Victor Davis Hanson, "Ripples of Battle"

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Feb 20, 2005
New York City
For those of you who may not have heard of him, Victor Davis Hanson is a former Classics professor and a leading military historian. For example, his book "The Western Way of War" is the single best volume on ancient Greek hoplite warfare that I have read. He is also a fellow at the Hoover Institute who since 9-11 he written extensively on the War on Terror and related topics.

"Ripples of Battle" is not a Civil War book per se, although it does contain a lengthy (95 pp.) chapter on Shiloh and the “ripples” emanating from that battle – hence this review.

The relatively short book (258 pp. of text) as a whole examines three diverse battles: Okinawa (1945), Shiloh (1862) and Delium (424 B.C, a battle between the Athenians and the Boeotians, allies of Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War). Mr. Hanson discusses aspects of these battles, examines the “ripples” they created and draws lessons from them (the book’s subtitle is “How the Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live and How We Think”). He looks, for example, to the fierce Kamikaze attacks that took place during the battle of Okinawa as a basis for modern-day suicide bombers and the 9-11 attacks – and as an example of how an aroused America responds to such threats.

Putting the larger theses aside, the discussion of Shiloh is fascinating. While it provides an overview of the battle, the chapter really consists of several discrete sub-essays that focus on particular aspects of the battle and aftermath and then discuss their ramifications. By way of example,

· The rise of William Sherman and his concept of war (which, be warned, the author intensely admires);

· The death of A.S. Johnston and the rise of the myth of the lost opportunity;

· The way in which the blame placed on Lew Johnson (unjust, in the author’s view, with detailed analysis) became his obsession and is reflected in Ben-Hur (did you know that Ben-Hur was, by far, the best-selling work of American fiction during the 19th Century?).

· The discovery of William Bedford Forrest and his responsibility for the success of the Ku Klux Klan.

What I particularly enjoyed about the Shiloh chapter, and the book as a whole, is that it is highly opinionated. Too many Civil War books, particularly battle and campaign histories, relate the details of events in (dare I say it?) tedious detail but then fail to provide any meaningful assessment or opinion about the strategy and tactics used and the broader implications. Mr. Hanson, in contrast, after discussing the relevant facts in detail, provides well-reasoned opinions and conclusions – some highly controversial. For example, he believes that Lew Wallace was wrongly accused and opines that the Confederacy failed to use Forrest properly after Shiloh as the result of “institutionalized stupidity.” Similarly, in uncompromising language he describes why he believes that Sherman was a prophetic military genius whose method of warfare is relevant today:

"Contrary to popular opinion and hysterical slurs, Sherman’s legacy of destroying civic property and morale was not Dresden, Hiroshima or My Lai. The Army of the West never deliberately killed civilians, raped, or murdered. Rather, Sherman’s war against property and civic infrastructure has now been ingrained as the unofficial policy of the United States military at war – as the recent conflicts in Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan attest. Like Sherman, we prefer to attack the will of a nation to resist through the destruction of its communications and the property of its government and elite without aiming either to kill its soldiers or randomly target its civilians."

You may agree or disagree with Dr. Hanson’s opinions. Indeed, he has views of Ulysses Grant from which I would dissent. Nonetheless, they are uniformly fascinating, well-supported and obviously the result of a great deal of thought by a leading military historian.

In short, this is not a traditional Civil War book. Nonetheless, I recommend it highly even to those of you who are interested only in the Civil War, and certainly to anyone who is more generally interested in military history.
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