not concerned in this particular discussion from which the quote derives with pitched battle versus other types of battling, but the battlefield—i.e. the landscape where people are killed—as an arena of men trying to kill each other, and the lessons that can arise from such an elemental experience.]

Just a short while later Hanson rams home the point … again:

We owe it to the dead to discover at all costs how the practice of government, science, law, and religion instantaneously determines the fate of thousands on the battlefield – and why. (pg. 8)

[The more Bateman quotes, the more oblivious he seems to appear. Again, he seems to believe that here in this introductory discussion of the book’s historigraphical approach that this sense of “battle” means a particular type of battle, at the expense of other methods of fighting, rather than the generic human experience of killing within wars. That’s why sometimes [see below] in this discussion here I used the term “war” interchangeably.]

A few lines later he repeats himself, and at this point you are starting to think, “Hmmmm, maybe he’s serious about this focus on battle as being what matters thing”:

War is ultimately killing. Its story becomes absurd when the wages of death are ignored by the historian. (pg. 8)

In case you weren’t listening, he keeps up the same drumbeat throughout the book.

Hanson is saying that the study of battle provides the evidence to support his main idea.

[The use of “Hmmmmm”, like “rail” and “drumbeat”, I think, is again revealing. It is hard to continue with this reply, because something seems wrong with Bateman’s ability to read and comprehend language, as in his first critique last week: My sentences, “War is ultimately killing. Its story becomes absurd when the wages of death are ignored by the historian” pace Bateman, do not mean, “Hanson is saying that the study of battle provides the evidence to support his main idea.”

Instead, as pointed out above, it emphasizes the moral responsibilities of the historian. One can agree or disagree with that argument, but it is not an argument at this particular place in the text that only decisive battle captures the essence of war.]

Hanson outlines his overall thesis in a section subheaded “The Singularity of Western Military Culture.” In that section Hanson puts it this way:

All armies engage in mass confrontations at times; few prefer to do so in horrendous collisions of shock and eschew fighting at a distance or through stealth when there is at least the opportunity for decisive battle …

And then:

Foot soldiers are common in every culture, but infantrymen, fighting en masse, who take and hold ground and fight face-to-face, are a uniquely Western specialty … (pg. 445)

In other words, only Western armies seek out shock battle and short, sharp, hard fights. Others try to avoid battles, using movement, misdirection, deception, and other stratagems so as not to fight.

[Again, there is evident an inability to analyze the very quote produced: Bateman quotes me, “all armies engage in mass confrontations at times” and then “Foot soldiers are common in every culture”—but then concludes that means [his words, not mine] that “others try to avoid battles.” That’s contradictory and not what I wrote and discussed at length in Chapter Three.

Instead, these quotes, and this section of the book at large, point out that all cultures at times send soldiers to meet each other en masse, but there is a cultural preference in the West to prefer decisive, shock battle whenever possible and feasible.

Note that each of the nine chapters highlights a particular aspect of the Western military tradition. Gaugamela, the third chapter, dealt at length with decisive battle, but is inexplicably omitted in a Bateman’s exclusive focus here on the Western preference for decisive battle.

There, however, I outlined an extensive Hellenic vocabulary for pitched battle, noted a variety of quotations from early thinkers about the primacy of the set piece, traced its ethnical and practical origins, and noted both the Western deprecation for other types of fighting, and why and how sometimes this chauvinism proved dangerous, and how this legacy has limitations in an age of nuclear power, and ubiquitous deadly Westernized technology.

The reader is urged to turn to Chapter Three, rather than have me rehash the evidence and arguments here that are conveniently ignored by Bateman—who also skips entirely the theme of constitutional government in the chapter on Cannae under discussion.

That said, Cannae reflects, of course, like the other battles I discuss, this multifaceted Western military tradition, which in part includes a tendency to favor decisive battles.

But the point is not that Westerners always sought or won in decisive battle (in some cases, numbers, terrain, and logistics made both impossible) or that their enemies always avoided set pieces, but rather there was an idealization in the West of pitched battle, a tendency to favor it, and a deprecation—sometimes foolishly so—of other manifestations of war, whether terrorism, missile fighting, or hit-and-run wars of attrition.

We can see the occasional liabilities of those assumptions from the Athenian experience in Aitolia to our own in Iraq.]

But there is one big problem with that thesis: One of the most famous battles in all of history runs 180 degrees against Mr. Hanson’s thesis. It is a battle so famous that Hanson cannot ignore it or pretend that it didn’t happen, as he does with many other battles (which we will see in later weeks). But more than that, it was not just one battle, but a whole string of battles, all of which ran counter to his idea that the cultural legacy of the “West” generates an inclination for head-on battles, and that inclination leads to victory. Even worse, what eventually led to an overall victory for the Roman (“Western”) side in the war was not battle, but actually the active avoidance of battle! Those last two points, however, Hanson has concealed.

[Bateman does not seem to grasp the very essence of the Second Punic War. Rome in the first few years predictably tried to win it outright in a series of pitched battles. When they failed due to the rare genius of Hannibal, they opted for a short while to delay further set encounters until their legions were replenished and commanders experienced with Hannibal warfare. But not long after, decisive battles resumed all over the Western Mediterranean [see below], and the Punic War was won not by avoiding battle, but finally by crushing Carthaginian armies in horrific set battles in Italy, Spain, and North Africa.

I selected Cannae as one of nine battles, so I hardly tried to ignore or conceal anything about the battle. Note again, Bateman simply does not understand the arguments of Carnage and Culture. He writes “But more than that, it was not just one battle, but a whole string of battles, all of which ran counter to his idea that the cultural legacy of the “West” generates an inclination for head-on battles, and that inclination leads to victory.”

I don’t know how “a whole series of battles” runs counter to the idea of “an inclination for head-on battles.”

Moreover, the “idea” or “basic contention” or “thesis” of Carnage and Culture is, again, not just head-on battle, but a menu of cultural practices highlighted in each of the nine chapters.

In the case of Cannae, the emphasis was on civic militarism, in Tenochtitlan on Western rationalism and technology. Other chapters dealt with western notions of discipline, dissent and open critique, and individualism, and so on. Each chapter, of course, reflects the entire western military tradition, but the full argument of each element is focused and discussed at length in particular chapters.

If Bateman wishes to challenge my argument about this one element of the lethal Western tradition, he might have much more easily discussed the chapter in which the argument is laid out in its fullest extent; or, contrarily, if he wished to focus on Cannae he could accept or reject the expressed theme there of the value of constitutional government.

The central argument of that chapter was not the primacy of shock battle—more on that below—but rather how Roman republicanism was able to galvanize to recreate legions after terrible losses, and transmit a sense of civic involvement to a large segment of the population.

That was not just my conclusion, but that of Greek historian Polybius as well: “For although the Romans had clearly been defeated in the field, and their reputation in arms ruined, yet because of the singularity of their constitution, and by wisdom of their deliberative counsel, they had not only reclaimed the sovereignty of Italy, and went on to conquer the Carthaginians, but in just a few years themselves became the ruler of the entire world.”]

The short version of what happened in the Punic Wars runs something like this: Rome and a North African city called Carthage fought a series of wars that spanned almost 120 years. During the second war, a Carthaginian leader named Hannibal marched his army from Spain, across what is now the south of France, over the Alps, and into Italy. During those marches he confronted small Roman detachments and Roman allies. He beat them all. Then, once he invaded the Roman homeland, he defeated several Roman armies in a row.

In the first major battle, Hannibal and his army directly confronted an equally sized Roman army and wiped out about 20,000 of perhaps 36,000 Romans on the field. In the next battle, he again offered direct combat with his army, again on equal terms, and in that battle his army killed 30,000 Romans while capturing the remaining 10,000. So, in two battles, Hannibal’s non-Western army killed or captured something like 60,000 out of almost 80,000 Romans sent against them, while barely losing any of their own strength. Hanson, of course, never talks about these numbers or battles in any detail. He grants them light, one-sentence asides and concessions, but generally brushes past their meaning. With the addition of Cannae, these three fights are examples that run counter to Hanson’s thesis. One battle might have been an exception to the rule. But when the historical record shows battle after battle where the “Western” way of war is shown up, on home turf, when the Westerners outnumbered the enemy, the thesis begins to lose air. Hanson, however, brushes this aside by admitting that Cannae “was not a fluke.” But he does so in just one sentence.

[This is completely disingenuous. The chapter, of course, mentions fatality numbers—cf. pp. 104, 110. Here is what I actually wrote: “From the time of his descent from the Alps in October 218 to the slaughter at Cannae on August 2, 216 BC., Hannibal had killed or captured in battle somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 legionnaires, along with hundreds of the senatorial and knightly classes, including two consuls at the head of their armies and numerous ex-consuls in the ranks. In the space of twenty-four months a third of Rome’s frontline troops of more than a third of a million men of military age were to be killed, wounded, or capture in the bloodbaths at Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae. Cannae, then, was no fluke.”

The Roman preference for decisive battle was apparent from the start—and reveals itself even when terrain and poor generalship might have suggested that it would be unwise at Ticinus, Trebia, and Trasimene.
Livy and Polybius note the impetuousness of inexperienced Roman generals to insist on a decisive battle even when others saw that it was unwise to tangle with this particular genius, especially when he was isolated in a foreign territory with tenuous lines of support.

Again, inspired and brilliant Fabian tactics were considered unfortunately cowardly and unromantic, precisely because they were antithetical to a long tradition of preference for finding the enemy and destroying him in pitched battle as quickly as possible.

The texts of Livy and Polybius emphasize again and again the natural Roman repugnance—and popular outrage—toward Fabian tactics, and eventually the wisdom of the Roman Senate in checking for a while these well-known but now dangerous impulses until the fresh legions were experienced and new Roman commanders schooled enough to return to, and defeat the Carthaginians in, pitched battle—which of course they eventually did.

Hannibal was a rare military genius, won several set pitched battles, but could not defeat a system that eventually trumped his innate talents and so crushed him— in a set battle. Bateman doesn’t seem to understand that victors in war often lose battles in the process.]

But back to the narrative: Finally, the series of pitched battles culminated in the absolute destruction of the largest Roman army yet thrown against the Carthaginians. Out of an estimated 70,000 Roman legionnaires who arrived in the vicinity of the battlefield at a place called Cannae, Hannibal’s army killed about 50,000 of them in a few hours. The Carthaginians did this by pretending to pull back in the middle of their line, until they sucked the Roman army into a three-sided trap, which their cavalry then closed from behind. It was the definition of a historic battle, but the really interesting stuff came later. More on that in a moment.

[Again, “the series of pitched battles” and Cannae itself were possible only because, despite poor generalship, Rome commanders insisted on fighting Hannibal in such decisive encounters, eventually learned from them, and then used that very experience to win the war by victories in pitched battles.]

Now, to give the devil his due, Hanson’s description of the battle that occurred in 216 B.C. is generally accurate, in the broadest outlines. He does go pretty far, however, in trying to twist the language around to suit his needs. So, while he takes no liberties with the specifics of what happened on that day, he is tricky with his use of language. Hanson tries to minimize the impact of the horrific Roman defeat at Cannae by making it seem like the actual size of the massive Roman army did not matter. Instead, he suggests, the Romans that lost there were effectively the second-stringers.

[I never wrote they were second-stringers, and emphasized Hannibal’s genius, and inept Roman leadership, as accounting for the victory. And yes, after tens of thousands of dead in three prior pitched battles, the legions of the young republic were already, prior to Cannae, becoming attenuated, and Rome conscripted old men, youths, and slaves.]

For example, he mentions, how at Cannae the African troops in the Carthaginian army were “veterans.” Then he conversely describes many of the 70,000 Romans as, “adolescents who filled the Romans ranks, depleted by the thousands butchered earlier at Ticinus and Lake Trasimene” (pg. 101). In another part of the text, while Hanson says that Hannibal “arrayed 10,000 skilled horsemen,” he goes on to describe the opposing Roman cavalry as “6,000 poorly trained mounted Italians.” (pg. 102) Now, the problem with that is that the sources do not describe the Roman cavalry as “poorly trained.” It is true that the Romans generally did not have the best cavalry. But in this specific case, Hanson is just making an assertion. He does this because it fits his thesis. He does not know what training the Roman cavalry had, any more than he knows how many “adolescents” were in the Roman army that day. The historical record is, effectively, silent on those specific points. In other words, Hanson is merely guessing, but writing his guesses in such a way as to make them appear authoritative.

[It was not my judgment, but that of ancient historians that Roman cavalry was traditionally underappreciated, and thus weak and neglected, in general and here in the Punic War, as the first battle at Ticinus proved. Livy explicitly concluded of that battle that the Carthaginians were clearly superior in cavalry. Roman historians at all times lamented the need for foreign auxiliaries, particularly African and Gallic cavalry. The need not merely to draft slaves, but to find able-bodies legionaries at all costs was a reaction to the limited manpower reserves of the republic, that between 219-216 perhaps lost close to 100,000 soldiers in battle, and thousands as well to wounds or illness.]

But all of this is small fry compared to his greatest offenses.

How, one might be asking themselves at this point, can Hanson defend his thesis of the supremacy of the Western Way of War given the facts of these battles? How can he continue to assert that the West is supreme in infantry shock battle, when all major Roman battles of the Second Punic War mentioned in this chapter show the Romans being beaten in direct head-to-head shock battle by non-Westerners? Well, the answer is moderately simple. Hanson tries to save his thesis by saying something like, “Uh, battle matters … except when it doesn’t.” In fact, this is what he says:

[I don’t say “something like” at all. The historical record from our sources, not I, provides the proper context: the Romans wished to fight in pitched battle repeatedly, even when they lacked the leadership to match Hannibal. That they attempted to do so frequently, and eventually succeeded reflects their commitment to decisive battle and eventual success with it.

Second, as mentioned in the text, Hannibal himself, drew many of his ideas and much of knowledge of war likewise from an Hellenic tradition, in which Greek thinkers and generals offered their expertise during and after the First Punic War to help thwart Rome, hence Hannibal’s own desire to meet the Romans often in decisive engagements.

The chapter on Cannae argues that the institution of civic militarism and constitutional government were advantages that kept the Roman military viable and able to reconstitute the legions, learn from the prior mistakes and eventually destroy the Carthaginians—in a number of pitched battles well before the finale at Zama. (More below.)]

Cannae, like so many of these landmark battles, is the exception that proves the rule: even when Roman armies were poorly led, foolishly arranged, squabbling before battle over the proper deployment, and arrayed against a rare genius, the catastrophic outcome was not fatal to their conduct of the war. (pg. 105)

What is remarkable about Cannae is not that thousands of Romans were so easily massacred in battle, but that they were massacred to such little strategic effect. (pg. 111)

Students of war must never be content to learn merely how men fight a battle, but must always ask why soldiers fight as they do, and what ultimately their battle is for. (pg. 131)

So, you see, despite Hanson having written over and over again that battle is what matters, when confronted with irrefutable historical evidence contrary to his thesis that the “West” is supreme in infantry-centric shock battles, Hanson becomes a flip-flopper. In these quotes above he is saying, because he must, that it actually does not matter who wins the battle!

[Bateman seems to think either that successful armies never lose battles, or that Rome lost the Punic War, or that it won it without defeating Carthage in a variety of brutal set battles!

So what Bateman has done is this: he confuses the introductory comments about writing about the battle experience of soldiers and the need to appreciate their sacrifice with an argument about decisive battle; next, he omits the arguments adduced in a chapter-length (on Gaugamela) explication of why Westerners preferred decisive battle; then, he chooses to critique decisive battle by reviewing a chapter on the advantages of civic militarism and constitutional government, and yet after all that still demonstrates the opposite of what he desires:

The Second Punic War was won by decisive battle, in which Roman legions, after learning critical lessons from their initial mistakes in generalship and tactics, crushed Hannibal and his armies at Zama.

The chapter noted that when Romans were inexperienced with Carthaginian infantry tactics, were unaware of the tactical brilliance of Hannibal (who drew on an earlier Hellenic military tradition of pike men and shock), and were plagued by Italian dissension, they nevertheless preferred decisive battle, which initially led them to both mistakes and critical knowledge from those errors.

Note especially—ignored by Bateman—that I mention the phenomenon of westernization (see the section “Carthage and the West”), as in the case of Midway. The Spartan Xanthippus had introduced Western ideas of infantry during the first Punic war. Greeks like Sosylus accompanied Hannibal and reflected a transmission of Greek thinking to Carthage, from military thought to agriculture practice—and likewise helps to explain why Hannibal himself sought to engage Romans directly, at times with spearmen in battles of shock, at times even when it was wiser not to.]

But what about what happened afterward? If what really matters, according to this new Hanson formulation, is the bigger picture, then what happened next? What happened after the Romans were crushed, for a third time, on their home turf? Hanson writes:

Marcus Junius was appointed dictator, with formal directives to raise armies in any manner possible. He did so magnificently. More than 20,000 were recruited into four new legions. Some legionaries were not yet seventeen. Eight thousand slaves were purchased at public expense and given arms, with a proviso that courage in battle might lead to freedom. Junius himself freed 6,000 prisoners and took direct command of this novel legion of felons. (pg. 127)

Huh? Wait a second. In an earlier passage Hanson wrote, “Western armies often fought with and for a sense of legal freedom.” (pg. 21) This, in fact, was a foundation to his hypothetical motivation for the Western soldiers. According to Hanson, it was because of their freedoms that men in the West fought so hard and so well in infantry shock battles.

[This is, I am afraid, adolescent and becoming rather embarrassing. I discussed the ancient concept of freedom in an entire chapter on Salamis, noting carefully that it was an evolving idea, and is to be understood in the context of the general morality of the times. Bateman perhaps by extension would argue that the Founding Fathers did not bequeath constitutionally protect freedom to Americans, some of whom who held slaves, because it was still an imperfect and not fully evolved idea.

Bateman’s is one of the oldest and most puerile of politically-correct critiques of the West—the idea that the absence of perfection means that a noble institution at its inception was therefore not good, or at least perhaps hypocritical.

In fact, Roman citizens enjoyed a freedom unknown in Carthage or anywhere outside the Roman and Hellenic world. But as true everywhere else, they also owned slaves. But that age-old ubiquitous practice was under appraisal, and subject to occasional criticism as was not true elsewhere.

Again, the discussion of “freedom” and slavery in the first chapter of the book and the apparent paradox of free citizens having slaves, is completely ignored by Bateman, who seems unaware of a long ancient and modem discussion of slavery and its contradictory association with free citizens.

Cf. 50-51, where the argument mentions the secondary status of women, slaves, and non-citizen in the Greek and Roman worlds. It then points out this was true of all other cultures of the ancient world (and many today as well), but what was unique in the West was that there was also an accompanying idea of a free male citizen, and this not only gave rights and responsibility to millions in a way not found elsewhere, but more importantly soon become an evolving concept that was expansive and grew ever more inclusive over a 2500 year tradition.

Or as I wrote, “Freedom is an evolving idea, a miraculous and dangerous concept has no logical restrictions on its ultimate development once it is hatched.”]

Yet here, of 20,000 new troops Hanson is lauding the Romans for raising in the wake of the disaster at Cannae, a full 14,000 of them are either slaves or prisoners. (And I thought our recruiting difficulties in the U.S. Army were rough.) How can one be a slave and at the same time fight due to a sense of one’s civic responsibility to the Roman state? This is an especially difficult question since most Roman slaves were from foreign sources in the first place, and so would have had no allegiance to Rome.

[The point is obvious: it was precisely because Roman citizenship was prized, especially the protection of Roman law accorded to free citizens, that made it so attractive to slaves, foreign born or not, to risk dying in battle to get it.]

But the legions were raised, and by the end of the chapter Hanson’s logic has become so twisted around that this fact, not the facts of what happened in the battle, is what Hanson contends matters. But then what did the Romans do with those legions? Perhaps this line might help. (Primer: Hasdrubal is another Carthaginian leader; Metaurus was a battle that took place in 207 B.C., nine years after Cannae.) Here Hanson is offering a hypothetical and comparing the strategic levels of war by talking about the Carthaginian political leadership vice that of the Romans.

After Hasdrubal’s catastrophic setback at the Metaurus, there was no likelihood that the Carthaginian Assembly, as Rome had done after the far worse slaughter at Cannae, would have ordered a general muster of all its able-bodied citizenry — a real nation in arms arising to crush the hated resurgent legions. (pg. 9)

Now, from that sentence one gets the impression that after the battle of Cannae, the Romans did, in fact, arise as a “real nation in arms” and that they subsequently immediately sought battle and then “crushed” the Carthaginian army under Hannibal, right?

Wrong. Though Hanson makes only one slight mention of it, the fact is that Hannibal stayed in Italy for the next 14 years. He stayed on Roman soil, moving with near impunity, year after year. How could Hannibal do that?

Well, completely contrary to Hanson’s thesis about how Western armies seek battle, hold ground, and strive for short and sharp shock conflicts, the reality was that the Romans, for the next 14 years, deliberately avoided shock and pitched battles with Hannibal. (Remember these Hanson lines? “All armies engage in mass confrontations at times; few prefer to do so in horrendous collisions of shock and eschew fighting at a distance or through stealth when there is at least the opportunity for decisive battle…” and “Foot soldiers are common in every culture, but infantrymen, fighting en masse, who take and hold ground and fight face-to-face, are a uniquely Western specialty…” (pg. 445))

What the Romans actually did was exactly the opposite of the Hanson thesis. They broke up their armies into smaller forces and harassed Hannibal indirectly. They gave ground, regularly, and lived to maneuver another day. They sought to wear him down, while preserving their own forces. They avoided pitched battles on any large scale. In short, they followed the direct advice of one of the other most famous generals of all time, one who is only mentioned by name a single time in the entire chapter (and then without noting his actions). That man was Quintus Fabius Maximus, called “Cunctator” (The Delayer), and it is from him that we have the term “Fabian Strategy,” which was so magnificently put into play by a fellow named George Washington a couple of millennia later.

[After Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae—disastrous pitched battles which Roman commanders insisted on fighting despite problems in command and generalship (such was the pull of the Roman tradition to fight pitched battles even if unwise against a genius like Hannibal)—Roman manpower was exhausted, after losing perhaps 100,000 soldiers in battle.

The Roman Senate immediately sought to rebuild the legions often ex nihilo, and while that rebuilding process went forth, Fabius, to great criticism (Cunctator was originally a term of derision), once more convinced Romans that they should once again use their tenuous forces to delay Hannibal until the republic was able to go back on the offensive.

The famous phrase “unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem” is revealing. Cunctando does mean “harassing” but rather “delaying,” in the larger sense, not just of avoiding Hannibal’s seasoned forces, but also delaying the Roman desire for pitched battle itself until Rome was in a position once more wisely to employ large trained legions under able commanders, which it did most brilliantly at the Metaurus and then Zama to end the war outright.

But more importantly Bateman is sorely mistaken about the absence of decisive battles in the Second Punic war, whether in Italy, Sicily, Spain, or Africa.

After Cannae, even at terrible aggregate losses, Roman forces in Italy and Sicily attacked and besieged Syracuse, Tarentum, Sagentum, fought several sea battles, and then once again fought and lost decisive battles at Silarus and Herdonia and then won a spectacular victory at the Metaurus.

Bateman appears unaware that very rarely has a war seen so many decisive battles in which tens of thousands perished in horrific encounters at sea, and in sieges, and in scores of costly direct engagements (not fought by Fabius) all over Italy and the Western Mediterranean almost every year of the conflict—at, for example, Asculum, Baecula, Baetis, Bagbrades, Beneventum, Cannae, Canusium, Capua, Cissa, Cornus, Croton, Dertosa, on the Ebro River, Grumentum, Herdonia, Metaurus, Nola, Numistro, Saguntum, Silarus, Suessula, Tarentum, Ticinus, Lake Trasimene, Trebia, Utica and Zama.]

How Hanson missed that extra 14-year part where the Romans avoided major pitched battles in Italy is curious.

Folks, this is just one chapter, and it was a chapter dealing with events within Hanson’s specialty. It gets worse from here.

[It should be clear now that there were plenty of pitched battles in which thousands died after Cannae—not mere skirmishes or ambushes—between 216 and 202, fought by generals other than Fabius, and not only in Italy, but in Spain, Sicily, and Africa as well. That is why I wrote: “For the next fourteen years Hannibal would experience a seesaw series of victories and defeats inside Italy…”

In short, Bateman seems completely unacquainted with the basic details of the Second Punic War; omits lengthy arguments made in the book about decisive battle, ancient freedom, slavery, and the nature of the Roman army before and after Cannae. He thinks historigraphical reference in the text to the need of a military historian to concentrate on the details of fighting is an argument that war is defined only by decisive battle; and he ignores the central theme of the chapter under discussion about constitutional government that carefully explains how and why the Romans could lose initial decisive battles, regroup and delay, and then in a series of such encounters all over the Western Mediterranean defeat Hannibal through decisive battle.

I don’t think there is any need for Bateman to chest-thump further or to editorialize. Sadly his level of critique, the accuracy of its content, the manner in which it is written, and the use of pejoratives like “feces,” “pervert” and “devil”, simply do not reflect well on the conduct of an active military officer. Media Matters has not served him well, or he them.

I will write more briefly on future misrepresentations, since the point has been made now that the first two critiques were politically-driven, contracted-out journalism, and not intended to be serious historical examinations.]

Next Week: Leaping Through Time to Poitiers and Beyond.

You can write to LTC Bob at

A Few Good Men

October 29th, 2007 - 7:38 am

One Man Can Make …

Determinism since Marx has been the driving force in historical studies—whether class strife, technological innovation, geographical constraints, or environmental degradation. In contrast, the notion that individuals trump these larger sweeps of history, and can themselves alter history every bit as much as new mass cultural trends, a brilliant invention, the oppression of an entire people, or the salinity of a once fertile valley is sort of passé.

And yet, we see the ripples of single individuals daily. True, France was ready for someone to buck its statist trend. But Mr. Sarkozy, by sheer force of personality, has almost redefined French politics and the endangered French-American reliationship. Take that single individual away, and French government attitudes toward Iran, Israel, or the United States would return to that well known from the last 30 years of business as usual in Paris.

Ditto General Petraeus. He has been out of the news lately, as the daily violence lessens and the war is off the front pages. For the interview I had with him two weeks ago, I prepared by reading extensively on Iraq, talked to dozens of officers, had toured the country twice, and discussed the war with violent critics and adamant supporters, both American and Iraqi. And yet every time I raised a question, he easily went beyond it by providing extensive answers, often outside the parameters of the inquiry, anticipating criticisms, and outlining all sorts of variants to the problem. Fairly or not, he has embodied America’s collective hopes about saving Iraq.

My only worry about him is that he travels extensively, in helicopters and Humvees, in places recently secured and less so. Rarely has a war rested so much on the shoulders of one officer, and his safety, it seems to me, is critical to this nation’s effort. That may sound absurd in the modern age, where protocol and technology have supposedly relegated the human dimension to a secondary role. But it is true, nonetheless.

Indeed, it is difficult imagining a victory in Korea without Matthew Ridgeway. I don’t think Lincoln would have been reelected without Sherman in Atlanta. No other Union general could have replicated his march through Georgia and the Carolinas.

In truth, there are thousands of officers like a workmanlike Henry Halleck, George Meade, Mark Clark, Omar Bradley, or Courtney Hodges, but rarely a US Grant, Nathan Forrest, George Patton, or Curtis LeMay. The perception of Iraq, and I think it is earned, is that a single American officer set off a chain of events that have turned around an entire war. So let us hope that this irreplaceable officer keeps safe and healthy to finish the task at hand.

The World Upside Down

There is almost no way to anticipate the exact end of a war. 1780 with the British capture of Charleston was not a good year, and yet the war was mostly over in 1781 after Yorktown. The worst Union year was summer 1864; but by November of the same year, the fate of the Confederacy was sealed. Many thought the French army would break in March 1918, by October 1918 it could have gone into Berlin had it wished. Okinawa—50,000 American casualties—was not declared entirely secured until early July 1945—the end of the Pacific War followed less than six weeks later. November 1950 was horrific, with no dream that by summer 1951 Korea would be stabilized.

Unconventional wars, true, are very different. But nonetheless war is an accelerator of human behavior and its pulse can change the very way people think overnight.

The Agrarian Life

This week I’ve been speaking on the east coast, and unfortunately spending a lot of time in airports—watching the contorted faces of weary travelers, listening to harried businessmen on cell phones, and witnessing the exasperation of those with cancelled or late flights.

Stress of the modern workplace surely is the real killer of Americans. My maternal grandparents lived to be 86 and 91; their two professional daughters, my mother and aunt, died at 66 and 49 respectively. My paternal grandfather lived to be 81, his son, my father died at 75. The older generation lived pretty much in one place, rarely if ever traveled, and set their schedule by the natural year. They worked within sight on their farmhouses, ate much of what they grew, and were up at 4 and in bed at 9 or 10.

My parents, in contrast, entered the rat race and all that entailed, and toward the end of their lives understood the toll it took. I don’t want to romanticize farm life; I found it brutal and dangerous, but the wear is of a different sort.

The healthiest period of my own life was when farming. In one stretch I didn’t leave the 135 acres for nearly a month, and didn’t go into Fresno for six weeks. We forget how liberating an experience it is to have such a routine, as one’s world shrinks to a few acres. I wrote about it in depth in Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, this sense of near exhilaration of wearing what you want, not worried whether your hair is uncombed or your shirt unbuttoned or a shoe lace broken.

All that—physical work interspersed with contemplation while pruning or shoveling, complete responsibility for your own success or failure, constant attention to the weather—has some sort of healthy effect on the body. I confess I was always skeptical of New Age nostrums and non-traditional medical advice, but I also confess that something about farming made chronic conditions disappear over time.

Both my grandfathers, who were born and died in the same place, went to an American hospital a single time—a very short one-day stay before death, with nothing in between at all. And the only way we were able to get my Swedish grandfather into the hospital for a metastasized mouth tumor was to remind him that it would fester and smell and bother others (he lived alone so this was perhaps untrue) around him. He went in, got it cut out, and then shortly died.

My maternal grandfather complained that his driving test was too difficult (he was 86), had trouble getting up the next morning, and died that evening in the hospital. In contrast, their children had repeated ordeals with strokes, cancers, and assorted maladies, but also had pressure-filled jobs, little sleep, commutes, and chronic worries about debt, job security, and travel.

Carnage and Culture

I got a lot of emails about LTC Bateman’s remarks. As I said, from time to time I will simply respond to his promised serial critiques of the book, and hope they are professional and scholarly. Even if they aren’t, I’ll avoid invective. Whatever one’s politics are, I think everyone is sick and tired of things like “feces” or “pervert,” or the same old, same old name-calling on the national scene.


No one quite knows why things are suddenly changing in Iraq. The causes offered are nearly limitless—weariness with the violence, the massive capital flowing into the country from $90 a barrel oil (as if Iraq’s prewar production of 2 million barrels-plus was suddenly 6 at the old $30 price), disgust with the barbarity of al Qaeda, realization both that the Americans were not prematurely leaving, and yet had no desire to be in Iraq one moment longer than was necessary to stabilize the country, the sheer number of terrorists and insurgents killed by Americans over the last four years, gradual decline in the Gulf States monies sent into Iraq for terrorism, new tactics by General Petraeus and the surge, etc.

But if the trend continues—and I think it will—there were be necessary political readjustments at home. Expect some who supported the removal of Saddam, and then bailed during the 2004 violence (in both parties), to come around again, perhaps suggesting that their vehement criticism of Sanchez, Casey, Rumsfeld, etc. brought the needed changes and won back their support.

Expect others to offer no explanation of the vitriol they once offered, but simply to revert to their 2003 optimism, albeit with qualifiers and slurs about Bush.

For Democratic candidates a certain dilemma may loom. They know their base is passionately opposed to Iraq—the Daily Kos,, Media Matters, the Howard Dean wing, etc.—and that such an anti-war position is necessary to navigate through the primaries. So two choices remain: one, a Hillary or Obama can express relief Iraq is finally working but carefully express remorse that it was still not worth the commensurate cost in blood and treasure; or, alternatively, they can simply claim credit that their anti-war fervor both changed policy at home (the demonization of Petraeus in September makes this difficult), and sent the right message to the Iraqis to shape up or else.

My sense is that the most centralist, Hillary Clinton, benefits, and will play down her prior opposition—until the Republicans raise it in the general election. Instead, she will just say something like “Iraq-ughh” and leave the audience to fill in the blanks about her general disgust with the word.

All this matters little in comparison to stabilizing the country. We often ask, “How does it all end?” With a whimper, not a bang most likely, as it devolves into something like the Balkans, which is neither violent nor yet has a stable political framework that would ensure quiet should Nato troops leave.

The huge influx of wealth into the Gulf, though, is starting to have an effect. Flying over the route from Anbar cities to Baghdad, one is struck by the countless big-rigs that are now coming into the province hourly, without escort and without being attacked, bringing millions of dollars in consumer goods into places like Fallujah and Ramadi. The very notion that this old nexus of petro-wealth and a bought massive arsenal in the hands of a psychopath is over with is hardly appreciated.

Rocky Times

Again I am thankful for all the advice sent in about recovering after surgery, and dealing with several stones. I’ve been operated on them before, but they were sporadic. This new serial deluge of several at once, coupled with constant gravel and sand, is a novel experience, and one Drs. don’t seem to know how to stop.

The last two months I’ve been trying to force liquids, drink lemonade, change diet, take a prescription drug called Urocit, and about everything else under the sun, to shock the body back to its metabolism of two months ago when these were a rare occurrence of only about every 3-5 years.

The old doctors’ orders of the past—go home, take pain medicine, and wait for them to pass—doesn’t work when one seems to be suddenly making new small ones or at least gravel as fast as they pass.

One observation that might help others: no matter how fatigued one gets from the pain or loss of sleep, walking or any sort of exercise has an almost magical effect to temporarily stop the pain. Sitting and sleeping in contrast seem to aggravate the colic and “grow” the stones.

I once lectured that I had some sympathy for the lackluster generalship of poor Nikias on Sicily. He apparently suffered from stones, and his poor judgments may well have reflected his incapacitation. When he surrendered his army, perhaps he was suffering renal colic, since his previous generalship in the war had been fairly energetic.

Some More Replies

October 25th, 2007 - 10:59 am


Some wrote ‘why a Democrat?’

I was born to Democratic parents, themselves children of Democratic parents, part of a tradition of conservative California small farmers of six generations here in Selma, a social group who tried to organize cooperatives and bargain for fair prices.

In some local cases, from time to time I still can vote for candidates who reflect that conservative Democratic viewpoint. But on the national scene the Democratic Party is now represented by Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and others. And so it is mortgaged to the Daily Kos, Michael Moore, and an extremist wing, in the sense it either cannot or will not speak out against the over-the-top slander, whether comparing our troops to terrorists, Saddamites, or Nazis, or suggesting a sitting President is amused by soldiers’ heads being blown off. Their worldview is not mine, and I haven’t been able to vote for a national or statewide Democratic candidate in number of years. That said, some of my best friends, most of my family, and a lot of my colleagues are Democrats, and we try either not to discuss politics, or do so in the spirit that these difference pale to our commonality as Americans.

Why not change registration? Partly laziness, and partly just habit. Or maybe it’s nostalgia for politics from my grandfather, who loved Harry Truman.

A lengthy Response

I used to have a great deal of respect for the Chronicle of Higher Education. But on their recent gossipy blog, they advertise a recent hit-piece by one Robert Bateman of my Carnage and Culture, that is now appearing on the website Media Matters, funded if in part and indirectly by George Soros, under an apparently regular feature of Eric Alterman’s called Altercations. The piece is embarrassing and reminds me of playground name-calling in grade school.

Carnage and Culture has been out for a number of years, and has been translated into over a dozen languages. Reviews have appeared in over fifty scholarly publications, and more mainstream magazines and newspapers, by diverse scholars such as John Keegan and Geoffrey Parker. Its general theme, that a unique 2,500-year Western military tradition has allowed European and other Western nations advantages in conventional war over a variety of adversaries is, of course, controversial.

I welcome criticism and debate, and in the six years since the book has appeared have defended the book in a variety of written venues, public debates, and radio and television shows. It has a variety of supporters and critics, and continues to sell a number of copies. But so far no one has introduced his criticism of the book by stating at the outset that I am a “pervert” and that Carnage and Culture is a “pile” “of feces”.

To write such childish slander is unprofessional—and especially unbecoming of a military officer. In the upcoming weeks, I will try to offer a point-by-point refutation of LTC Robert Bateman’ serial attacks, and begin here by replying to his initial charges that Mr. Alterman published recently. My reply is in brackets after each paragraph of Mr. Bateman’s.


Bateman on Hanson: An Altercation Altercation

By LTC Bob Bateman

[I omit the first portion of his attack that is on a topic other than Carnage and Culture.]

…Our host has been kind enough to provide me a bully pulpit for the next several weeks as I take down one of the most profound perverts of the historical record in the modern era, Mr. Victor Davis Hanson.

[“Pulpit” is an unintentionally revealing admission. But who is “our host”—Media Matters? Indirectly a George Soros? Eric Alterman?

I don’t know how “perverts” can also be “profound”, much less “perverts” of a “record” (does Mr. Bateman instead mean a “perverter”?) I am flattered that Mr. Bateman thinks I am some sort of “most” “in the modern era.” But alas, I can’t claim to have any such influence, good or bad, earned or not, to justify the silly phrases “one of the the modern era.”

Not a good start.]

If you are not familiar with him, Hanson, or “VDH” as he sometimes styles himself, is a historian of classical Greece, or at least he was a historian of that place and era. Now he is something different. Since 2001 he has laid claims to being a military and cultural historian for the ages, in addition to becoming a columnist for the National Review Online and other hyper-conservative outlets. Personally, I do not care what he writes in an op-ed, so long as he does not torture historical facts in order to validate his own pet theories. But Hanson does exactly that, and so, from my seat, he is the worst sort of polemicist: one who claims academic credentials as a neutral observer, but then insidiously inserts political interpretations of his own present-day biases into the historical record.

[I don’t style myself “VDH”. Others may use the term, but since my first book I have been known as Victor Davis Hanson. I am a historian of classical Greece; the most recent book, A War Like No Other, on the Peloponnesian War appeared in 2005. I wrote a 10,000 word introduction for the upcoming "Cambridge History of Ancient Warfare," and am a professor emeritus of classical languages. So I am hardly “something different” now, in this sense that I no longer write or lecture on ancient Greece. I have an article coming out on a new fragment of the orator Hyperides, and just wrote a long scholarly article on Salamis for an anthology, and am just beginning to edit for Princeton University Press “Makers of Ancient Strategy”, a collection of scholarly essays on the relevance of the ancient world to modern military thought. So I think I am still a classical historian.

Moreover I made no “claim” to anything in 2001, much less being “a military and cultural historian for the ages” whatever that means. “For the ages” and “in the modern era” are apparently Mr. Bateman’s grandiose phrases, not mine, and thus he need only cite the quotation (with a footnote preferably) if he really believes I claimed or wrote any of that nonsense.

I suspect what bothers Media Matters is not Carnage and Culture, but a perception that I often critique leftist views on contemporary issues, hence the invitation to Mr. Bateman by the David Brock-run megaphone.

In the twenty years before 2001 I wrote both military history (e.g., Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, Hoplites. The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (editor), The Soul of Battle, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, and several scholarly articles on things as diverse as textual problems in Thucydides to Xenophon’s reconstruction of Leuktra, and cultural history (two books on agrarian life, Fields Without Dreams, Letters to an American Farmer, Who Killed Homer?, several articles and op-eds on modern American cultural and agrarian life).

True, I am a columnist for National Review Online, but I don’t think also being a weekly syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services constitutes “hyper-conservative outlets”. I am hardly a polemicist in the partisan sense. My mail, at any rate, has as many attacks from the right as from the left, for everything from supporting Israel and opposing agricultural subsidies to suggesting that blanket deportation of illegal aliens is simply a bad idea and that we shouldn’t presently bomb Iran.]

Hanson’s best-known general thesis, which he has pounded upon since his book Carnage and Culture came out in 2001, is that there are elements in Western culture (that is to say European culture, but only those who derive their heritage from the Greek/Roman traditions) that make us unique and always successful in war. His “evidence” is laid out in his version and interpretation of nine battles and/or campaigns which took place over roughly 2,500 years. In Carnage and Culture these are: Salamis (480 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Cannae (216 BC), Poitiers (732 AD), Tenochtitlan (1520-21 AD), Lepanto (1571 AD), Rorke’s Drift (1879 AD), Midway (1942 AD), and Tet (1968 AD).

[I haven’t “pounded” anything. In Ripples of Battle I emphasized how battle changes art and literature. The Soul of Battle discussed the power of democratic armies to fight for perceived freedoms. A War Like No Other tried to reveal how the Peloponnesian War was fought by the soldiers themselves. Carnage and Culture was one of seventeen books I’ve written or edited, so its theme is hardly “pounded”—and no more or less emphasized than the others, whether the survival of the family farm (Fields Without Dreams), or the dangers of unchecked illegal immigration (Mexifornia).

Of course, I never wrote that the West was “always successful in war.” How silly! That’s a laughable distortion, and again Mr. Bateman should use quotation marks when he writes what I did not write.

Instead, Carnage and Culture took great effort to explain that Western armies often stumbled and cited disasters from the La Noche Triste to Isandlwana. The theme instead was that over space and time, the present dominance of the West was impossible without a military tradition that gave it innate advantages.]

Hanson is tricky. He plays upon a uniquely American dichotomy. Generally speaking, we Americans respect academic qualifications, but at the same time harbor deep-seated biases against those we deem too intellectual. The line there is squiggly. Thus, Hanson tries to claim academic qualities, but then immediately switches gears and denigrates any potential opposition as mere “academic” history (with its unreasonable insistence on things like footnotes or endnotes so that your sources can be checked). Indeed, he dismissed the whole lot by saying, “Academics in the university will find that assertion chauvinistic or worse — and thus cite every exception from Thermopylae to Little Bighorn in refutation.”

[One can’t “claim” academic qualities” (again, unsure here again of Bateman’s vocabulary; is he trying to say, as earlier, “qualifications”?). I have a PhD in Classics from Stanford University, and was a professor of Classical Languages for twenty years at the CSU Fresno campus, as well as a visiting professor at Stanford University, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavior Sciences, and the US Naval Academy, and presently am a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a retired farmer who produced tree fruit and raisins for some twenty years on our family’s farm.

I suppose those are qualifications, but I don’t know what he means by “qualities” any more than I know what a profound pervert of historical record means. There are some serious problems in expression and phraseology throughout the essay that make it difficult to fathom what exactly Mr. Bateman is trying to say—hence his frustrated resort to braggadocio and slurs.

I have no objection to footnotes, and almost all my scholarly books were extensively footnoted. Warfare and Agriculture is heavily footnoted, in the text and at the bottom of the page. An objection to the Other Greeks was that it was too extensively footnoted in tripartite fashion—Greek and Latin sources cited in the texts, shorter footnotes at the bottom of the page, and then long endnotes at the end of the book citing ancient and modern sources and controversies.

My most recent book A War Like No Other was footnoted in traditional fashion, as was The Soul of Battle. In Carnage and Culture, intended for a different and broader audience, I limited footnotes to citations of quoted material. So I hardly “dismissed the whole lot”—whatever that empty phrase means.

Instead, what I wrote— and the argument is easily understandable to any reader— is that the theme of Western military advantage is controversial on the present-day university campus. And, of course, it is.]

He further eroded any potential critique by claiming that such would be part of the “cultural debates” (conservative code for “campus liberals hate America”). Indeed, that occurred in the very first paragraph of his book when he wrote, “While I grant that critics would disagree on a variety of fronts over the reasons for European military dynamism and the nature of Western civilization itself, I have no interest in entering such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality of the West.”

[Again, another willful misinterpretation of what I wrote. How is it that by stating that I didn’t want to get into campus debates over Western civilization, I “eroded” critique? Again, what I wrote is not hard to fathom: while there is a cultural war over the morality of Western civilization vis a vis other cultures, in this particular book, I was interested in comparative military dynamism, not morality.

Frequently in the book, I noted the slaughter committed by Westerners from the Spanish in Mexico to the British in Zululand, violence that came as a result neither of their intrinsic barbarism nor high-mindedness, but rather of a tradition that allowed them to draw on superior weapons, infantry discipline, open expression and dissent, capitalism, and a variety of other protocols that had resulted in rather small numbers of soldiers fighting successfully far from home against numerically superior enemies.]

His technique worked—until now. Carnage and Culture was a national best-seller, and Hanson is himself now regularly invited into the highest levels of the executive branch of government to speak and advise. All because he twisted facts to tell a story as he wanted it to be, not as the facts themselves lay out. And because he silenced his critics.

[I didn’t know that I had a “technique” much less whether it “worked” Again the scholarly and popular reviews are a matter of record concerning the legitimacy of the argument.

Why all the psycho-drama, when Mr. Bateman should just get on with it and make his case on historical grounds, rather than continuous posturing? Mr. Bateman’s use of “until now” rather pompously suggests that the apparently uniquely gifted Mr. Bateman, unlike past scholars, alone has the expertise to refute the book in this Media Matters venue.

But if this initial effort, replete with inexact vocabulary and factual error, is any indication of what is to come, I welcome the cross-examination. What seems to bother Mr. Bateman most particularly—and perhaps this explains the invitation of Media Matters to publish his rant—is his perception that somehow I have some influence with current administration officials and that it is unwarranted. In fact, I have no influence, at least that I am aware of, and live in central California, about as far from Washington and Mr. Bateman’s Georgetown as one could get.

So I am not “regularly invited into the highest levels of the executive branch of government to speak and advise.” I had a single dinner with the Vice President as part of his ongoing-series of dinners he had hosted with a variety of historians. Likewise, the President set up a series of meetings with scholars to discuss past wars. In a single one of those many sessions, John Keegan and I and four others were asked to talk about military history. None of these were exceptional events, or private meetings. The number of American academics and scholars who has been invited on one or two occasions to critique present policy is in the hundreds, whether in the Clinton or Bush administrations.

I have hardly silenced my critics. Although Mr. Bateman is unusual in using terms like “feces” and “pervert”, one Gary Brecher in a Russian Online Magazine called me a “traitor” and dreamed of burning down my vineyard—somewhat frightening since at about the same time as he voiced that desire, the roadside along my vineyard actually went up in flames, necessitating a visit by the local fire department.

Others have attacked from a “neo-Confederate” perspective, on the grounds that I saw culture, rather than race, a determinant in military prowess.

The weirdest attack was when John Heath and I published Who Killed Homer? about the decline in classical learning: one Judith Hallet, a self-described feminist classicist upset over our critique of race, class, and gender studies, admitted that she called the FBI to report us as possible suspects in the Unabomber manhunt—so dangerously influential she thought our arguments.

Once when giving a lecture on Mexifornia to a group of House aides, a Nancy Pelosi staffer interrupted the session and stormed out (after trying to steal one of the pizzas that had been catered for the lunch session), furious that I must surely be a racist because I was introduced as a “classicist”. He blurted out that this meant ‘a supporter of class divisions” rather than a professor of classical cultures. Classicists to him should be like racists: they use class for their own privilege, or at least that was what he tried to say before being laughed out of the room (and grabbing an entire pizza on his way out).

In other words, I am used now to crack-pot furor and personal invective. But I don’t think I have ever tried, much less succeeded, to silence critics. I live by a general rule: refute criticisms promptly, but don’t stoop to slander. So from time to time, I will try to answer Mr. Bateman’s attacks, but will never suggest that his work is a feces or he a pervert.]

Hanson’s dismissals of those who would correct the record he distorted are based upon two biases: “Campus liberals” would engage in culture wars, and “non-military historians” don’t know about military history and are thus unqualified to speak on the topic at hand. Well, Victor, I am afraid that I’m not going to be so easy to dismiss. Although I teach at Georgetown now, I used to teach at West Point, and the topic I taught is the same that I have studied for 18 years, military history. It is one thing for you to brush off an inhabitant of, say, the history departments at Yale or the University of Wisconsin as knowing nothing of the military or military history. It is quite another to attempt the same with an Army Airborne Ranger who also happens to be an academic historian and who thinks that your personal signal work is a pile of poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces.

[Once again, why all the dramatic and self-important bumper-stickering?—18 years! Georgtown! Army Ranger! etc.

I know many in the history department of Yale and have only the highest respect for them.

I don’t know why some resort to the false familiarity of first names, e.g., “Victor”.

The truth is I don’t know Mr. Bateman, or he me. Again, quotations are necessary with anything Mr. Bateman writes. In this essay for example, he puts the word “campus liberals” in quotations, and then here uses it a second time as if I ever had. But the term is his, not mine, so there is no need for the quote since he is quoting no one but himself.

Nota bene—I have never judged any scholar’s work per se by either his academic affiliations or past training, but by the merits of the logic and argumentation. I am happy that you are “now” an adjunct at Georgetown, but in truth it matters little whether you teach at Georgetown or West Point or Harvard or Stanford or CSU Fresno or at what level you are employed.

What is relevant only are the coherence, logic and truth of your argument. But from this first weak effort, your thesis, to the extent it can be identified, in fact, is very easy to dismiss outright on its merits well apart from your current status.

I have a great deal of respect for our uniformed military, and your service as an Army Ranger, and hope that gives you special insight as you proceed to reconstruct these nine battles of the past—although it is sadly of no obvious advantage in this initial effort.]

Next Week: Cannae

You can write to LTC Bob at

Eric adds: “Go Sox!”


[I welcome the critique. That particular chapter derived from a number of years teaching Livy and Polybius to upper-division Latin and Greek students, and I am open to discussion of any misinterpretation of those texts Mr. Bateman thinks he an offer.]


The Current Scene

October 20th, 2007 - 8:36 pm


The idea that democratization can help the stagnant Middle East is now moribund and slurred as a neo-con conspiracy or worse. Yet, when one surveys the region—the hard-working Karzai government, the efforts to calm Iraq, the return of Bhutto to Pakistan, the brave Lebanese efforts to stave off Syrian agents and Hezbollah, the debates in the Turkish Parliament—I see a lot more hope for constitutional rule there than in so-called “stable” Russia (Putin now trying to ensure that Iran gets the bomb, and that Europe is perennially to live in fear) or China (furious that the Dalai Lama would dare meet with an American President.)

Turkish Holocaust

Of course, in waves of horrific violence, the Ottomans had hoped that large numbers of Christian Armenians in 1915, as well as later Greeks in Smyrna, would perish in mass. There were special extermination gangs, camps of death, and forced starvation—the means (the Ottomans did not have gas chambers, good rails, and sophisticated crematoria at their disposal), not the intent, were what differed mostly from Nazi Germany. California’s Central Valley is home to a large part of the Armenian Diaspora, and I grew up hearing chilling tales of Turkish butchery and ethnic cleansing, especially among neighboring raisin farmers (the industry was built by Armenian refugees at the turn of the century.)

But all that said, why after nearly 100 years, should the US House of Representatives prepare to vote to condemn a defunct Ottoman state, at a time when we are trying to keep Turkey in touch with the West, out of democratic Kurdistan, and willing to let us use facilities there to keep the effort in Iraq well supplied?

It makes no sense to condemn Turkey for its forefathers’ crimes, but then do nothing about ongoing slaughter from the Congo to Rwanda—much less unilaterally to withdraw abruptly from Iraq, when we know our departure would unleash massive violence against civilians worse than we have seen heretofore in the war.

Either the Pelosi gambit is to be seen as a way to stop the Iraqi war by cutting off our supplies through Turkey, or simply a ‘all politics are local’ pandering to domestic constituencies, or both, or proof (if proof were needed after her visit to the assassination-mind Bashar Assad) of her inexperience and ineptitude.

HR McMaster

I spent some time in Iraq accompanying Col. HR McMaster who was on an inspection tour of the forward operating bases. He is a UNC PhD, former Hoover Security fellow, and author of an acclaimed book, Dereliction of Duty, on (the lack of) military leadership during Vietnam, as well as one of Gen. Petraeus’s top counter-insurgency thinkers.

I could not imagine a tour (some 30-40 days I think he is on) that would pose more risks—humveeing and coptering into all sorts of places, regardless of the recent 24-hour conditions. Over the years, in Gulf War I, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, he has seen a number of close calls, and walks with a limp from an injured hip (probably will have to be replaced). Full body armor, pistol, and M-16 to lug around can’t help the pain.

I would watch him negotiate with Sunni governors, police chiefs, and generals, then be debriefed by Marine and Army officers, then go on tour in Humvees or foot patrols. This would start at 7 am and end at 8pm. Then after the long helicopter trip back to Camp Victory, HR would eat and join discussion with fellow Colonels until after 11 PM.

We often talk loosely of the idea of a renaissance man, but colonels like McMaster come closest—I would add another Colonel Chris Gibson—to the idea that I have ever come across.

Something is going on in Iraq entirely missed by media. It’s not just that things are turning around, but rather Gen. Petraeus has assembled perhaps the most gifted group of Army officers seen in a generation—who feel they are going to snatch victory from the jaws of political defeat. I think they will pull it off and the entire political landscape here at home will have to readjust to it by early next year. The smarter Democrats will take credit by claiming their anti-Bush efforts forced needed change, the denser ones will just continue to deny, like Sens. Reid and Schumer, that any good is occurring at all.


By habit I remain a registered Democrat, largely because my parents and grandparents were agrarian populists in outlook. I also try to vote and support (even as our district boundaries keep changing) one Democrat, Jim Costa, our local Democratic congressman, who is cut from the Scoop Jackson mold. Central Valley Democrats used to be considered mainstream center-right people in a way unimaginable now. We forget that a long time ago, Democrats were considered sort of tough, practical minded, a world away from the blueblood golf course crowd, receptacles of conservative values in a way the elite Republicans were not. That’s ancient history now.

I throat clear like that because of the steady insanity shown by the Democratic political class. Now Congressman Stark accuses President Bush of enjoying the deaths of our soldiers in Iraq; this follows Harry Reid’s letter trying to intimidate and silence Rush Limbaugh. And, of course, we witnessed a litany of insanity voiced by Sens. Kerry, Durbin, and Kennedy about Iraq and our soldiers, who were libeled as everything from terrorists to Saddamites to Nazis by those three. Congressman Murtha pronounced Marines guilty of war-crimes before they were tried. Sen. Obama asserted our troops killed innocent civilians, while Sen. Reid and Clinton essentially called Gen. Petraeus a fabricator (“suspension of belief”).

When we factor in the “Betray-us” ad, the Hollywood antics, and the university embarrassments, whether denying Larry Summers a right to speak at UC Davis or welcoming in Ahmadinejad at Columbia, one is forced to ask, “What happened to liberal thinking and the Democratic Party?” Why do dissent and criticism almost immediately devolve into elemental rage, whether Durbin screaming that our soldiers are Nazis or that their leader is a traitor? Why do deans, media heads, and politicians show such bad taste?

Plenty of explanations come to mind: the Democrats were out of power and frustrated with their impotence, and show a furor at being out of the loop for years. There is also something to the changing demographics of the party, which now includes a number of rich and mega-rich supporters, who apparently feel, that unlike a hardware store owner, or an accountant, they have made it, are exempt from mundane worries, and have enough money not to care about taxes and climbing entitlements.

Among this very elite, liberalism is now a sort of entrée for business, entertainment and leisure, a social requisite, like being a petty Christian official in the Medieval World, always taken for granted and not often examined.

Among this new influential class, clustered in universities towns, and progressive cities like Seattle, the Bay Area, the southern California Coast, Boulder, New England, and the suburbs of Washington, hating George Bush, or assuming that Western industrial rapacity is heating up the planet for profits, or that Iraq is a war for Halliburton is all akin to having oak floors, leather furniture, a stainless steel, granite kitchen, a glass of white wine after work at a fern bar, or driving a Prius to campus—manifest symbols of taste, erudition, and culture. Championing social causes at a distance also provides the upscale a sort of psychological penance: e.g., something like ‘I wouldn’t dare live or tutor in East Palo Alto, but will play the radical at Stanford’s picturesque campus as spiritual recompense.’

NB: the Kerry and Gore and Michael Moore lifestyles at odds with their professed rhetoric. I doubt should the obese Moore need heart surgery that he will go to Havana, or that Gore will plug his mansion into wind turbines or fly commercial, or that Kennedy will allow a windmill on his vacation home horizon.

Other factors that explain why Democratic leaders appear so ill-mannered are the legacies of the general uncouthness of the 1960s. One sees that in Cindy Sheen talking about her womb, or Moveon.orgs tasteless ads, or the language of a Bill Maher, or the sort of placards you see at campus protests, or the web postings on the leftwing sites.

In the 1960s, there was a general assault on manners, language, habit, protocol—anything deemed “plastic” or part of the “establishment” responsible for classism, imperialism, racism, and sexism. We forget that those who embraced it an early age (I saw the very tail-end of that dying movement as a freshman at UC Santa Cruz in 1972), did not just fly off to Mars.

Instead their coarseness was imprinted deeply upon their souls and the culture at large. And as we watch that generation age, whether in Congress or in films or at our universities, we see people inherit great positions of power—deans, bureau chiefs, senators—even as their small 1960s essences remain trapped in aging bodies. So just rent the DVD Woodstock, add 40 some years to those bodies, and, presto, imagine them all with suits and ties running universities, newspapers, foundations, and government, torn between the enjoyment of the lavishness that democratic capitalism provides them and their very abstract disdain for it.


I want to thank readers for expressions of concern. I’m feeling better and hope to be normal again in a few more days. I learned that there is a small number of us who seem to have these constant stone- and gravel-making propensities that call for intervention from time to time; your letters reminded what an accursed group we are. I hope never to see another stint in this lifetime.

The Chains of the Past

October 14th, 2007 - 10:01 pm

Prisoner of Memory

The end of the raisin harvest this year—I have rented out my vineyard to a neighbor the last several years—reminds me that a traditional Thompson vineyard is probably doomed. Some of these 6’x12’ vineyards were planted in the 1920s by my grandfather. Due to climbing costs, the future is in high-density plantings, perhaps up to 2000 vines per acre, trellised on pergolas, machine pruned and picked, water and fed by computerized drip irrigation, and requiring very little intensive labor per acre, but costing perhaps $5,000-8,000 per acre in initial planting costs.

Since the farm—the remnant of the original 135 acres that was parceled up between my siblings— will be very soon be in the city limits, its future rests with my son. For now I’m in a holding pattern, and enjoy walking around the house and vineyard, mostly for the recollections of the 1950s and 1960s when dozens of neighbors, small farmers all, used to congregate and talk after lunch about JFK, the dams in the Sierra, and new upcoming powerful 50-hp vineyard tractors (We had three older ones, a Ford Jubilee, an older put-put Ford 8N (I think it didn’t even have overhead valves) and a wonderful early model Italian-made Oliver. None would pull a 9-foot disk, meaning you had to disk each vine row twice in this age before the larger Masseys, Fords, and John Deeres).

I still have dreams that somewhere there will be a place, perhaps like the final scenes of How Green Was My Valley, where all these giants of the earth, the hired man Manuel George, the hulk Bill Hazzlehoffer, the other neighbor Harry Khasigian, and the Cherokee Joe Carey, the hardest worker and most honest man I’ve ever met, will reappear over the hill by the pond, as if they have never been gone at all.

Much of what I learned about farming—and life—came from my grandfather Rees Alonzo Davis who was at the center of all that, and who was born in my house in 1890, the grandson of the Lucy Anna Davis who came here from Missouri and built it much earlier. It is a dangerous thing to live in the past—Horace had a term for it in his Ars Poetica: laudator temporis acti—but as one ages, one increasingly can become captive to memory.

There were the widely variant mundane lessons—always shake hands and look one in the eye, value your name in the community, treat the common laborer with as much or more respect than you do the rich man, always pay your bills well before due, acknowledge deep appreciation of the natural beauty and bounty of central California, honor the United States, especially in times when others don’t, try to get up before dawn, expect things to break and try to maintain them in advance, adopt a rhythm in diet, activity, and habit, never smoke or drink (if at all).

Much of Rees’s advice about this lifestyle of the elder Cato was exactly the opposite from my wonderful father William Hanson who married his daughter, my mother, a Swede who flew on 40 missions over Japan in a B-29 and enjoyed cigarettes and whisky and hard living and hard fun all with a wonderful character of good will and a buoyant disposition.

It was a good balance between the two, but my father advised always “relax and enjoy things, life’s too short to be so serious;” his father in law countered with: “worry about things before they happen, be prepared for tragedy, to step up when others can’t (he tried to put away money to help pay for funerals, weddings, and anniversaries on the assumption that others wouldn’t).

He seemed to think hard physical work was somehow spiritual, and rarely worried about labor-saving devices or doing things differently that might save additional labor Calluses, sweat, soreness were all a sign of moral betterment, something deeply resented by me and my siblings when we were forced to join him for hours in shoveling or tying up vines on our knees, but later appreciated for teaching how the mind can tolerate hours of rote rugged toil.

My biggest worry? The loss of knowledge I inherited about the physical world. My grandfather could smell a storm on a southern September wind. He looked at the way birds nested to sense rain, and daily marked the phases of the moon, and tides and kept a precise diary for 50 years. He could judge the year by stunted or rich grape foliage, and weekly measured the water table, and checked the direction of the wind and the cloud formations. He had what I’d call a “sense”, the ability to know by intuition the impending physical world and the way humans would react to it, a Thucydidean in the fullest sense.

He had absolutely no interest in profit other than staying alive, and being able to farm and support his family. The appearance of his farm, not its profitability, was the key, since the aesthetics were a reflection of his own character. Shortfalls and farm losses were made up out of his hide, by avoiding expensive meat, and living off most of the things grown on our farm from persimmon bread to pomegranate juice.

We complained that he put all his money back into the farm—new end posts, vine wire, and irrigation valves—and only sparingly the house (I moved in at 26 to his run-down clapboard two-story pride and spent 30 years trying to restore it to what he once described it looked like in 1910 when it was only 25 years old).

I wish I could have passed on that natural wisdom to my old children, but only digested a fraction of it myself, more eager to leave the boredom and head to the coast, only in mid-twenties realizing how fortunate I was to have had such a refuge.

I think the most serious charge against my generation (born in 1953) was the blaming, victimization and self-absorption in which so often we faulted our parents or our family for our own ensuing problems. In my case, I owe any success I’ve enjoyed to my parents and grandparents who gave me such a wonderful youth, while the failures were all my own, usually as a result of not listening to their posthumous (they are all gone now) voices ringing in my head.

The Pulse of the Battlefield

War is the most unpredictable of all human events. Few can see how and when it ends. By spring 1918 after four years of horrific fighting, the Imperial German government was promising victory as its armies went on the offensive further into France and Belgium. Four months later they were in hasty retreat to a defeated Germany as the war drew to a close.

The worst campaign in the Pacific theater—the bloodbath at Okinawa that took 50,000 American casualties and 200,000 Japanese and Okinawa lives—was officially declared ended just six weeks before the surrender of Japan.

The four-year war to stabilize Iraq is similarly up-and-down, as the good news of Saddam’s defeat, the end of the Hussein family tyrants, and three successful elections are overshadowed by the insurgency, constant violence, and now 3800 dead American servicemen.

Politics always reflects this volatile pulse of war. In the bleak summer 1864 Lincoln had no friends, by April 1865 no enemies. FDR was considered by many a dangerous war monger in early 1941, by year’s end a sober war leader that was uniting the country against the fascist enemy. Truman left office despised in 1953 as an incompetent, but once South Korea was saved, he was seen as an architect of Cold War containment.

With the advent of 24/7 cable news, instant global communications, and a popular culture that is obsessed with the present and future, we became largely ignorant of history’s past lessons. But believe it or not, the war in Iraq is not immune from history and thus can also change once more and radically so—and has since early summer.

The most deadly area of Iraq was always the so-called Sunni Triangle where Baathists, Saddamites, Islamists, and al Qaeda all joined together to kill Americans. Now much of that area is quiet, as Sunnis have tired of the violence and are asking the Americans to both fight al Qaeda with them and broker a peace between themselves and the Shiite-dominated elected government in Baghdad.

If the Shiites were to follow the same script and turn on their own radical Shiite militias—and there is some reason to believe that is also possible—then it is conceivable to envision a mostly stable Iraq. And that would mean both sides could fight out their differences over oil revenues and government services in a mostly peaceful fashion.

Would anyone here at home believe that such a good turnout might be possible? Probably not, given the past four years domestic furor over the war. Remember that in 1974-5, after a decade of ordeal in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government was still viable. But with Watergate and 57,000 dead the American public was sickened by the very name Vietnam. The Congress accordingly cut off all American military assistance, even as North Vietnamese communist forces invaded the south to finish off the its two-decade rival.

The administration and our military are heavily invested in securing Iraq, many on the left and in the Democratic party equally convinced that the war has been a horrendous waste of American blood and treasure and its long past time to pull the plug But amid this domestic back-and forth- the US military gets up each day to fight terrorists and train Iraqis to take over, and is suddenly getting better with it by the day.

The old blame gaming of the past—Was there ever really that much wmd?, Was Saddam promoting al Qaeda-like terrorism? Was Iran empowered by our invasion?—is now mostly irrelevant. Historians will decide whether a democratic Iran was worth the American cost, and whether the war was a grab for oil and hegemony or a mostly idealistic effort to end a genocidal dictatorship and bring constitutional government in its place. Today the question is simply how to stabilize the country, save lives, and leave it with a chance at a future unimaginable under Saddam.

So the only question left that really matters is not whether Iraq could be won—it can—but rather will it be secured before the American people demand an end to the mounting expense and withdraw? I think that would be a terrible tragedy. In contrast, I can imagine a year from now a quiet Iraq and a US military that deserves the thanks of the world for what it accomplished under almost impossible conditions.

Not Just Colonels

I mentioned the brilliant majors, LTCs and full colonels that serve in Iraq. But I should have noted that the ordinary soldiers, whether privates or sergeants, are equally competent and are the front line in the struggle. Whatever the critiques of America’s youth as I-pod and video-game addicted, and enjoying a prolonged adolescence, those in their teens and early twenties in Iraq seemed just the opposite. Many sleep on hard cots in forward bases, eat pop tarts and energy bars, and then climb into Humvees on mined roads—and never complain. It is often said the war in Iraq is surreal, perhaps—but being among our nation’s youth at the front lines was one of the great privileges I’ve enjoyed. No one could do what they do any better.

A final note.

I go in for more tests and some exploratory surgical procedures both Monday and Tuesday—after apparently losing this six-week effort to pass multiple stones and avoiding the resulting complications.

So I may be posting much less in the next week or so. But hope to be back to normal very soon.

Iraqi Impressions—Final Part III

October 9th, 2007 - 7:23 pm

Our Equipment is Tired Too

The number of vehicles, arms, bases, and American infrastructure in Iraq is staggering. And the wear and tear on it all is evident everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised that 30% of our equipment is worn out to the degree that it wouldn’t make sense hauling it back, and would be better off left to help transition the Iraqis. Humvees have sprung doors, broken glass, missing pieces, well in addition to the wear from sand and heat. I think the American people should accept that after Iraq we have an enormous tab to pay to reequip the air force, marines, and army. When you ride in a Ch-46 Frog marine helicopter, or a chugging Humvee or see banged up looking semis, you get some idea of the huge refitting job awaiting us after this is over, I’d say $30-40 billion at least.

Gen. Petraeus

I had an hour conversation with Gen. Petraeus, along with Rich Lowry of National Review, on Thursday evening at Camp Victory. He is trying to reconcile two widely divergent views. Petraeus knows his commanders in the Sunni provinces warn that the good news of calm is tenuous, dependent on good-faith efforts by the Shiite government to allot a fair measure of money to these minority constituencies that have sheltered both al Qaeda and former Baathists.

And yet he accepts that hyper-criticism of the elected Shiite government for their spite and intransigence can prove counterproductive, creating only resentment—especially since it is almost impossible to separate out the deliberate and malicious from simple incompetence within the ministries. An elected government, after all, is sovereign, and we work with those elected by a plurality of Iraq voters.

The result? One must constantly pressure, coax, argue for a Sunni constituency that until very recently was trying to blow apart your own soldiers. And that isn’t easy either. We liberated the Shiites, found them allies against Al Qaeda and Baathists, and now worry more about them than the Sunnis who killed us far more frequently for the first four years—only in Iraq.

Iran came up. Again, a dilemma. Everyone knows Iran is sending lethal copper-tipped IEDs into Iraq, along with agents and cash, to either destroy the country or reduce the government into the status of a puppet state. It gave aid to both Sunni and Shiite militias on the principle that whatever caused turmoil for Iraq could not be bad for Iran.

Solutions? What I gathered from Petraeus is that we have to find a way to stop Iranian infiltration and direct weapons deliveries, perhaps at first by moving our military compounds closer to the border, and getting Iraqis to monitor the intrusions along with us. We must get the Europeans to curb trade and investment; that alone would cripple the theocracy.

What we must be careful about are direct strikes against Iranian weapons’ facilities that would only prompt a terrorist response—or worse—in Iraq. So how one does balance that act—wean the Shiites of Iranian help, have the government rein in the Iranian-backed militias, and convince Baghdad that the new Sunni protection forces are no threat to the government?

Gen. Casey had a brain trust in Iraq, and he set up the counter-insurgency center in Taji. Col. Bill Hix (now in Afghanistan), whom I know well, was on his staff and representative of the highly-educated, talented colonels in the army I wrote about last posting and whom Casey brought with him. I think Petraeus has only accelerated that trend, in getting the likes of Cols McMaster, Kilcullen, MacFarland, and Mansoor all assembled together. No one knows more about the seams of wartime Iraqi alliances than they.

Imagine a university seminar, the professors with sidearms and M-16s at their side, the stakes not a change in curriculum but the life and death of thousands. So one’s final impression of Petraeus is pretty clear: this is about the only person who combines all the experience necessary for this now nearly impossible task. If he cannot pull it off, I don’t think any military commander could.

I found him at times soft-spoken, gruff but polite, blunt, candid, and informed, and generous with his praise of his subordinates. He is a colonel’s general, and represents this effort by the army to bring in those with advanced degrees, who question the status quo, and find that their intellectual skills and education are nearly as important as their military acumen in solving this Byzantine labyrinth of what is now Iraq.

He is not prone to misstatement or bluster or partisanship, and would seem a natural leader that the Democrats could rally behind as well–taking undue credit for demanding changes that led to his appointment. So the tactic of slandering him as we saw last month with the “Be-tray-us” ads is nothing short of political suicide—as the Democrats also belatedly learned who finally distanced themselves from their in-house zealots. But again, this is a mere sideshow, the real challenge being solely can the violence be stopped to allow reconciliation?

Al Qaeda

We sometimes think religion trumps human nature. It doesn’t. Remember the Rafsanjanis of Iran: under the cloak of religious zeal, that crooked clan wormed into businesses and ministries like a Costra Nostra family bent on cash and perks. So too with al Qaeda in Iraq. They are criminals first, pseudo-fundamentalists second. The military knows that well enough since it has seen their pornography, syringes, shake-down schemes, and petty criminality etc. “Al Qaeda” gave a lot of young criminals cover to steal cars, take over houses, and take young girls.


Col. Hickey gave a scholarly presentation about IEDs—a frightful weapon that kills randomly, without recourse to reply to the attacker, and quickly instills a sense of dread among those forced to drive over highways seemingly devoid of enemies.

I won’t go into detail, but answers offered are not merely technological since we are in a constant challenge/response cycle against sophisticated enemies, in which the deadlier and more sophisticated mine can gain the edge much more quickly than the commensurate expensively armored vehicle or jamming device. Even the new wedge-bottom marine vehicles (I rode in a MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicle and found that it seemed to ride much more cumbersomely than the up-armored Humvee) are very vulnerable to Iranian-machined copper-headed IEDs, as are at times even Abrams tanks. All the jamming gear in the world, and up-armored plating, can’t save our men driving down roads with occasional Iranian IEDs or large al Qaeda brands.

So the answers are found in intelligence, and that means getting the local population to identify the bomb makers, the mules who plant them, the houses where they sleep, and the places where they eat. I think we are winning that race, but the rub is that an exasperated public has zero tolerance for further casualties. So to maintain our pressure on al Qaeda we must suffer almost no losses, and that means almost no IEDs. And even a analyst like Col. Hickey can’t promise that.


The number of Defense Intelligence Agency analysts, Provincial Reconstruction teams, investigators from the Pentagon, and mid-level diplomats in transit hourly around Iraq is astonishing. In the present calmer climate, their duties, ironically, can pose even higher risks than combatants, since they hop from one area to another, in convoys and in aircraft, often given tours of the front immediately upon arrival.

I have only the highest regard for all of them—a large number of whom are courageous women—who think nothing of jumping on a Blackhawk to copter up to Fallujah, tour the town, meet Iraqis, write reports, fly back, low and in pitch black night on an Army helicopter, and then repeat the sequence the next day or so.

The Arbitrariness of Death.

Soldiers die in Iraq in very unexpected ways, as is true in all wars. But the line from rear and front is blurred to an astonishing degree, the enemy has no uniforms, and we know sometimes very little about shifting alliances—and who is who on any given week.

Shrapnel can fly into a tent at the hospital in Balad. An overloaded Humvee can careen into a canal. Someone walking in Camp Victory can be mortared. With so many poorly trained Iraqis with so many guns, accidental firings are common. Paid insurgents can mortar into, and drive-away from, even the most fortified target. Listening to the stories of how our 3,800 something have died, I was struck how often death came in moments that were outside “combat,” and involved simply driving, or sleeping, or eating dinner.

There are no fronts in Iraq. That does not mean that a private in a Humvee driving outside Tikrit is not in vastly more danger than a staffer in one of Saddam’s grotesque palaces at Camp Victory—only that the war can be everywhere and nowhere, and no one is immune at any time

One small example of what must be an everyday occurrence. After visiting areas in Anbar deemed active, one hardly thinks that the ten-or-so mile drive from Camp Victory to the tarmac poses much danger.

But on arrival about 7:30 PM, while approaching with two Air Guard pilots our light prop plane, without warning a mortar round landed thirty yards from us. We six (journalist Rich Lowry and two National Guard lieutenants were also there) dived to the tarmac.

All that saved us was that instead of immediately exploding and showering us with shrapnel, the nearby round hit the cement runway obliquely and for some reason skipped before exploding at a safer distance. The entire airport was shut down for considerable time after the attack, and when it reopened we walked over to the impact hole in the tarmac and saw that even without going off immediately, the unexploded round, if aimed just few yards differently into our midst, would have taken at least one of us out.

To stave off defeat, the insurgents, whether ex-Baathists, al-Qaeda, or Shiite militias are embedded within terrorized communities. And they know that while a firefight with a US Marine or Army unit means instant death, an occasional quick rocket or mortar salvo might kill randomly an American—and with that death another headline in a U.S newspaper and another thousand or more citizens back home sick of Iraq, the war, and Iraqis. The war now has increasingly become defined only on the basis of how many of our own die, and that’s the metric the enemy welcomes.

But then after 9/11 we learned there are no fronts, and the worst “battle” still was the first that saw 3,000 incinerated in minutes in Manhattan. Behind all this lies the reality that Islamic radicals and their patrons fear any conventional fight with the US military, be it from the grand scale to the mere skirmish. Their only home is terror and its twin of demoralization and fear.

Final note. After beating this reoccurring stone problem, I hope to make a third visit next year, and see to what degree the Anbar awakening has taken hold.

This trip the general feeling was one of almost abject disbelief that ‘lost’ provinces could suddenly change so quickly. But to sum up: there has been a dramatic change on the battlefield, to such a degree not only is the media largely clueless about it, but our own military is so surprised that it doesn’t wish to make any sweeping predictions.

But if the Sunni transformation continues, this is an historic development that may well tip the scales in our favor—with enormous political ramifications throughout the region, and indeed the world at large. How the Arab world—or indeed our own Left—will handle scenes of former enemy and hard-core Sunni nationalists working side-by-side with Americans I don’t quite know, but it should be interesting…

Impressions of Iraq—part II.

October 7th, 2007 - 8:17 pm

Just arrived home and here is the second of three postings on impressions of Iraq.

First—Some Responses to readers’ postings

I hardly speak for soldiers, never professed that I did. Mine are the mere observations of an outsider, nothing more than thoughts of a military historian after a second visit to Iraq. Take them or leave them: my feeling that those in Iraq are the moral upper-crust of our society is not cheap moralizing or patronizing, but the simple truth—as hard as that is for some to accept.

Most think that our military should be increased at least by the number of ground troops thought necessary in two or so years to monitor Iraq post-surge, or by about 50-70,000 Army and Marines in aggregate. We are almost doing that in planned ongoing increases. Should we withdraw permanently another 20,000 or so others from Europe and Korea, our rotations would be manageable.

Our problems with Nato allies in Afghanistan, and sometimes sharp anti-American outbursts from South Koreans, should be a warning about dependency and laxity. Putin, Islamism, the Balkans, al Qaeda, Iran—all that and more should have convinced the Europeans to step up their own defense.

We are all tired of European and even former commonwealth politicians lecturing Americans about how the future will be different as they go their own way—even as they expect US material and manpower support for their current defense needs. Americans would be delighted to see our allies rearm, take up the cudgels of their own defense, and start dealing with threats to Western life and civilization. No American is worried about Sarkozy’s current braggadocio. It is welcomed, not lampooned.

My past note about what Iraq was worth was qualified, as one reader conveniently ignored: I said a natural emotion after seeing our soldiers’ sacrifices was that the entire country was not worth a life of a US trooper—not that I felt such feelings were either logical or moral, much less shared by those who must do the bleeding.

US troops believe in their mission, not just because they are killing terrorists, but because that they are rebuilding a society and see tangible positive results in their humanitarian efforts, despite the costs—and that a free and secure Iraq will be critical to the region and diminish the chances of yet more global jihadist attacks.

Radical Islam, for all the criticisms of the Left, is declining in popularity in the Middle East, and its agents are dying in droves, both literally and metaphorically, at the US military’s hands in Iraq.

Thanks for those who wrote in or posted about advice with kidney stones—e.g., magnesium, diuril, diet, flomax, lemon juice, olive oil, etc. I have had them for 30 years (one major, one minor operation) but never in serial fashion, with 10-11 in a row. They are embarrassing: without warning one can burst into sweats, vomit, bloody urine, etc. and then suddenly recover as the bb passes—embarrassing when listening to Iraqi officials explain their problems, as if they might think you are becoming flushed in disagreement rather than just in pain.

I will post a third and last essay this week on Iraq. In the meantime, some further reflections after getting back home.


The present course is a departure from the past idea that US troops were “antibodies” to Iraqi culture and that a large presence would only alienate Iraqis.

The divide is still present between the Gens. Casey/Abezaid (and perhaps present Centcom command) school of steady, and uninterrupted transformation, training, and reduction in Iraq troop strength (and the notion that the Iraqis will weary of killing each other in time)—and the current counterinsurgency doctrine of intervening more directly to reassure the people that they can be safe to rebuild their country.

Both schools have their advantages, but the third alternative: a massive build-up and enormous commitment of troops to smash al Qaeda and, in post-Japan-like fashion, saturate the country with troops is not in the cards.

If we fail, then some will say the surge was the wrong idea and prior commanders were right in steadily reducing our presence and keeping back to safer compounds (more on the notion of compounds being “safe” in the next posting) in the process. If we succeed, then Gen. Petraeus will become our next Matthew Ridgeway.

Sent to Iraq?

John Kerry once quipped, “You know, education — if you make the most of it — you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

But perhaps we should amend that to something like ‘if you get educated, you serve in Iraq.’

I say that because in the small circle I met or corresponded with the last week in Iraq the number of MAs and PhDs there is astonishing. Colonels Rapp, Gibson and McMaster have PhDs, as does Gen. Petraeus, scores of others I talked with as well. I don’t mean to suggest that PhDs are smarter (some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have them), only that the military puts a high emphasis on continuing education and original research, especially valuable in a complex, if not bewildering situation like contemporary Iraq.

Three weeks ago I heard a formal lecture presented by Col McMaster at Hillsdale College on the history of Vietnam and then found myself being led by him in full combat gear throughout Anbar. Similarly I was talking just six months ago at the Hoover Institution with Col. Gibson about his soon-to-be published book on military command and then saw him up in Baqubah, where he is yet again back in Iraq.

I learned a great deal about Iraqi topography from Major Rayburn after we coptered over the desert—no surprise, he is writing his PhD thesis on the British experience in Iraq. Camp Victory literally has dozens of PhDs—who see combat often—and MAs in everything from Arabic and Islamic studies to military history. COIN, the counterinsurgency center at Taji, under the direction of the talented Col Jan Horvath, draws in a lot of diverse thinkers, who are blunt in their assessments, good and bad, of the progress.

So it is not uncommon to be in a forward operating base and meet someone who taught at the Naval Academy or West Point, or whom one has met at an academic conference, or who had written a journal article one reads, inter-splicing their stories about a recent attack with discussion of academic bibliography. One West Point professor told me so many of his former students were in Iraq, he simply asked for deployment to be among them.

Again, we might also amend Kerry’s much lampooned comment even further to say that the brighter one is, the more likely they seem to be in Iraq.

Asking Questions

One result of the Petraeus appointment seems to be a more constant reappraisal of almost everything we are doing. Officers freely speak about our prognoses, what we doing right, what wrong, some more glum than others. A few officers in Iraq were outright pessimistic and candid about the outlook, saying that the Iraqis were perfidious, hopeless, and the effort impossible. But they were in a clear minority. The point again is that they were encouraged to speak out rather than dubbed defeatist and silenced. (Try speaking out in similar fashion on campus, or even ask a Larry Summers to lecture).

There is a sense that American army and marine captains to colonels were instrumental in the so-call Anbar Awakening, often forced to make critical decisions on their own and almost with no time for reflection or guidance—and often, thankfully, the right ones about enlisting Sunnis into the security services.

We are using all of our 21st-century capability, money, education, and experience to fathom what is going on in the minds of millions of Iraqis—of lost pride, a ruined country, thirty-years of abject suffering—and to what degree honor, status, and pride can be channeled away from fueling insurgency to building their own country. And it is a close-run thing always.

A Delicate Balance

It is the task of an intellectual surgeon to prod the Iraqis to step forward, without creating either dependency or create a sense of hopeless abandonment. I don’t envy those entrusted with the responsibility of trying to quell insurgency in areas the size of Colorado while rebuilding it at a current stage of, say, circa America, 1910? Few back here could pull it off.

One example of the dilemma: the tribal sheiks are coming forward to offer support against al Qaeda; but they cannot ipso facto run a government or supersede provincial administration and the rule of law. So how do you encourage their quasi-vigilante efforts and self-help militias while delicately reassuring officials that these grassroots efforts will be incorporated into government? If they execute an al Qaeda murderer on the spot, they then are undermining all the careful attempts to inculcate a judicial system. So it ain’t easy as they say.

Al Qaeda is perverted

A common theme heard from analysts and intelligence officers is the abject irreligious nature of al Qaeda. It is not quite zealotry to cut off the fingers of smokers, take 14-year old “brides”, mutilate the dead, force bodies to remain unburied, and steal businesses, homes and cars. Those are verifiable incidents—in addition to the other often told rumors of the terrorists serving children up to their parents or the employment of former male prostitutes as Al Qaeda heads. We think of bin Ladenism as a perverted distortion of Islam, but on the street level it is more a cover for gasoline and food racketeering, petty theft, and murder by young criminally-minded youth.

Soldiers spoke of confiscated computers of al Qaeda with the worst sort of pornography on them, or stories by Iraqis of known deviants, thugs, and criminals now masquerading as religious jihadists.

Here we prove incompetent in not publicizing the nature of hard-core jihadists, not just their hypocrisy and brutality, but their criminality. No doubt many of the 100,000 felons Saddam released on the eve of the war ended up working for al Qaeda, a fact we blithely forget.

How we can be doing so much in so many areas, but almost nothing to bring to the world’s attention the abject fraud of al Qaedism? Here we are reminded of anti-Western moralist Bin Laden’s kids watching video games, or the sheik himself buying a 15-year old bride on the eve of 9/11, or Dr. Zawahiri supervising the forced sodomy (to video cameras) of young teenage male captives. We are at war not just with radical Islam, but with the dregs of humanity, a sort of updated SS group of psychopaths.

Tea for me—or for you?

American officers, of course, wear almost identical camouflage. It is very hard to detect rank; only a small black insignia sewn at the breast indicates status. There is a free flow of information at all briefings. Some of the most thoughtful, blunt analyses came from majors to full colonels. This is really a war to be won or lost by middle-echelon officers, who like Roman proconsular officials must reorganize with Iraqis provinces the size of large American states.

(I note that in contrast with the university, American officers seem much less concerned with rank: not a single officer reminded me that he or she had an advanced degree from a blue-chip school—an unsolicited offering common on campus. The university is a natural comparison, since much of the anti-war sentiment emanates from it, and invites an obvious contrast about the relative degree of diversity, privilege, competence, and free speech).

Iraqi officers come from entirely different traditions of perks and privilege—whole suburbs of Baghdad reveal the former sumptuous digs of retired Baathist officers, replete with gardens, courtyards, and multistoried homes.

Iraqi officers, colonel and above, insist on tea being delivered and a retinue of hangers-on who give constant obeisance—sort of the traditional Hellenic complaint against Easternism kowtowing. (American officers more often open a frig and offer you water themselves). That said, Iraqis are trying to adopt much of the ethos of the American office corps, and thus a constant refrain in training is the need for them to get out, risk danger, and treat their subordinates with respect.

Many are doing just that—to such a degree entire units are starting to emerge that are probably better than any in the Arab Middle East. Surely one fear of Iraq’s neighbors is that if this country ever gets settled down, its army will be one of the most professional and competent in the region.

Who’s the American?

Another ubiquitous contrast. In every Iraqi conversation Sunni/Shiite divides came up. But on the American side, Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American, so-called white, as well as religious differences mean nothing. In this regard our military does a far better job with “diversity” than does the hot-house university where “difference” is artificially emphasized, often for personal advantage. On the front lines it is incidental not essential to identity—something that amazes Iraqis who sometimes seem puzzled about what constitutes an “average” American. Often the Ugandan security guards, the Iraqi interpreters, or the Sudanese contact workers seemed indistinguishable from what Americans are supposed to “look” like.

Iranian anger

The Iranians are on everyone’s mind, especially in the Sunni provinces. What to do with Basra (perhaps nothing since the Iraqi-Shiite government will have to deal with its own militias to keep their own city functioning)? What to do with Iranian super-IEDs (machine-milled explosive devices, with copper plates that liquefy on detonation and, in slug form, can penetrate all of our existing armor, resulting in terribly horrific wounds (won’t mention the details related)? What to do with Iranian-bound hacks in the government who are taking money and orders from Teheran?

And yet the last thing American officers wish is a war with Iran, a conflict that would immediately jeopardize everything they have achieved since May. The result is sort of a desire for tougher sanctions, perhaps an embargo, to squeeze Iran enough to stop sending its agents and weapons to kill Americans, but without galvanizing the Shiites into a surrogate Iranian army.

A shooting ground war with Iran, if it widened to include ground operations, really would lead to a civil war in Iraq with clearly defined sides, large armies and full-scale battle, rather than the current sectarian bloodletting—something perhaps welcomed by the theocracy in Teheran. Watch that: if our success continues, the Iranians will become desperate to stop it at any cost. Only our being “bogged down” in Iraq, so they think, stops their own rendezvous with the Americans.

Define Winning!

Most of the officers and their soldiers believed we could win—are winning—but most qualified that optimism: the Iraqis would have to step forward much more rapidly and competently, mostly the Ministry of Interior, dominated by Shiites. The subtext of all conversations, between Americans and mostly Sunni Iraqis, was that with the removal of the grotesque Saddam we had turned the country upside down, in typically radical American fashion.

The once despised Shiites, many having no education or experience outside of Iraq, were now running the country, while the 2 million who used to manage things were exiles: a sort of justice, but one that immediately posed a myriad of problems.

So we are asking from the Shiites instant experience, learning, skill, magnanimity, and forgetfulness of past abuse to take up government, include the Sunnis, and let Anbar and Diyala have their fair share of revenues—and to do all that while stopping the influx of Iranian weapons. If that should happen, the surge of money and work would keep the youth out of al Qaeda and too busy to resume attacks on Americans. That’s a simplification, but more or less a common sentiment of Sunni Iraqi provincial officials.

It is also absolutely NOT true that the American military cannot define victory. They can and do all the time. It is the creation of a stable state that enjoys something of the calm of a Gulf monarchy—but without the monarchial authoritarianism or the Sharia law of Saudi Arabia. In other words, they hope for something like a Kurdistan or Turkey, and believe the oil and agricultural wealth of Iraq, and its past experience with secular traditions, might make that possible.

Further, many of the most thoughtful majors and colonels defined the cost/benefit analysis not in terms of Iraq per se, but in view of the entire region where a stable Iraq would pressure Iran, and stop being a quarter-century long nexus of terror and trouble for others. (Speaking of officers below the rank of general—we may see soon a revolution similar to that on the eve of WWII, when George Marshall leap-frogged a number of officers to high rank. Promotion within the military is not a civilian’s business, but let us hope that we can keep the current crop of colonels in Iraq in the army, and promote them rapidly: right now they are our nation’s best military resource.)

A Heck of a Lot of Money

A last note. Flying and driving through Iraq, one notices the enormous US investment in trucks, cars, military equipment, bases, houses, reconstruction, Iraqi outfitting—literally billons evident to the naked eye, everywhere at every moment. Whatever this is, it is not a “no blood for oil” war, more like “billions in aid for a region with their own $80-a-barrel oil.” We are stealing no one’s petroleum, but rather trying to secure their naturally rich country to allow them to profit on it. The Chinese may soon have a concession; one wonders whether al Qaeda will go after them—or whether our Left will cry “No blood for Chinese oil.”

A final Iraqi Tuesday posting on casualties, a talk with Gen. Petraeus, some of the colonels working in the provinces, and what the future holds.

Observations about the war

October 6th, 2007 - 4:36 am

Last week’s quiet

I just returned to Kuwait, and have been in Iraq visiting forward operating bases in Anbar and Diyala provinces, as well as suburbs of Baghdad the last week, hence the recent silence on this blog given sporadic internet facilities in Iraq. I hope to post a series of observations. But for now here are a few initials impressions from my second visit to the country. (Please excuse the typos, writing in haste from Kuwait City)

Better News?

Almost all the Marines and Army units I visited from Ramadi to Taji to various hot spots in Baghdad and Diyala believe there has been a sudden shift in the pulse of battlefield. Sometimes without much warning thousands of once disgruntled Sunni have turned on al Qaeda, ceased resistance, and are flocking to join government security forces and begging the Americans to stop both al Qaeda and Shiite militias.

Commanders in the field are cautious. They know that if the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad stays vengeful for decades of past suffering at the hands of Sunni Baathists, the reconciliation will fail. So thousands of American officers are desperately pressuring ministries to start distributing the vast wealth of Iraq’s $80 a barrel oil revenues to Anbar and Diyala before the Sunni revert back to insurgency.

The U.S. military

The brilliance of U.S. army and marines officers has not been fully appreciated. I met scores with PhDs and MAs, from Majors to Colonels, who are literally all at once trying to defeat al Qaeda gangs and Shiite militias, rebuild government facilities, arbitrate tribal feuds, repair utilities and train Iraqi army and police. As was true of the last trip to Iraq, I am left with three general impressions about the military.

(1) Our army and marines are far too few and overextended. The United States must either radically increase the size of these traditional ground units or scale back its commitments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Through constant rotations, we are literally burning out gifted officers and lifetime professionals— and will lose their priceless expertise if they begin, as I fear, retiring en masse due to the sheer exhaustion.

(2) There is more optimism about success among the battlefield soldiers than present with analysts in Baghdad. The sudden decrease in violence has left many units stunned that Iraqis who used to try to kill them are suddenly volunteering information about terrorists and landmines, and clamoring to join the joint security force. Usually those behind the desk are the optimists, the soldiers who die the pessimists. But instead there is genuine feeling on the front that after four frustrating years of ordeal, at last there are tangible signs of real, often radical improvement.

(3) As a supporter of some four years of the now unpopular effort to remove Saddam and leave a democracy in his place, I continue to have only one reservation, albeit a major one. The U.S. soldier in the field is so unusually competent and heroic that one comes to despair at the very thought of losing even one of them. As a military historian I know that an army that can’t take casualties can’t win, but I confess after spending 16-hour days with our soldiers in impossible conditions one wonders whether the entire country of Iraq is worth the loss of just of these unusual Americans. I understand both the lack of logic and perhaps amorality in such a sweeping statement, but feel it nonetheless out here.

The complexity of the effort

The military is pulling out all the stops. Some examples. They have flown Vietnam-era veterans to lecture on counter-insurgency in their school at Taji, in addition to clinic psychologists and veterans of recent wars from Panama to Afghanistan. The problem is now not too few interpreters, but too many trying to join us. Some of the best are Iraqi-Americans, who know American idiom and deeply appreciate being an American.

Hundreds are working on IEDs, not just counter-technologies and aerial surveillance, but sophisticated methods of learning how they are made, how the bombers function, and how they are paid and maintained. Thousands of other reserve and retired engineers have come to Iraq to build and advise Iraqi contractors. I met a fascinating engineer in his mid-fifties who volunteered to return to the Marines and is now supervising the reconstruction of the governmental center in Ramadi.

Again, they are trying not just to defeat the insurgency, but to literally take Iraq from its primordial past to the twenty-first century within four years. A Herculean Task.


A common slur is that Halliburton is looting the treasury and contractors in Iraq are greedy profiteers. I again found the opposite to be true. Thousands of construction personnel build bases, road, and Iraqi facilities, sometimes under fire, but living with the notion of shelling or shooting any minute. I consider them more likely under- rather than overpaid.

Iraq is not a poor country. Flying over the Tigris-Euphrates valley (I speak now a farmer) is unlike anything in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The soil is rich, the water plentiful and the dry climate perfect for intensive agriculture. That the country in theory within a year or two could pump well over three million barrels of petroleum a day, gives some indication of just how badly Iraq has been run the last forty years to screw up such natural bounty of a country—the Baathist-terror state, the attack on Iran, the massacres of Kurdish and Shiite innocents, the 1991 Gulf War, the no-fly zones and UN embargo, et al.

Next posting…

Hope to leave Kuwait tonight and post more on Iraq—some thoughts on our chances of winning, the nature of our colonels in the field, an interview with General Petraeus, the real Al Qaeda (or what Sunnis who once joined them now say about them) and other observations. .. Again, excuse the typos, since I write in haste.


Hope to post tomorrow. One final thought. I must emphasize that we as a country have to support those in the field of fire. They believe not just that we can win by securing Iraq, but that they are doing a moral good by giving millions a chance of something quite different. Whatever one’s views on the war are, it seems to me morally reprehensible that anyone would slander an American soldier, whether comparing them to terrorists or their General to a betrayer. We have a very rare precious resource in today’s military that really does represent the moral upper crust of American society, and as long as it is engaged, we need to support it. We may come to the day that the military itself thinks victory is beyond our resources or not worth the cost, but from what I saw this week, as in 2006, we are not there at that day yet by a long shot.