Bateman on Hanson, Round 1: Cannae, 2 August 216 B.C.

Eric writes:

Twenty-five years or so ago, I was traveling with a backpack somewhere in Morocco, and I spent a couple of nights in some tiny town that didn't have electricity where people dreamed of America in a way that was really quite moving. A kid my age asked, over and over, “what kind of country” America was. Of course, that question has many answers, depending on the context, but one of them today surely is: “America, thanks to George W. Bush and his supporters, is the kind of country that kidnaps people in other countries, takes them off to be tortured, without trial, and then 'disappears' them. At least some of these people are innocent.” Or is there some other way to read this story in The Washington Post?

On Sept. 6, 2006, President Bush announced that the CIA's overseas secret prisons had been temporarily emptied and 14 al-Qaeda leaders taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But since then, there has been no official accounting of what happened to about 30 other “ghost prisoners” who spent extended time in the custody of the CIA.

Some have been secretly transferred to their home countries, where they remain in detention and out of public view, according to interviews in Pakistan and Europe with government officials, human rights groups and lawyers for the detainees. Others have disappeared without a trace and may or may not still be under CIA control.


At least one former CIA prisoner has been quietly freed. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence agent captured after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was detained at a secret location until he was released last year.

Ani gained notoriety before the Iraq war when Bush administration officials said he had met in Prague with Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohamed Atta. Some officials, including Vice President Cheney, cited the rendezvous as evidence of an alliance between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The theory was later debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Sept. 11 commission, which revealed in 2004 that Ani was in U.S. custody.

The Iraqi spy resurfaced two months ago when Czech officials revealed that he had filed a multimillion-dollar compensation claim. His complaint: that unfounded Czech intelligence reports had prompted his imprisonment by the CIA.


In June, a coalition of human rights groups identified 39 people who may have been in CIA custody but are still missing.

Note that they conveniently held Mr. Ani so he could not contradict the lies of Dick Cheney (trumpeted by William Safire) regarding the phony Prague meeting upon which so emphasis was placed.

America is also, by the way, the kind of country that produces a Quote of the Day like this one, God save us: " 'Obama sounds too much like Osama,' said Kayla Nickel of Westlink [Christian Church in Witchita, Kansas]. 'When he says his name, I am like, 'I am not voting for a Muslim!' " Here. Oh, and it is also the kind of country where The Wall Street Journal's editors' idea of “torture” is the Democrats allegedly using “a universally hailed Attorney General nominee as a political pawn to appease the antiwar left even as they refuse to say what kind of interrogation they do support.” Here. Note, first of all, the logical incongruity of calling Mukasey “universally hailed.” If an “antiwar left” is opposed, he is, by definition, not “universally hailed.” Note also, by the way, that the position of what the Murdoch-owned and operated Journal calls the “antiwar left” is also the position of the majority of Americans, while the Journal itself speaks only for a recidivist right wing that has brought dishonor and disaster to the nation.

But never mind that.

Now here's LTC Bob Bateman's dismemberment of the scholarly reputation of the ill-informed McCarthyite Victor Davis Hanson, Part II. (Part I is here, and Hanson's response to it is here.)

It may be moderately obscene, I admit, but I have always enjoyed teaching students about this battle. At the tactical level, it is the story of a force, outnumbered and fighting far from their base, defeating another force almost twice their size and doing so in such a decisive manner as to stun the world and be passed down for more than 2,000 years. At the operational level of war, competing philosophies of conflict are at play. Finally, at the strategic level of war, there is a lesson to be learned about the strategic vision of one leader, and the inability of another to grasp more than what happens on the battlefield. In short, the story of Cannae is complex and a challenge to teach.

Rather than rail overmuch here at the outset, however, I prefer to allow Mr. Hanson to light his own petard. Hanson's basic contention is that face-to-face infantry battle is a cultural legacy exclusive to the “West.” In Carnage and Culture, he sets out to demonstrate this by resurrecting the hoary old 19th century model of “Decisive Battles” and claiming that the study of battle is the One True Way. Here is how he lays out the reason for his focus upon individual battles:

In an analysis of culture and conflict why should we concentrate on a few hours of battle and the fighting experience of the average soldier - and not the epic sweeps of wars, with their cargo of grand strategy, tactical maneuver, and vast theater operations that so much better lend themselves to careful social and cultural exegesis? Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing, which is ultimately found only in battle. (pg. 7)


There is an inherent truth in battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory.

Just a short while later Hanson rams home the point ... again:

We owe it to the dead to discover at all costs how the practice of government, science, law, and religion instantaneously determines the fate of thousands on the battlefield - and why. (pg. 8)

A few lines later he repeats himself, and at this point you are starting to think, “Hmmmm, maybe he's serious about this focus on battle as being what matters thing” :

War is ultimately killing. Its story becomes absurd when the wages of death are ignored by the historian. (pg. 8)

In case you weren't listening, he keeps up the same drumbeat throughout the book.

Hanson is saying that the study of battle provides the evidence to support his main idea. Hanson outlines his overall thesis in a section subheaded “The Singularity of Western Military Culture.” In that section Hanson puts it this way:

All armies engage in mass confrontations at times; few prefer to do so in horrendous collisions of shock and eschew fighting at a distance or through stealth when there is at least the opportunity for decisive battle ...

And then:

Foot soldiers are common in every culture, but infantrymen, fighting en masse, who take and hold ground and fight face-to-face, are a uniquely Western specialty ... (pg. 445)

In other words, only Western armies seek out shock battle and short, sharp, hard fights. Others try to avoid battles, using movement, misdirection, deception, and other stratagems so as not to fight.

But there is one big problem with that thesis: One of the most famous battles in all of history runs 180 degrees against Mr. Hanson's thesis. It is a battle so famous that Hanson cannot ignore it or pretend that it didn't happen, as he does with many other battles (which we will see in later weeks). But more than that, it was not just one battle, but a whole string of battles, all of which ran counter to his idea that the cultural legacy of the “West” generates an inclination for head-on battles, and that inclination leads to victory. Even worse, what eventually led to an overall victory for the Roman ( “Western” ) side in the war was not battle, but actually the active avoidance of battle! Those last two points, however, Hanson has concealed.

The short version of what happened in the Punic Wars runs something like this: Rome and a North African city called Carthage fought a series of wars that spanned almost 120 years. During the second war, a Carthaginian leader named Hannibal marched his army from Spain, across what is now the south of France, over the Alps, and into Italy. During those marches he confronted small Roman detachments and Roman allies. He beat them all. Then, once he invaded the Roman homeland, he defeated several Roman armies in a row.

In the first major battle, Hannibal and his army directly confronted an equally sized Roman army and wiped out about 20,000 of perhaps 36,000 Romans on the field. In the next battle, he again offered direct combat with his army, again on equal terms, and in that battle his army killed 30,000 Romans while capturing the remaining 10,000. So, in two battles, Hannibal's non-Western army killed or captured something like 60,000 out of almost 80,000 Romans sent against them, while barely losing any of their own strength. Hanson, of course, never talks about these numbers or battles in any detail. He grants them light, one-sentence asides and concessions, but generally brushes past their meaning. With the addition of Cannae, these three fights are examples that run counter to Hanson's thesis. One battle might have been an exception to the rule. But when the historical record shows battle after battle where the “Western” way of war is shown up, on home turf, when the Westerners outnumbered the enemy, the thesis begins to lose air. Hanson, however, brushes this aside by admitting that Cannae “was not a fluke.” But he does so in just one sentence.

But back to the narrative: Finally, the series of pitched battles culminated in the absolute destruction of the largest Roman army yet thrown against the Carthaginians. Out of an estimated 70,000 Roman legionnaires who arrived in the vicinity of the battlefield at a place called Cannae, Hannibal's army killed about 50,000 of them in a few hours. The Carthaginians did this by pretending to pull back in the middle of their line, until they sucked the Roman army into a three-sided trap, which their cavalry then closed from behind. It was the definition of a historic battle, but the really interesting stuff came later. More on that in a moment.

Now, to give the devil his due, Hanson's description of the battle that occurred in 216 B.C. is generally accurate, in the broadest outlines. He does go pretty far, however, in trying to twist the language around to suit his needs. So, while he takes no liberties with the specifics of what happened on that day, he is tricky with his use of language. Hanson tries to minimize the impact of the horrific Roman defeat at Cannae by making it seem like the actual size of the massive Roman army did not matter. Instead, he suggests, the Romans that lost there were effectively the second-stringers.

For example, he mentions, how at Cannae the African troops in the Carthaginian army were “veterans.” Then he conversely describes many of the 70,000 Romans as, “adolescents who filled the Romans ranks, depleted by the thousands butchered earlier at Trebia and Lake Trasimene” (pg. 101). In another part of the text, while Hanson says that Hannibal “arrayed 10,000 skilled horsemen,” he goes on to describe the opposing Roman cavalry as “6,000 poorly trained mounted Italians.” (pg. 102) Now, the problem with that is that the sources do not describe the Roman cavalry as “poorly trained.” It is true that the Romans generally did not have the best cavalry. But in this specific case, Hanson is just making an assertion. He does this because it fits his thesis. He does not know what training the Roman cavalry had, any more than he knows how many “adolescents” were in the Roman army that day. The historical record is, effectively, silent on those specific points. In other words, Hanson is merely guessing, but writing his guesses in such a way as to make them appear authoritative.

But all of this is small fry compared to his greatest offenses.

How, one might be asking themselves at this point, can Hanson defend his thesis of the supremacy of the Western Way of War given the facts of these battles? How can he continue to assert that the West is supreme in infantry shock battle, when all major Roman battles of the Second Punic War mentioned in this chapter show the Romans being beaten in direct head-to-head shock battle by non-Westerners? Well, the answer is moderately simple. Hanson tries to save his thesis by saying something like, “Uh, battle matters ... except when it doesn't.” In fact, this is what he says:

Cannae, like so many of these landmark battles, is the exception that proves the rule: even when Roman armies were poorly led, foolishly arranged, squabbling before battle over the proper deployment, and arrayed against a rare genius, the catastrophic outcome was not fatal to their conduct of the war. (pg. 105)

What is remarkable about Cannae is not that thousands of Romans were so easily massacred in battle, but that they were massacred to such little strategic effect. (pg. 111)

Students of war must never be content to learn merely how men fight a battle, but must always ask why soldiers fight as they do, and what ultimately their battle is for. (pg. 131)

So, you see, despite Hanson having written over and over again that battle is what matters, when confronted with irrefutable historical evidence contrary to his thesis that the “West” is supreme in infantry-centric shock battles, Hanson becomes a flip-flopper. In these quotes above he is saying, because he must, that it actually does not matter who wins the battle!

But what about what happened afterward? If what really matters, according to this new Hanson formulation, is the bigger picture, then what happened next? What happened after the Romans were crushed, for a third time, on their home turf? Hanson writes:

Marcus Junius was appointed dictator, with formal directives to raise armies in any manner possible. He did so magnificently. More than 20,000 were recruited into four new legions. Some legionaries were not yet seventeen. Eight thousand slaves were purchased at public expense and given arms, with a proviso that courage in battle might lead to freedom. Junius himself freed 6,000 prisoners and took direct command of this novel legion of felons. (pg. 127)

Huh? Wait a second. In an earlier passage Hanson wrote, “Western armies often fought with and for a sense of legal freedom.” (pg. 21) This, in fact, was a foundation to his hypothetical motivation for the Western soldiers. According to Hanson, it was because of their freedoms that men in the West fought so hard and so well in infantry shock battles.

Yet here, of 20,000 new troops Hanson is lauding the Romans for raising in the wake of the disaster at Cannae, a full 14,000 of them are either slaves or prisoners. (And I thought our recruiting difficulties in the U.S. Army were rough.) How can one be a slave and at the same time fight due to a sense of one's civic responsibility to the Roman state? This is an especially difficult question since most Roman slaves were from foreign sources in the first place, and so would have had no allegiance to Rome.

But the legions were raised, and by the end of the chapter Hanson's logic has become so twisted around that this fact, not the facts of what happened in the battle, is what Hanson contends matters. But then what did the Romans do with those legions? Perhaps this line might help. (Primer: Hasdrubal is another Carthaginian leader; Metaurus was a battle that took place in 207 B.C., nine years after Cannae.) Here Hanson is offering a hypothetical and comparing the strategic levels of war by talking about the Carthaginian political leadership vice that of the Romans.

After Hasdrubal's catastrophic setback at the Metaurus, there was no likelihood that the Carthaginian Assembly, as Rome had done after the far worse slaughter at Cannae, would have ordered a general muster of all its able-bodied citizenry -- a real nation in arms arising to crush the hated resurgent legions. (pg. 9)

Now, from that sentence one gets the impression that after the battle of Cannae, the Romans did, in fact, arise as a “real nation in arms” and that they subsequently immediately sought battle and then “crushed” the Carthaginian army under Hannibal, right?

Wrong. Though Hanson makes only one slight mention of it, the fact is that Hannibal stayed in Italy for the next 14 years. He stayed on Roman soil, moving with near impunity, year after year. How could Hannibal do that?

Well, completely contrary to Hanson's thesis about how Western armies seek battle, hold ground, and strive for short and sharp shock conflicts, the reality was that the Romans, for the next 14 years, deliberately avoided shock and pitched battles with Hannibal. (Remember these Hanson lines? “All armies engage in mass confrontations at times; few prefer to do so in horrendous collisions of shock and eschew fighting at a distance or through stealth when there is at least the opportunity for decisive battle...” and “Foot soldiers are common in every culture, but infantrymen, fighting en masse, who take and hold ground and fight face-to-face, are a uniquely Western specialty...” (pg. 445))

What the Romans actually did was exactly the opposite of the Hanson thesis. They broke up their armies into smaller forces and harassed Hannibal indirectly. They gave ground, regularly, and lived to maneuver another day. They sought to wear him down, while preserving their own forces. They avoided pitched battles on any large scale. In short, they followed the direct advice of one of the other most famous generals of all time, one who is only mentioned by name a single time in the entire chapter (and then without noting his actions). That man was Quintus Fabius Maximus, called “Cunctator” (The Delayer), and it is from him that we have the term “Fabian Strategy,” which was so magnificently put into play by a fellow named George Washington a couple of millennia later.

How Hanson missed that extra 14-year part where the Romans avoided major pitched battles in Italy is curious.

Folks, this is just one chapter, and it was a chapter dealing with events within Hanson's specialty. It gets worse from here.

Next Week: Leaping Through Time to Poitiers and Beyond.

You can write to LTC Bob at

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Brian Geving
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN


Ezra Klein's article on Paul Wellstone was spot-on, and his loss is still mourned here in Minnesota. Even 5 years later, it is not uncommon to see a car with the distinctive green Wellstone! bumper-sticker on the highway. However, Ezra failed to mention what I think was truly unique about Paul Wellstone; the fact that even dyed-in-the-wool Republicans truly liked the guy, and even voted for him. In an age of divide and conquer politics, Paul Wellstone was truly a uniter and had that special ability to bring people together. The comment that I hear all the time from Republicans here is “I may not agree with him all the time, but at least I know where he stands.” He stood strong for his convictions, and he was popular with both Democrats and Republicans because of it. That is a lesson that today's Democrats could learn from the great Paul Wellstone.