Bateman on Hanson: An Altercation Altercation


By LTC Bob Bateman

Most Altercators know me as a soldier, and this is as it should be. But our gracious host and I share at least one thing in common: We are both academic historians.

Eric, of course, is a full-time professor, while I am only adjunct. But our foundations are the same. As historians we share certain professional values. For example, as historians we privilege the written word. In our historical writing, we both seek to create a thesis for the reader which accurately represents a synthesis of facts and ideas that come from sometimes quite disparate sources. And finally, in developing that thesis, we are bound by the facts. This is as it should be; we are historians. But one might further contend that Eric and I both have a problem with people who distort the historical record. In short, we hate liars.

Eric's book When Presidents Lie is explicit on that point, describing as it does the problems which arise for the entire nation when our chief executives lie. My own book on the events at No Gun Ri in 1950 devotes fully half of the text to understanding how lies worked their way into the historical record and people's understanding of what took place near that small South Korean village more than 50 years ago. The bottom line for both of us is a strong sentiment against people putting falsehoods into the record.

In both of those situations, the lies were direct. They were fabrications constructed by actors on the historical stage, and they were exposed through straightforward historical spadework. Far more insidious is the lie built by another historian in order to support an agenda that has little or nothing to do with history. Against that type of lie there has traditionally been little defense. Those who know better (academic historians in this case) often cannot match the volume of the polemicist who cloaks himself in the garb of legitimate-seeming history. It is a sad fact that "popular" usually trumps "academic" in the bookstore, so the falsehoods put together by the fabulist often drown out his academic critics. The general public, for its part, is often taken in by the fact that the fabulist appears learned and, therefore, should be trusted.

So what is an honest historian to do? Writing a competing academic book usually does not work, since such works are usually only read by peers within academe. Blasting the offending book in the reviews sections of academic journals is similarly ineffective. An op-ed in a major newspaper is not viable, because there just is not enough space to engage in more than rhetoric. All of which usually meant that those with popular lies to tell won out most of the time. Enter the Internet.

Our host has been kind enough to provide me a bully pulpit for the next several weeks as I take down one of the most profound perverts of the historical record in the modern era, Mr. Victor Davis Hanson.

If you are not familiar with him, Hanson, or "VDH" as he sometimes styles himself, is a historian of classical Greece, or at least he was a historian of that place and era. Now he is something different. Since 2001 he has laid claims to being a military and cultural historian for the ages, in addition to becoming a columnist for the National Review Online and other hyper-conservative outlets. Personally, I do not care what he writes in an op-ed, so long as he does not torture historical facts in order to validate his own pet theories. But Hanson does exactly that, and so, from my seat, he is the worst sort of polemicist: one who claims academic credentials as a neutral observer, but then insidiously inserts political interpretations of his own present-day biases into the historical record.

Hanson's best-known general thesis, which he has pounded upon since his book Carnage and Culture came out in 2001, is that there are elements in Western culture (that is to say European culture, but only those who derive their heritage from the Greek/Roman traditions) that make us unique and always successful in war. His "evidence" is laid out in his version and interpretation of nine battles and/or campaigns which took place over roughly 2,500 years. In Carnage and Culture these are: Salamis (480 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Cannae (216 BC), Poitiers (732 AD), Tenochtitlan (1520-21 AD), Lepanto (1571 AD), Rorke's Drift (1879 AD), Midway (1942 AD), and Tet (1968 AD).

Hanson is tricky. He plays upon a uniquely American dichotomy. Generally speaking, we Americans respect academic qualifications, but at the same time harbor deep-seated biases against those we deem too intellectual. The line there is squiggly. Thus, Hanson tries to claim academic qualities, but then immediately switches gears and denigrates any potential opposition as mere "academic" history (with its unreasonable insistence on things like footnotes or endnotes so that your sources can be checked). Indeed, he dismissed the whole lot by saying, "Academics in the university will find that assertion chauvinistic or worse -- and thus cite every exception from Thermopylae to Little Bighorn in refutation."

He further eroded any potential critique by claiming that such would be part of the "cultural debates" (conservative code for "campus liberals hate America"). Indeed, that occurred in the very first paragraph of his book when he wrote, "While I grant that critics would disagree on a variety of fronts over the reasons for European military dynamism and the nature of Western civilization itself, I have no interest in entering such contemporary cultural debates, since my interests are in the military power, not the morality of the West."

His technique worked -- until now. Carnage and Culture was a national best-seller, and Hanson is himself now regularly invited into the highest levels of the executive branch of government to speak and advise. All because he twisted facts to tell a story as he wanted it to be, not as the facts themselves lay out. And because he silenced his critics.

Hanson's dismissals of those who would correct the record he distorted are based upon two biases: "Campus liberals" would engage in culture wars, and "non-military historians" don't know about military history and are thus unqualified to speak on the topic at hand. Well, Victor, I am afraid that I'm not going to be so easy to dismiss. Although I teach at Georgetown now, I used to teach at West Point, and the topic I taught is the same that I have studied for 18 years, military history. It is one thing for you to brush off an inhabitant of, say, the history departments at Yale or the University of Wisconsin as knowing nothing of the military or military history. It is quite another to attempt the same with an Army Airborne Ranger who also happens to be an academic historian and who thinks that your personal signal work is a pile of poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces.

Next Week: Cannae

You can write to LTC Bob at

Eric adds: "Go Sox!"

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