Book Review: The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson

For Professor Hanson, two activities dominated the lives of the Ancient Greeks; farming and fighting. In his later book, The Other Greeks, Dr. Hanson, now a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and conservative political writer, explores the former. In this book, The Western Way of War, Dr. Hanson, explores the latter. In the work under review the author asks and attempts to answer a basic question; what was battle like for the Ancient Greek hoplites? In the course of answering that question he also explores what motivated the Greeks to march out and fight, how did the ancient Greeks themselves view battle and how did the Classic Greek concept of battle affect how the West thinks about war and fighting? It would not be too much to say that this work, while complete and capable of standing on its own, represents the middle volume of a trilogy, sandwiched by Hanson’s Warfare and Agriculture in Ancient Greece and The Other Greeks.

Self-consciously borrowing a page from famed military historian, John Keegan, who wrote the introduction, Hanson uses a structure similar to the one used in the The Face of Battle. First, he eschews discussions of grand strategy and tactics and focuses as much as possible on what the experience in battle was like for the individual infantryman. The man, who stood in the blazing Mediterranean sun, covered nearly in head to toe in heavy bronze armor, shouldered his spear and lumbered out to kill, or be killed, by opponents what were very much like him. Relying as much as possible on primary sources Hanson describes the ordeal of the hoplite and the burden of his armor. Further, he details whom he fought with and against and how he was organized. He further discusses the morale and motivations of the ancient Greek citizen-soldier. He details as much as possible the experience of actual hand to hand combat in the densely packed ranks of the phalanx and lastly the horrible aftermath of dealing with the dead and wounded of battle.

The author further makes the strong point of the association of soldiering and citizenship. How important being a citizen hoplite was to the ancient Greeks is pointed out by Hanson’s quote of the grave inscription of Aeschylus, the father of Greek Tragedy, where no mention of his many awards for his dramas is made, instead it says: “of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well.” This only refers to his service as a hoplite at the Battle of Marathon, as if his writing was of no import. To the Greeks and for Hanson, citizenship in the City-State is based on the ability to arm oneself and fight; nothing else.

To Hanson, the Western way of war is simply this: to fight a short, decisive battle that reaches a conclusion. No maneuvering, ambushes or deceptions for the Ancient Greeks, instead they suited up in their armor, picked their massive hoplon shields and marched out to fight a short, bloody battle that would settle the war, and then they matched home again to either acclaim or derision based on whether they won or lost. Herodotus speaking through the Persian commander, Mardonios called that kind of war “senseless” and yet as the author reminds the reader, that “senseless” method of battle dominated the world for 2,500 years.

The introduction, two prefaces (one for this edition and one from the first edition) and Part One of the book informs the reader that the work is “interesting and important” and why. These parts also discuss the lack of interest most classicists have shown in the actual conditions of hoplite battles. They also give a general account of the development of warfare in the Greek agrarian social structures. Lastly, the sources of information, primarily ancient, regarding the topics, are discussed.

Part Two of the work describes the physical and mental conditions that each hoplite had to endure even before the first blow was struck. Part Three explores the whys and wherefores of the hoplites “will to battle.” The ‘how” of commanders and the generals inspiring and leading their soldiers. Also discussed is the “regimental system” of the city-states citizen hoplite; how the men were surrounded and supported by their family and friends during the fight. Also discussed in detail are the effects of alcohol, even to the point of drunkenness, on men before battle. This part also features much comparing between hoplites and later soldiers to help demonstrate the universality of experience in infantry battle, but also is used to show the close relationship to Greek hoplite battle and subsequent Western style fighting. Also he discusses the ideals that drove the Greeks to fight as they did, the primary one being that “No man should give way to another.”

Part Four delineates in almost crushing detail the sequence of events that was a hoplite on hoplite battle in Ancient Greece. Hanson’s focus here is on the actions and reactions of the individual in the midst of the kill or be killed conflict of a phalanx versus phalanx battle. For all the detail given in this part of the book, it is also the most exciting section for the average reader.

Part Five: “Aftermath” is a reminder that the battle doesn’t end when one side withdraws. Hanson describes what happened to the wounded and the dead and the battles aftermath, weeks and even months after the last blow is struck. In the brief epilogue, Hanson returns and explores some of the issues he raised in chapters one and two. That is to say, he again addresses in what way the Greeks really developed a Western way of war and what was the connection between soldiering and citizenship.

While supposedly written for a popular audience, the prose is dense and academic and while Hanson does not use the standard Turabian foot note system, what he does use is a variation of the American Psychological Association or Modern Language Association styles for direct quotes and for his primary ancient sources. He also includes a significant chapter on his sources, as well as a long supplementary bibliography and a lengthy Index Locorum of primary sources. This book is therefore betwixt and between when it comes to the target audience. Hanson assumes that his reader has a relatively large amount of prerequisite knowledge about the Greeks and warfare, which may not be true for the casual reader, and yet it is not exhaustively foot noted as a true scholarly work would be. In fact, the work reads like a doctoral dissertation that edited and rewritten for a general audience. Not that is a bad thing, but neither does it fit comfortably in either category. Certainly this book would be interesting and useful to the well versed amateur military or Greek historian and the bachelors’ level or masters’ level students of Greek history.

Of course, the book is not perfect. Hanson has taken on a difficult task, to discuss classic hoplite battle in the age before most written sources were penned. He is forced to rely on archaeology, iconography and to extrapolate backward in time from the written sources available, for example when using sources like Thucydides, Herodotus or Xenophon, he acknowledges that they are writing from the very end of the era of his inquiry. Further, Hanson also used ancient sources that are some five centuries removed from the Classical era; in point of fact, such works become almost secondary source material, rather than primary ones. Yet, Hanson depends on these less than direct sources.

The other fault, although not a fatal one, in the book is that Hanson places far too much on the paradigm of decisive infantry battle as THE Western way of war. The Western way of war does indeed exist, the ideas that wars should be short and decisive and fought by citizens invested in the outcome of the war. But that idea also includes the use of advanced technologies to both protect from harm and inflict harm on soldiers. It also supposes highly disciplined and trained and well supported soldiers that respond to a central state authority. None of these are mentioned in the book and yet they are also part and parcel of the Western way of war. In short, while decisive infantry battle is indeed part of the model for Western warfare it is not the only part.

In conclusion, the book: The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece received well deserved raved reviews on its release. The book is indeed interesting and well written, despite it neither “fish nor fowl nor good red meat”  style, nor its approach to the supposed target audience. In fact, removing the strictures of strictly academic style improved the work and the assumption of intelligence and some background knowledge on the part of the interested reader is also a benefit. Any student studying Greek history, military history or Western civilization would benefit from reading this work.


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