Battles that changed the world
Okinawa, Shiloh, and Delium altered the terrain of thought
The aftermath of war often has unforeseen and destructive consequences far from the field of battle. But can a single military encounter affect our lives long after the last warrior falls? Can it be a defining event in history, a moment that transforms the world and how we think forever?
In his new book, "Ripples of Battle," Victor Hanson argues compellingly that these condensed conflicts do have long-term consequences. Hanson, author of the landmark "Carnage and Culture" (2001), picks three watershed battles, ones that he contends helped shape our world: the Battle of Okinawa, Shiloh, and the little-known Battle of Delium in Greece.
A professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, Hanson is also a well-known political columnist and a ubiquitous media presence since Sept. 11. The parallels to that significant event are omnipresent in "Ripples of Battle."
Hanson's first exemplar of battle is his most convincing, frightening, and pertinent. The author argues that while the Battle of Okinawa (1945) was the summation of three barbarous years of island fighting, the most striking aspect to emerge was the suicide bomber.
Suicide fighters are ubiquitous in history, as soldiers have consciously searched for death amid irrefutable defeat since the beginning of war, but the kamikaze was a template for the postwar world. The ostensible lesson on Okinawa was that the willingness to sacrifice men might result in military parity, at least temporarily, against a technologically superior foe. With that philosophy, it is no surprise that well after the defeat of the Japanese at Okinawa, the basic principles of suicide attacks are still with us today, providing hope to the militarily inferior that, if they're armed with a fervent ideology, the sophisticated infrastructure of the West could be susceptible.
The Civil War battle of Shiloh held different lessons, less spectacular, but just as significant. It is there that General Sherman developed the doctrine of total warfare on the enemy's economic base, a program followed by generals ever since.
Even more important, the Southern loss at Shiloh, considered by experts to be the turning point of the war, gave birth to the myth of the Lost Cause, the belief that only a series of disastrous accidents destroyed the South's dream. The defeated and impoverished Southerners latched onto any explanation to make sense of the humiliating predicament, an obstinate devotion, argues Hanson, that would slow Southern progress for a century.
Hanson's third case is the ruinous but obscure Battle of Delium in 424 BC, when the Athenians were annihilated by the Thebans. Delium included what is likely the first recorded defense of preemption strategy, attacking an enemy that posed a long-term rather than imminent threat. As a conservative pundit and supporter of President Bush, Hanson sees this as particularly relevant since it was the political approach most recently used by the US administration in its assault against Iraq.
Yet with all the lessons and historical facts, what's most impressive about Hanson's work is his constant reminder that history is not just a faceless story of economic and social progress, but also one about the strength of individuals, brought to life here in masterly prose. While he's proven a provocative pundit, "Ripples of Battle" again illustrates Hanson's standout skill is that of a historian.
• David Harsanyi is a writer in New York City.