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.