Victor Davis Hanson on 300, Peter Pace’s morality position on sexuality in the military, and the morality of the possible GOP candidates.
HH: Joined now by one of our favorite guests, Victor Davis Hanson, professor of military history, noted author, and observer of the war. Victor, good to talk to you again.
VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.
HH: I want to start with a little bit of an off-the-wall question, Professor, because Sparta is the subject of the movie, “300.” It made $70 million dollars this weekend. You are an expert on the Greeks, and what is the appeal of the story in modern America?
VDH: I think Americans always identify with an underdog, remember our own mythology of the Alamo, and the idea of a free people. And it’s not just Sparta, remember, it’s the Thespians, the Thebans, 12 or 13 other Greek city-states were there, trying to preserve their freedom from an overwhelming, foreign, autocratic, dictatorial threat. So it appeals across time and space, 2,500 years later.
HH: Now I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie. It’s historically not at all accurate, but I’m wondering if you could just briefly tell people what happened at Thermopylae, and why it was so significant for Western civilization.
VDH: Well, the Greeks, remember, were surprised. They didn’t have any idea how quickly and how large Xerxes’ invasion of 480 B.C. would be, and they had one last chance before they lost all of Northern Greece to stop it at the so-called warm gates of the pass of Thermopylae. So they sent a hasty group of about 7,500 Greeks, they fought magnificently for two days, they were betrayed by Ephialtes, Xerxes sent a contingent to their rear at that point, King Leonidas sent everybody away except 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and they made a glorious last stand which not only gave time for the Greeks to mobilize to the rear, but more importantly, gave them the inspiration that they could defeat the Persians. And then, this movie with Zack Snyder, based on the graphic novel of Frank Miller, tried to do something very different. It was very impressionistic, almost surrealistic, rather than to do another 300 Spartans with Richard Egan, a sort of costume drama like Alexander or Troy. In some ways, it’s, as you say, it’s very loosely adopted, but the Greeks themselves were impressionistic the way they portrayed their own history in war, whether it’s Athenian drama, or the conventions of Greek base painting. In some ways, they do things that Greeks themselves did.
HH: Now Professor, your book from the fall, A War Like No Other: How The Athenians And Spartans Fought The Peloponnesian War, amazingly sold a lot of books to a modern American culture that just doesn’t know much about ancient Greece. As between the Athenians and the Spartans, how did they differ? And who do you judge to have had the finer historical contribution to who we are today?
VDH: Well, you know, it’s not quite right to say that one was oligarchic and only narrowly constitutional and the other was broadly democratic. There were gradations, but all the Greek city-states had constitutions. The difference in Sparta was that everybody that was inside the circle was almost completely free and equal, the similars, they were called, and they had a tripartite government that influenced the Romans and our own government of an executive, the two kings, the judiciary, the epherites, and then the assemblies. But Athens chose to be more inclusive, so the number, the percentages of people who resided around Athens participated in government in a much higher rate under the democracy, where they got rid of the property qualification. And then they did other strange things that we wouldn’t even imagine, such as ostracism or forced contributions of the wealthy. So Athens was trying to not only be democratic, but have an equality of results, something that the Romans and our own founding fathers were very wary of.
HH: Now I’m talking with Victor Davis Hanson, author of A War Like No Others: How The Athenians And Spartans Fought The Peloponnesian War. Professor, I was listening recently to John Keegan’s book, The History of War, in which you are prominently featured with high praise by Professor Keegan for your theory of how the Greeks went to war, and why they went to war, and how they had to get it over with in a hurry. Is that what we’re seeing in the American character? And I saw a new CNN poll today saying that the support for the war in Iraq is at the lowest ebb since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Is that the hangover of the short, sharp conflicts that we insist upon?
VDH: I think so. I think in the history of democracies that the people themselves are not bellicose, they don’t have militaristic, dictatorial traditions. When they go to war, they want to get it over quickly, they want to be blunt, they want to be direct, they bring to the fore their organization, capitalism, high technology, all of the strengths of democratic free societies. But they’re not good at long, drawn-out counterinsurgency, terrorism, on and off wars that are characteristic of the Middle East. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do in Iraq. We’re trying to turn this thing into a conventional war, and it’s very difficult.
HH: Now General Petraeus has had some marked success at the beginning of this surge, another 8,000 troops being dispatched over the weekend, or the announcement thereof. How do you judge its unfolding in real time? It’s only been three months, but what do you see happening?
VDH: Well, I think he’s got about five or six months, politically, There won’t be a Surge II or a Surge III, because not only is our patience spent, but we don’t have the manpower, and that’s the only problem that I see. I think the initial surge is going to work. The key will be that it has to work to such a degree that we can turn over most of the responsibilities to the Iraqis, and that we’ve convinced people on the sidelines that we should join the winners, and democracy’s here to stay. But if we have a surge that works, but it requires a constant level of escalation, then we have problems. I should say in passing that there’s a long tradition in American history, whether it’s Sherman taking Atlanta and winning Lincoln re-election of 1864, or Ridgeway restoring Korea after the firing of McArthur, or Creighton Abrams trying to salvage Vietnam of a single commander, coming in under very difficult circumstances, and just by sheer force of resolve and skill, turning this radically around. That’s what Montgomery did for the British, that’s what Ariel Sharon did in 1973, when he went across the Suez, and suddenly gave Israel a victory where it was surely going to be defeated maybe.
HH: Well, I hope that is what in fact we’re seeing underway there. I want to close our conversation today, Professor Hanson, by talking about Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He made a comment on morality yesterday, saying that homosexual acts were immoral, and that immorality, whether same sex immorality or opposite heterosexual immorality, was not good for armies. He’s come under enormous fire. 1) is it appropriate for generals to speak about moral issues in their troops? And 2) are you surprised at what he had to say?
VDH: I wasn’t surprised what he had to say. I think it’s moral to talk within the military. I’m not sure that a general should, while he’s on active duty, profess morality for the rest of the country, while they do all the time. Patton, McArthur did all the time. But I think what we remember is that there’s a long history of people having homosexual acts, whether in the ancient Sparta, or Thebes or in the British army, within the military. But what’s different is that that’s never really announced as an alternate lifestyle, and openly condoned. So this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ or don’t tell, don’t ask, whatever we want to call it, has a long tradition in militaries, where we might think that soldiers sometimes have relationships, we don’t want to know about it, we don’t want to condone it, we don’t want to make it part of the institutions of the military. And General Pace is in a long tradition of Western militaries that try to do that.
– – – –
HH: Professor, I don’t actually see you do these things. When A War Like No Other came out, did you embark on a book tour?
VDH: No, I didn’t. I was very surprised at that book, that it sold more than any other book that I’ve written, and when the publishers and most of the editors didn’t think that it would. So I was very fortunate that I was just sort of riding a wave on that book.
HH: And are you working on a sequel to it?
VDH: You know, I’m doing a historical novel about the freedom of the Hellots. It’s sort of an allegory about a democratic group of agrarians and Thebes who decides to preempt, go down to Sparta, defeat the Spartan army. They first…they free the serfs, and then they implant democracy in the Peloponnese. So I think you can see the parallel.
HH: Yeah, people tell me they think I write a lot and do a lot, but it’s got nothing to compare to your productivity. You’re just astonishing. At National Review, you’ve written the piece Bipartisan Hypocrisy that I quoted from before the break, and you’re right. The days of simple living, Harry Truman and clean living Dwight Eisenhower are, apparently, long gone. Why did that happen, do you think?
VDH: I think that especially with the onset of globalization in the last 25 years, that we have reached a level of affluence, leisure, I don’t want to say luxury or decadence, but on parallel to the history of the planet, and it’s very hard in this upscale, high tech, fast world to be a conventional moralist, whether it’s on the left, that says you’re going eschew money and privilege, or whether on your right that you’re going to go back to a rural agrarian, traditional morality. We’ve seen that with these televangelical people, who just continue to become hypocritical in their behavior. And even some of the…look at the Republican presidential candidates. We’ve got one that’s divorced twice, and two that have divorced three times. So the American people are very uneasy when they’re a conservative who doesn’t live quite like he advocates. And in the same way, liberals, whether it’s George Soros or Ted Kennedy or Ted Turner or Al Gore, when they fly in these jets, and they make enormous amounts of money, they have mansions, luxuries, travel, and then they start to lecture us about the virtues of egalitarianism. We’re very skeptical of them as well.
HH: You know, one of the things I’ve written about in this new book, and I have not yet sent out my copies, but you’ll be getting one when I get back to California, A Mormon In The White House, is that Mitt Romney’s a billionaire with a “B”, but he made it himself, and he lives, apparently, modestly. He does not flaunt the great wealth that he has compiled. What do you make of Romney, Victor Davis Hanson?
VDH: Well, I’ve met him twice, and I’m actually going to meet him this Thursday at 8:00 in Palo Alto, again, for the third time. I’m very impressed with him, and you’re absolutely right. He’s a moralist who somehow in this fast-paced world has managed to match word with deed. I’m very impressed with him, and for me, his religion is of secondary importance. I don’t really care what his religion is. I am impressed that…a couple of things. As you said, he’s a self-made man, but more importantly, that we was a governor in a state that had only 13% of the legislature represented by Republicans, and yet he found a way through rhetoric and personal leadership to be effective when all the odds were against him. So I’m really impressed with him. I look forward to seeing him again on Thursday.
HH: What I like is that he’s a voracious reader, not only your books, but things like The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, Mark Steyn’s America Alone. I think this is pretty rare these days, to find curiosity at that level, and at that sort of voracious appetite for information. What do you talk about with him?
VDH: Well, we talk about history just like you and I talk about. We talk about foreign policy, he talked about the plan or the effort to democratize the Middle East, the shortfalls, the problems, the liabilities, and you know what? He came to the Hoover Institution and got in front of 40 senior fellows. And in that room there were Nobel Prize winners, a lot of egos, too. And he held court with them, and there were a lot of hostile questions, and he went for an hour and a half, head to head, with these people. When he walked out of that room, I think everybody was impressed with him. He didn’t pull any punches, and he could argue and was as logical as any Hoover fellow, and I was more impressed with him than I was with my colleagues.
HH: Now do you think that Romney is in that Harry Truman/Eisenhower tradition that you were referring to of men for whom their yes is yes, and their no is no, and pretty square around the corners?
VDH: It’s hard yet to know. I don’t know him well enough, but I’m impressed that of all the candidates, he seems the most traditional in that sense. Of course, remember, we’re talking about a lifestyle of the 1950’s and 40’s that doesn’t exist anymore.
HH: Victor Davis Hanson, we’re out of time. It’s always such a great pleasure. I’m going to link to the column, and I appreciate you’re taking the time with us.
End of interview.