This interesting piece from military historian Victor Hanson explains why the West – specifically the Americans – will prevail over whoever they take on.
Yet Osama bin Laden has made a fatal miscalculation. Like everybody who scoffs at the perceived laxity of Western democracies, these murderers have woken an enormous power from its slumber, and retribution will shortly be both decisive and terrible. The bloody wages of this ignorance of the power of a free people aroused are age-old and unmistakable – Xerxes’s 60,000 washed ashore at Salamis, 80,000 of the Sultan’s best floating in the waters off Lepanto, 100,000 lost in the streets of Tokyo.
Western nations at war, from the Greeks to the present, are not weak but enormously lethal – far out of proportion to their relatively small population and territories. This power is not an accident of geography, much less attributable to natural resources or genes, but rather found in its very ideas and values. The foundations of Western culture – freedom, civic militarism, capitalism, individualism, constitutional government and secular rationalism – when applied to the battlefield have always resulted in carnage for their adversaries.
Such ideals were apparent almost immediately this time aroung – with the decision of doomed airline passengers to storm their hijackers; with Congress freely voting vast sums of capital for military operations; individual rescue workers, aided by sophisticated and huge machines, on their own initiative devising ad hoc methods of saving victims and restoring calm to a devastated city.
Neither the genius of Hannibal nor the diseases of Africa nor the fanaticism of the Mahdists have stopped Western armies. Occasional lapses such as last week’s have prompted not capitulation, but responses far more deadly than their enemies’ temporary victories.
In our peace and affluence, and in awe at the suicidal fanaticism of our enemies, we Americans of this complacent age have forgotten these iron laws of the Western way of war – Alexander the Great destroying an empire of 70 million with an army of 40,000, Cortes wrecking an imperial people of two million in less than two years, or a small band of British redcoats ending the power of Cetshwayo and his Zulus for good in less than a year.
The arsenal at tiny 16th-century Venice – based on principles of market capitalism and republican audit – launched far better and more numerous galleys than those of the entire Ottoman navy. At Midway, American code breakers – the products of free universities, nursed on egalitarianism and able to investigate without political and religious censure – helped to win the battle before it had even begun.
In the months to come, American ground and air forces, with better weapons, better supplies, better discipline and more imaginative commanders – audited constantly by an elected Congress and President, criticised by a free press – will shatter the very foundations of Islamic fundamentalism.
Indeed, the check on the great power of Western armies through the ages has rarely been enemy spears or bullets, but the very voices of internal dissent – a Bernardino de Sahagun aghast at his people’s cruelty in Mexico, a Bishop Colenso remonstrating against the British government about the destruction of Zululand or an American co-ed marching to end the war in Vietnam.
The Taliban and other hosts of murderers at bases in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria may find reprieve from Western clergy and academics, but they shall not from the American military.
America is not only the inheritor of the European military tradition, but in many ways also its most powerful incarnation. Our multiracial and radically egalitarian society has taken the concepts of freedom and market capitalism to their theoretical limits. While our critics often ridicule the crassness of our culture and the collective amnesia of our masses, they often underestimate the lethal power that accrues from such an energetic and restless citizenry, where past background means little in comparison with present ambition, drive and ingenuity.
Our creed is not class, breeding or propriety, but machines, brutal competition and unchecked audacity. These are intimidating assets when we turn, as we shall shortly, from the arts of production to those of destruction.
The world, much less the blinkered fundamentalists, has not seen a United States unleashed for a long time and so has forgotten all this. Americans are kind, and they are a generous people. But when wronged, held in contempt and attacked in peace, they define victory as the absolute annihilation of their adversaries.
So we are a schizophrenic people of sorts, a nation of amateurs that can almost magically transform itself into a culture of professional killers. In 1860, Grant was a clerk and Sherman a failed banker and then teamster; in 1865, they were cruel masters in the art of unmitigated carnage, their huge armies the most deadly of the age.
My father was a peaceful farm boy in 1941. Within a mere 24 months, he had been turned into a brutal agent of the apocalypse as he and other tyros in thousands of monstrous new B-29s rained death upon the cities of Japan – without guilt or apology, proud that their napalm was ridding the world of Japanese militarism.
When we, as smug students of the 1970s, remonstrated against him for his past vengeance, he scoffed at our naivety: “I’d be proud and ready to do it again.” And so he would, and so we may now as well.
Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and most recently the author of Why the West Has Won, Carnage and Culture From Salamis to Vietnam, which will be published shortly by Faber