HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS America's Historian in Chief: An Interview with Victor Davis Hanson

The American Legion Magazine
September 1, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd  

Victor Davis Hanson emerged from the relative obscurity of his academic post at Fresno State University on September 11, 2001, to become something akin to America’s “Historian-in-Chief.” Spurred by a legion of eager editors, Hanson has translated his expertise in classical military history to the war on terror. The result is some 300 essays (and counting) and a literal army of devotees. He notes with pride that he receives 10 to 20 supportive emails each week from U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

His primary platform for explaining this first war of the 21st century has been a decidedly modern mode of communication—the World Wide Web. With the dependability of Old Faithful, Hanson’s weekly commentaries have poured forth from the web-based daily of National Review, one of the forbears of the modern conservative movement. But Hanson reminds those who dismiss him as a Republican shill that he’s a registered Democrat. Underscoring the broad appeal of Hanson’s perspective, his essays on war have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, The American Legion, The Wall Street Journal,and City Journal. 

Of course, Hanson was making an important mark in his field long before most Americans had heard about this academic who prefers the solitude of his grape farm to the hustle and bustle of the Beltway. He joined the California State University-Fresno faculty in 1984, to initiate a course of study on the Classics. By 1991, Hanson had been awarded the American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award. But that’s just the tip of the Hanson iceberg. His list of honors includes an appointment as a Senior Fellow in Residence at the Hoover Institution, a teaching post at the U.S. Naval Academy, and the list goes on: Hanson has written or edited sixteen books, most of them covering warfare in the ancient world. His 2001 Carnage and Culture, which focused on the major battles in the rise of Western civilization, became a national bestseller. His latest contribution, A War Like No Other, is due out this fall. Dowd interviewed Hanson for The American Legion magazine. 

Alan W. Dowd: Could you share a bit about your namesake? 

Victor Davis Hanson: My father had a cousin named Victor, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was blinded. So my father’s family took care of him. He was more like a brother than a cousin to my father. And they joined the Marine Corps together in World War II. But my father ended up in the Army Air Corps, flying 39 missions in the Pacific theater in a B-29. Victor was in the Sixth Marine Division and fought in all the worst fighting in Okinawa. We lost more in two days on Okinawa than we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

He was killed literally in the last three or four hours on Sugar Loaf Hill. I never met him, but when I wrote Ripples of Battle I found six people in their 70s and 80s who had been with him when he died. One of them told me that he had a ring that belonged to Victor. He had tried to return it to my grandfather in 1946. But my grandfather didn’t want it, so that man kept it all those years until he sent it to me. And I always wear it. It’s funny—I’m a Classicist, and the ring has the head of a Roman Legionnaire.   

AWD: We have a good idea of when the U.S.-led war on terrorism began. But when did terrorism’s war on America begin? 

VDH: It think to be precise it was around November 1979, when radicals took the embassy in Tehran and Jimmy Carter either could not or would not do anything about it. That established the fact that you could invade the sovereign soil of the United States with impunity. That was followed by the Lebanon disaster—241 Marines killed—and then all the other attacks, including the first World Trade Center, Khobar Towers, the Africa embassies, the USS Cole, a whole litany of events that conveyed the notion that as long as a person was in the service or diplomatic corps, it was his own choice to run such risks rather than the duty of the United States to ensure his enemies would pay dearly for taking his life. 

Every time we failed to do something substantial in response, we imperiled not just the military, but the very security of the United States. Appeasement under any circumstances doesn’t work, and we paid a terrible price for that, the ultimate logic being 9/11. 

AWD: In the span of just 18 months, we have seen elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and proto-Palestine; democratic reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; a grassroots revolution in Lebanon; and a preemptive surrender by Libya. Are these events linked to the U.S.-led war on terror? 

VDH: This would not have happened without U.S. action. People in the Middle East were looking to see which side would be more likely to prevail after September 11—the forces of the 8th century or 21st century, the forces of reactionary Islam or modernism. In their hearts and minds, as anybody would, they wanted freedom and consensuality, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, but they didn’t think the West would ever spend any blood and treasure on their behalf. So when we ran such risks, when we obliterated the Taliban in seven weeks and Saddam in three, suddenly there was this spark in the Muslim world and a sense that the autocrats and mass killers were on the wrong side of history. And that has had a snowball effect, albeit one that is developing as we speak. 

We had tried everything: realism in Saudi Arabia; entering and leaving by going into Mogadishu and then withdrawing; cynicism by defeating the Iraqi army and then allowing Saddam to crush the Kurds. And none of it worked. The only thing left to try was muscular idealism, and the United States has turned the world upside-down with this insistence on democracy. After 9/11, I tried to promote, in any small way possible through essays and articles, this muscular idealism that the Bush administration was pursuing. I was convinced then, and remain so now, that it was the only answer to this pathology in the Middle East. 

Promoting democracy may be easily caricatured and hard to implement, but the American military has embraced it with fervor and is pulling it off. 

AWD: Speaking of the U.S. military, you have argued that today’s military may be “the best fighting cohort of Americans since that of World War II.” Could you put their accomplishments into historical perspective? 

VDH: In three years, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman created an army and then annihilated the notion of a confederacy the size of continental Europe. The American army from almost nothing went over to Europe in 1917, and tipped that balance of the Great War. The United States not only defeated Japan and Germany in World War II, but defeated them in less than four years. Those are all amazing achievements. But if you look at what the American military has done since 1980, two things stand out: 

First of all, our soldiers remove fascists and leave behind democracies, especially over the last several years. Think of Noriega, Milosevic, the Taliban, Saddam. Second, they do so with amazing efficiency and skill. Afghanistan and Iraq are some 7,000 miles away, surrounded by belligerents or near-belligerents. Yet the U.S. military went right into the heart of that terrifying landscape, took down the Taliban and Saddam's regime, stayed on to foster democracies, and has not lost a single major engagement. In fact, for all the tragedy of our combat dead, the U.S. military has lost less in battle than half the number butchered on 9/11. 

AWD: What is it that makes the U.S. military so unique, so transformative?

VDH: The U.S. military is able to capture this fine line between having a great respect for commanding officers and hierarchy, while being egalitarian, ad hoc, informal, spontaneous and highly individualistic. There is an ease and familiarity between officers and NCOs, an open-mindedness that permeates the ranks. Somehow, the American military has been able to institutionalize and harness the best of the American character—adaptability, flexibility, informality. And that, along with its ability to marry high-tech weaponry to pragmatic battlefield conditions, has been the American military's strength.

AWD: Twain is credited with saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. What’s the best historical parallel for America’s efforts in Iraq? 

VDH: In terms of sheer military efficacy? People wonder how Rome could conquer all of northwest Europe with nothing more than four or five legions. The answer is the Romans had a very similar policy to our own: They looked at the most retrograde, bloodthirsty, nationalist leaders—the bin Ladens of the ancient world—and took them out, but with precision and with a lesson. They then offered Roman citizenship and technology to those who sided with them—everything from the benefits of habeas corpus to aqueducts.  

The idea of Roman citizenship was not predicated on race or national origin, but inclusive, in the same manner the U.S. military does not represent a particular race or religion, but an idea, a notion of Western inclusiveness and egalitarianism, that can encompass everything from free markets and voting to equality under the law and free speech. 

What America has done, then, is take out and discredit these bad guys and then offer Western opportunity and inspiration that can foster popular culture—an internship at Harvard, a web-log in Iraq, a call-in radio show. In other words, people can become “Westerners in spirit” without losing their own pride of religion and nationality. Institutionalized freedom is not predicated on race or nationality. It’s an inclusive notion predicated on ideas, and the Arab world is beginning to see that it can remain Muslim and Arab and yet free and prosperous.  

AWD: You have observed that both man and the history he shapes are tragic. Given this perspective, what is your worst case scenario for the war on terror? 

VDH: A return to Carterism—to overtly withdraw from Iraq; to bring back this idea that we're in no position to judge the terrible behavior of Arab governments, or as if we cannot project our own personal values of freedom and democracy on somebody like a Mubarak, while continuing to send him $2 billion a year; to cease pressuring the Palestinians and Saudis to open their societies. If we were to do something like all that and cease our much caricatured but successful efforts, we would embolden tyrants and discredit liberal reformers. 

Speaking of the reformers, we also need to be mature enough to understand that new democratic reformers may say anti-American things, but it’s what they do that matters—namely, whether or not they cease their heretofore covert efforts to appease or promote terrorists or threaten to destabilize one of the world's key regions by transferring massive influxes of petrodollars into frightful weapons under the control of autocrats. 

AWD: You have also expressed a sense of optimism about the war-and a steady confidence in those who are planning and waging it. What’s your best-case scenario for this conflict? Will it be long like the Cold War? 

VDH: I have, even after Abu Ghraib and the April stand-down from Fallujah, short-term disappointments that never imperiled, as was written at the time, the overall mission. This conflict with radical Islam has much in common with long struggle of the Cold War, but radical Islam has none of the marquee appeal that socialism offers to the naive. Socialism and communism have this chimera of egalitarianism: Give the state enough power and we’ll make you all equal. And that can be appealing to the young and poor. Radical Islam says in contrast, Give us the power and we’ll take you back to the 8th century; we’ll stone homosexuals; we’ll circumcise women; well make you live by a code found nowhere else in the modern world. In other words, Islamic fascism has no real resonance, aside from its showy anti-Americanism. 

Plus, in this age of globalization, with the Internet and open media, Middle East dictatorships cannot censor information and news the way they did before. They cannot blame Israel and America for their own failures and expect to shield their population from all other exegeses. In addition, radical Islam has to compete with everything from Britney Spears to McDonalds to John Locke. So far the West, not Islamic radicalism, has proven  to be the more dynamic and appealing creed, for better or worse. 

So while we have a whole bloc of autocratic nations, as we did in the Cold War, the situation is much more explosive and unpredictable, and can turn in far less time.  

Now that we've established that the United States is unpredictable, muscular and resolute, we need to undermine through democratic pressure the dictatorships in Syria and Iran, insidiously through principles of transparency and freedom, through the backdoor if you will, rather than necessarily confronting them head-on with more force. In other words, if Syria wants to undermine us in Iraq, we need to encourage idealists to push out their agents from Lebanon. We need to pressure Iran through Afghanistan and Turkey and other democracies to rise on its perimeter. We can agitate for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Egypt, through policies that govern aid, sales, largess, and travel, and build a democratic consensus of reform—until Iran and Syria realize they are the odd men out, the Cubas so to speak of the Middle East. 

This is all only possible because of the credibility of U.S military force—and only because the U.S. dealt with the worst problems first in defeating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and scattering al Qaeda. When you deal with the most frightening and controversial obstacles first, the rest becomes much easier and is ironically not always in need of the same initial tough responses.