The Father of Us All

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The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern is a year 2010 book[1] on the nature of war and the study of military history, written by Victor Davis Hanson, co-director of the Group on Military History and Contemporary Conflict, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. It is a collection of Hanson’s lectures and essays, adapted to book form.

His most frequent examples come from the Peloponnesian War. The title comes from a quote from the philosopher Heraclitus, who described war as "the father, the king of us all, in contrast with modern war perceived as the "end of us all."

He defines military history as

the investigation of why one side wins and another loses a war, and encompassing reflections on magisterial or foolish generalship, technological stagnation or breakthrough, and the role of discipline, bravery, national will and culture in determining a conflict’s outcome and its consequences. [2]

Military History: the Forgotten Discipline

Military history, in academia, receives little attention; academics, according to Hanson, spend little time in dealing with battle as an influencer of history. In the first chapter, he suggests that presenting the hypothesis, to a contemporary American college student, that either the Tet Offensive was a victory or was a defeat is most likely to garner the response “Who or what is Tet?”

He argues that the “nuclear pessimism of the Cold War”, following the horror of two world wars, reduced academic interest. “What did it matter whether Alexander the Great on the Indus or Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley offered lessons about both strategic and tactical doctrine if a volley of nuclear missiles could make all such calculations obsolete?” It is interesting to contrast his assertion that nuclear weapons were truly that unique, given the number of times it was assumed that a weapons technology made war obsolete.

Why study war?

After general observations about military illiteracy, in the first chapter, he mentions that the American people have been ill-equipped to make informed judgments when "the dogs of year are unleashed...neither U.S. politicians nor most citizens seem to recall the incompetence and terrible decisions that, in December 1777, December 1941, and November 1950, led to massive American casualties and, for a time, public dispair." He finds it interesting that Ulysses S. Grant, John Pershing, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton experienced nothing of the acrimony that current generals encounter, and also avoided error comparable to that of Afghanistan and Iraq. Pointing out the complete surprises that the Battle of Shiloh was to Grant, and the Battle of the Bulge was to Eisenhower and Bradley, he suggests that forgetting history leads to impossible demands on commanders. Legendary officers, in his view, have their mistakes forgotten — Patton is remembered for mobile breakthroughs, not frontal assaults at Metz.

The chapter comes with an extensive reading list, beginning with a work referenced often: E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa. Of generals' memoirs, he points at Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George Patton and Xenophon.

Historical fiction is recommended, beginning with the Iliad, and moving to the "three most famous novels about the futility of conflict: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Eric Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's August 1914. Above all, he recomments Euripides' Trojan Women and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

He mentions various books on decisive battles, although a later chapter presents the notion that major force-on-force battles are unlikely.

An unusual genre mentioned is "how politicians lose wars." Ian Kershaw's Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis is the first work mentioned. He compares Mark Moyar's reexamination of Vietnam, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965[3] with Euripides' "tales of self-inflicted wars and missed chances." Elsewhere, he mentions H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.[4]

The Soldier and the State, by Samuel Huntington, remains the "classic scholarly account of the proper relationship between the military and its overseers. Also dealing with the civil-military relationship is Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, and then moves to examine the military leaders in John Keegan's The Mask of Battle. Hanson mentions his own work, The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyrannies, where he writes on the political and strategic insights of Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton.

Classical lessons and Post-9/11 Wars

Hanson, a classicist, writes that war was, in antiquity, seen as a tragedy, but one "innate to the human condition, recurrent, and terribly familiar...[but] in a preindustrial world without nuclear weapons or conventional machines of mass annihilation, the Greeks' seasonal war making did not necessrily translate into modern notions of battlefield genocide."

Still, he maintains, the Greeks would say that war is neither unnatural nor always totally evil. Pointing out that moral outrage did not stop the Darfur Conflict, which continued because Western nations, the only militaries with the potential to stop it, did not want to endanger its people.

Raw, relevant history

The full title of the third chapter continues, “from the 300 Spartans to the History of Thucydides.”

War Writing

Thalatta! Thalatta!

Quoting the Greek cry for "the sea! the sea!" of the Ten Thousand fighting their way out of Persia during the Peloponnesian War]], Hanson considers Xenophon, their commander and chronicler, a much underestimated historian. Michael Whitby's work, "Xenophon's Ten Thousand as a Fighting Force", in Hanson's view, shows how the march was a precursor of Alexander's warfare, using combined arms tactics with phalanxes of heavy infantry combined with archers and light cavalry.

The Old Breed

The War to Begin all Wars

Military history dropped in popularity especially after the Vietnam War. "We especially of the present academic culture tend to cast moral aspirations on history's Cro-Magnons: those benighted combatants who, unlike ourselves, resorted to war out of stupidy, greed, exploitation, vanity or a quest for power."

Don Juan of Austria is Riding to the Sea

The Postmodern meets the Premodern

The End of Decisive Battle — for now

”Men make a city, not walls or ships empty of men”

The American Way of War

How Western Wars are Lost — and Won

Your Defeat, My Victory

The Odd Couple: War and Democracy

Who is the Enemy?

Reviews

References

  1. Victor Davis Hanson (2010), The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern, Bloomsbury Press, ISBN 9781608191659, at 272
  2. p. 4
  3. Moyar, Mark (2006), Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, Cambridge University Press
  4. H. R. McMaster (1997), Dereliction of Duty : Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, HarperCollins, ISBN 0060187956