Work and Days

Decline Is in the Mind

With a whimper not a bang

Juxtapose pictures of Frankfurt and Liverpool in 1945, and then again in 2010 (or for that matter Hiroshima and Detroit). Something seems awry. Perhaps one can see, even in these superficial images, that something other than military defeat more often erodes societies.

Of course, losing a war can end a civilization (ask the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War or the Aztecs in 1521). But then again, the chicken-and-egg question reappears: why are some civilizations more vulnerable to foreign occupation or more incapable of reacting to sudden catastrophe — such as the pyramidal Mycenaeans rather than the decentralized Greek city-states?

In three wars, Republican Rome managed to end sea faring Carthage — in part through the building ex nihilo of a bigger and better navy — and in a dynamic fashion not repeated 600 years later when 1 million-square-mile, 70 million-person imperial Rome — now top-heavy, pyramidal, highly taxed — could not keep out barbarians from across the Danube and Rhine.

At the end of the Second World War, the industrial centers of western and eastern Europe were flattened. Russia was wrecked. China and India were pre-capitalist. Germany and Japan themselves were in cinders.

The factories of the United Kingdom (despite the 1940 blitz and the later V-1 and V-2 attacks) were largely untouched, and the United States pristine. Both countries had incurred massive debt. Yet Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s socialized, increased vastly the public sector, and become the impoverished nation of the 1960s and 1970s. In contrast, America began to return to its entrepreneurial freedoms, and geared up to supply a wrecked world with industrial and commercial goods, paying down its massive debt through an expanding economy. We thrived; yet socialist Britain did not become a West Germany, Japan, or Singapore.

One can see that natural resources, while important, are not all determining. Oil-rich Venezuela and Mexico are a mess; resource-poor Japan and Switzerland are not. There are few economic refugees now fleeing Shanghai to Hong Kong as in the past; nor is East Germany any more unlike West Germany as North Korea still is in comparison to South Korea.

Planned vs. Free

Cultural tradition plays a role, of course. But more important still is the nature of politics and the economy. As a general rule, the more freedom of the individual and flexibility of markets — with lower taxes, less bureaucracy, constitutional government, more transparency, and the rule of law — the more likely a society is to create wealth and rebound from either war or natural disasters.

These truths transcend space and time, and they trump race and nationality, weather and climate, resources and geography. The notion that we are doomed and the Chinese fated to prosper is not written in stone. It is simply a matter of free will, theirs and ours. They must deal with a new era of coming suburban blues, worker discontent, unions, environmental discretion and regulation, an aging and shrinking population and greater personal appetites, social protest, and nonconformity — in the manner that industrializing Western nations did as well in the early twentieth century.

In our hands

We in turn can easily outdistance any country should we remain the most free, law-abiding, and economically open society as in our past. A race-gender-ethnic-blind meritocracy, equal application of the law, low taxes, small government, and a transparent political and legal system are at the heart of that renewal. America could within a decade become a creditor nation again, with a trade balance and budget surplus, drawing in the world’s talent and capital in a way not possible in the more inflexible or less meritocratic China, Japan, or Germany. Again that is our choice, not a superimposed destiny from someone else.

Unfortunately, we are mired — as in the case of many complex societies that become ever more top-heavy and bureaucratic, when salvation alone is found in becoming less so — in a new peasant notion of the limited good. Anything produced is seen to come at the expense of others. Absolute wealth is imaginary, relative wealth is not. We would rather be equal and unexceptional than collectively better off with a few more better off still.

Yet I, like most Americans I hope, don’t care whether Bill Gates lives in a mansion or Warren Buffet flies in a huge private plane or even that George Soros has billions to give away to progressive causes or that John Kerry has millions to spend on power boats and sailing ships. The system that created these excesses, if we even call them that, also ensured that my hot water — and the hot water in nearby rather poor Selma — is no cooler than theirs. My Honda and hundreds in town run as well as their imported limousines. Last time I went to the local Wal-Mart I counted 100 cell phones, and I doubt Al Gore’s gets any better reception. The better off may or may not “at a certain point … made enough money,” to quote the president, but I have no idea where that certain point is (or whether it includes vacations to Costa del Sol), only that once our technocracy starts determining it, there is a greater chance that my town will not have as hot water as the rich and Hondas that run as well as their luxury cars.

When the end comes

Study the collapse of complex societies, and rarely is the culprit the environment or the enemy across the border. To the extent that walls are torn down or rivers silted up or volcanic eruptions become societal-ending, all that hinges on the preexisting nature of a society — whether it is flexible and wealth-creating or inward, acrimonious, and wealth-redistributing. Chile will recover from a far stronger earthquake than the one that hit Haiti. (I fear Haiti will not recover easily, if at all.)

In 1521, a brutal Hernan Cortés could no more have taken Britain with his 1500 conquistadors than he rather quickly figured out how to destroy an empire of 4 million with that same number. The trick for the command economy of the Soviet Union was not just to repel a 3-million-man Nazi-led invasion, but to do so in a fashion that did not lose 20 million of its own, while creating a postwar sustainable prosperous order inside the USSR and at its periphery.

“Spread the wealth” and “redistributive change” only occur when the enterprising, gifted, lucky, or audacious among us feel that they have a good chance to gain something for themselves (and keep most of it), or to extend to others that something they earned — or more often both motives, self-interested and collective. Deny all that, shoot their bigger cow so to speak, or burn down their towering grain, and we will end up as peasants and serfs fighting over a shrinking pie.

Odds and Ends.

1. We are already reaching nearly 50 signups for the June 2011 Tyrrhenian Sea cruise and exploration of Mediterranean military history — and our probable limit.

2. The publication date for Bloomsbury’s The End of Sparta. A Novel is April 1.

3. Don’t forget to follow Col. (ret.) Chris Gibson’s 20th NY Congressional District race, an uphill, but clearly winnable fight by a renaissance figure and rare individual.

4. From time to time I post replies to critics. Here is a letter I sent to the journal Democracy in reply to a quite strange rant from one Jim Sleeper about Makers of Ancient Strategy, which I recently edited for Princeton University Press. The book was about the influence of ancient strategy on the contemporary world, and had nothing to do with politics, ancient or modern. But somehow Mr. Sleeper skipped the book written and focused on its editor.


A Reply to “Martial Flaw”

Jim Sleeper’s review essay “Martial Flaw” is the journal Democracy not an analysis of Makers of Ancient Strategy. It is an extended, though odd, personal attack on the editor, whom, he accuses of using the “classics as a cudgel to denigrate liberalism as a carrier of unprecedented options.”

Yet because what Mr. Sleeper writes is inaccurate and misdirected, the unfortunate result is that the review says nothing much about the book per se, little factual about its editor, but a great deal about the angst of Jim Sleeper.

His vocabulary is not one of a dispassionate reviewer, but devolves into caricature. Thus we learn that the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy is an advocate for “unilateralist U.S. hegemony” and “a geyser of vituperations.” Sleeper apparently wanted to prove that an apolitical scholarly book on the ancient world “reflects conservative polemics” by “showing how Athenians, Romans, and, even before them, Persians extended their sway and coped with challenges to it in ways that American grand strategists can learn from.”

But when he finds no evidence that I am trying to channel the ancients to the service of American grand strategists, Sleeper laments that, “Many of the book’s precedents point in directions Hanson doesn’t want to go.” That self-contradiction is thematic.

The absence of any indications in the book of my own political leanings disturbs Sleeper to such a degree that he sighs that in the editor’s introduction that I advise “cagily that “[r]ather than offering political assessments of modern military leaders’ policies, we instead hope that knowledge of the ancient world will remind us of all of the parameters of available choices–and their consequences.”

Thus as stated, when I offer an initial disinterested synopsis of a contributor’s essay, Sleeper again turns to further anger at what he has not found: “Citing the book’s first chapter by Thomas Holland, the British historian of ancient Persia, Hanson tells us: “Imperial powers . . . create an entire mythology about the morality, necessity, or inevitability of conquest. Their narratives are every bit as important to military planning as men and matériel in the field.” Fair enough, but one can’t help ruing Hanson’s own efforts to help Bush craft a grand narrative.”

In final exasperation at discovering no partisanship, Sleeper concludes that the book really is an effective scholarly account of ancient strategic dilemmas—although that leads unfortunately to unpleasant results: “This collection makes Hanson look good…”

For the record, Princeton University press asked if I would edit a prequel to its well-known Makers of Modern Strategy. The proposal was approved by a university press board, on the recommendation of two anonymous outside reviewers. There was no agenda of any kind in the book, since the political affinities of the scholars were irrelevant to the purpose of reviewing strategic thinking of all sorts from the Persian wars to the fall of Rome.

The contributors were selected on the joint recommendations of PUP and myself, based on both their chronological diversity and prior scholarship in military history. Two anonymous readers again reviewed the finished submitted manuscript. Their positive recommendations for publication were again approved by the university board—the necessary prerequisite for publication.

Because the anthology does not support what Sleeper wishes to write, the review turns into a personal screed against the editor—and at one point even his late parents. He calls my farm residence and work there the “staging of Hanson’s rusticity. ” Because at a stage in our lives, my mother was appointed a judge, my father an administrator, and I have taught, Mr. Sleeper apparently sees all that as proof none us continued to drive a tractor, take out crop loans, or peddle fruit after work, on weekends, or in the summer, or did so to find outside income to save the farm where we lived—although off-farm work is now the norm in much of American farming these days. Sleeper adds further proof that I am “staging” farming because I now commute in my late fifties from my farm to work at the Hoover Institution, was awarded the Bradley prize, and, worse still, President Bush and Vice president Cheney supposedly at one point read and liked Carnage and Culture.

Sleeper alleges in a review on ancient strategy that, “Hanson was in the White House in January 2005, working with the Cold War historian and would-be grand strategist John Lewis Gaddis to help craft Bush’s second inaugural address (both men received National Humanities Medals from Bush).” For the record, that is simply untrue. A diverse group of four historians was asked to offer historical perspectives on and comparisons with past wars in their own theaters of expertise. At no point in that formal one-hour meeting that I attended did I hear that anyone was asked to “help craft” a proposed presidential speech. Presidents Clinton and Obama likewise have asked historians for perspectives on history and contemporary foreign policy, and there seems nothing sinister about the practice.

The ad hominem attacks extend to some of the contributors. Again, because Sleeper hunts carefully, but ends up finding nothing political, much less partisan, in the volume, he concludes that contributors must be “tweaking” me. Of one’s contributor’s conclusions that please Sleeper, he imagines that “she “declines to do what I suspect Hanson hoped”.

Again, this is not a review of the book written, but, in passing, of the book suspected and imagined, as part of a personal attack on the editor. In exasperation, Sleeper finally cites the affiliations of just two contributors (and only two) whom he suspects are conservatives—“fellow Iraq War zealot Donald Kagan” and Barry Strauss “a neoconservative professor of classics at Cornell.”

He writes that my account of the preemptive war of Epaminondas is offered as proof of the wisdom of the Iraq war, but again he can find no evidence that I wrote that. In fact, I wrote that I didn’t know until the final verdict is in (e.g., “History alone will judge, in the modern instance, as it has in the ancient, whether such an expensive preemptive gamble ever justified the cost.”)

In Sleeper’s review of Makers of Ancient Strategy, the reader will learn little about the book’s essays, but instead be told that the editor works at the Hoover Institution, his family has supposedly not farmed where he lives, the occupations of his late mother and father, notes about the Bradley Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and political commentary published elsewhere in National Review and other journals, a White House visit, and the political affiliations of three of ten contributors—all offered amid Mr. Sleeper’s Orwellian warnings about the dangers of mixing politics with scholarship.

An angry Jim Sleeper offered up to Democracy an extended personal obsession, not a scholarly review of Makers of Ancient Strategy.

Victor Davis Hanson
Selma, California

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