In reading through the works of popular historian Victor Davis Hanson, I was reminded of a parody in an episode of The Simpsons. Bart and Homer watch a clip of Rainier Wolfcastle—the show’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque action hero—fly a UNICEF cargo plane full of pennies to impoverished children. A villainous cadre calling themselves the “CommieNazis” chase Wolfcastle in their black jets adorned with hammers, sickles, and swastikas. Wolfcastle jumps onto the jet of the CommieNazi leader, breaks through the glass of the cockpit, and snaps the neck of the monocle-clad villain.
The scene is a parody of innumerable American action films, which raise up reactionary straw men like these to be knocked down by the heroes of the American neoliberal world order. On a deeper level, the absurdity of this scene points to a fatal flaw of post-WWII American popular culture. The reactionary baddies we are presented with in American cultural products are not always Commies or Nazis—usually these caricatures are Germans, often they are Russians or Arab Muslims, sometimes they are British, and sometimes they are backward Southerners. But they always play the role of the villains standing against the Anglo-American liberal world order.
The proponents of this order are the American establishment, in both its neoliberal and neoconservative flavors. They employ an army of public intellectuals to shape a Hegelian vision of world history as a long march toward liberty, reaching its culmination in the contemporary United States-dominated world order.
Victor Davis Hanson is the foremost of these public intellectuals, and serves as the court historian for the right-wing of liberalism known as neoconservatism. In more than 20 books of popular history published over the last 40 years, Hanson has lent his classical background in Greek history to the service of painting popular history in a light pleasing to neoconservatives.
Hanson’s academic specialty is the “golden age of the polis”—the Greek city-states—and the Peloponnesian War. His foundational works, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (1989) and The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995), each peppered with his own personal reminiscences of life as a California fruit farmer, are both a pleasure to read and contain many salient observations.
The central thesis of Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (1989) is that much, but not all, of Western warfare has been structured around the Indo-European social unit of the laos. The laos was the origin of what Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania referred to as the “comitatus,” and what Shakespeare famously termed a “band of brothers”: a group of males led by an officer drawn from the common people who leads from the front into battle. Hanson argues that this basic structure formed what would be called infantry units in the 16th century, and has been the defining mark of Western warfare for millennia. To buttress his argument, Hanson cites various examples, including Greek hoplite infantry and American officers during the Vietnam War who would be the “first on, last off” of the Huey helicopters.
In The Western Way of War, we can see the key flaw in Hanson’s thinking that ironically makes Hanson’s work such a potent source for the skewed neoconservative vision of history. While there are numerous incidents of noncommissioned officers leading loyal and dutiful soldiers into battle, much if not most of Western warfare has been waged by aristocrats who had the loyalty of their men precisely because they were aristocrats. Consider Julius Caesar, who certainly courted the populum, but was by no means an egalitarian “man of the people.” Moreover, most of medieval, early modern, Napoleonic, and late 19th century warfare in the West was engineered by aristocrats from established families, who did not have recent descent from the common people.
This historical fact is ignored by Hanson, who seems to have a characteristically liberal, democratic aversion to aristocracy. Hanson insists that such aristocratic pedigrees begat timid, effeminate men. Napoleon Bonaparte was a model of courage, however, and descended from an aristocratic Tuscan family. Neither aristocratic roots nor an “imperial” worldview hindered the Corsican’s relationship with his soldiers, nor did it make him any less skilled as a general.
In the same vein, Hanson attempts to show that during the Civil War, the Union Army was a democratic, mostly volunteer force, in contrast to the cruelly hierarchical Confederate Army. This characterization ignores the tremendous popular resistance to Union recruitment, including the notorious Irish-American draft riots, as well as a general overall war fatigue in the North. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” had more to do with boosting poor Union morale than with dedicating a cemetery.
Despite tremendous gaps in its historical analysis, The Western Way of War was lauded for telling the conservative establishment in America exactly what it wanted to hear: that Western warfare has always been an egalitarian enterprise waged by the middle class in defense of its rights against menacing religious, cultural, or political reactionaries. Thus, according to Hanson, American soldiers traveling from the farms of Nebraska to the streets of Baghdad are participating in a long, proud tradition dating back to the ancient Greek polis.
The recasting of classical history as propaganda for American liberalism occurs in Hanson’s other books as well. In The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995), Hanson argues that middle class farmers helped shape the life of the Greek polis and Greek concepts of democracy. This is basically true, though Hanson overemphasizes the democratic element in the Spartan constitution and way of life.
However, here again Hanson cherry-picks a few details from ancient history to extrapolate support for his grand narrative. Greek farmers show that the core of social formation in the West has been the middle class clamoring for more rights and political representation.
This attempt to expand his observations about a specific time in Greek history, although an intellectual failure, proved to be a social and financial boon for Hanson, who continued to receive accolades and publishing deals.
It should be no surprise that Hanson’s historical narratives can double as war propaganda, as shown in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent Iraq War. During this period, Hanson wrote innumerable pieces in establishment magazines such as National Review and newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal that presented the War on Terror as another chapter in the age-old struggle between the noble band of brothers and the forces seeking to destroy the liberal order.
Hanson echoed earlier Anglo-American war propaganda portraying contemporary Western military endeavors as a reiteration of the struggle between Athens and Sparta. Hanson used similar historical analogies to lionize American leaders. George W. Bush as well as Generals David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, and Tommy Franks were latter day reincarnations of Pericles, William Tecumseh Sherman, Winston Churchill, and Omar Bradley. These leaders of the War on Terror took up, once again, the torch of liberty against a menacing sea of reactionary darkness, just as their forebears had done.
Hanson’s books make good bedside reading for people who are too busy to critically examine his historical analogies. It’s unlikely, for example, that his readers are aware that the classical Mycenaean culture of Homer’s Odyssey, which Hanson constantly invokes, was in fact a brutally aristocratic world that would have shunned Hanson’s bourgeois, neoconservative values as beneath contempt. These inconvenient details never get in the way of Hanson’s grand narrative.
Indeed, the overwhelming mass of literature produced by the Western tradition that Hanson and other neoconservatives profess to admire, from the Old Testament to 20th century works by T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, idealize an illiberal world that is almost always theocratic, ethnocentric, and hierarchical. These writers, whose works are invariably included on neoconservative “Great Books” lists, would for the most part reject the capitalistic free market ideology of the neoconservatives and view the consumer marketplace as at most a necessary evil to facilitate the good life.
Furthermore, Hanson, although a classicist, mostly omits Roman history and has scant to say about the thousand years of medieval history that constitutes the bulk of Western memory. There is not a great deal from these periods that is serviceable to the neoconservative grand narrative, apparently.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Hanson’s historical omissions and the many fault lines of his theses, he has been handsomely rewarded for his service to America’s liberal empire. His admittedly impressive intellect and writing ability have garnered him multiple awards as well as a senior fellowship at the Hoover Institute.
While dutiful adherence to the neoconservative establishment has made Victor Davis Hanson rich, it has come at the cost of failing to provide his readers with a fair and nuanced view of history. The works of court historians are likely to fall out of memory when the powerful people they flatter pass from the scene.