Book review: Makers of Modern Strategy

Makers of Ancient Strategy
Victor Davis Hanson, ed.
Rating: 8 of 10

Victor Davis Hanson is a political pundit and National Review contributor, but he is also a classicist and military historian. His punditry is better than most, but I happen to find his military histories rather more interesting than his political analysis. I very much enjoyed his Carnage and Culture as well as A War Like No Other. His latest book, Makers of Ancient Strategy, is an intriguing look at various aspects of ancient warfare that consists of essays from 10 historians which address everything from Greek fortifications to Roman frontier defense. The essays are loosely tied together by a theme that connects these ancient strategies with the challenges faced by modern strategists engaged in modern warfare, particularly as it relates to the American occupation of Iraq.

It should be understood that this is not, however, the misguided effort of a neocon occupation enthusiast to advocate world democratic revolution in a remarkably esoteric and inefficient manner. Rather, it is a continuation of the approach taken by two similarly named compilations published in the 20th century, both entitled Makers of Modern Strategy, that repeatedly warned how even the radical technological changes that took place during and after World War II had not fundamentally altered the basic nature of military conflict.

The three best essays are contributed by Donald Kagan, John W.I. Lee, and Hanson himself. Kagan’s essay, entitled “Pericles, Thucydides, and the Defense of Empire” is an apt warning of the intrinsic difficulty in maintaining a democratic empire even with the advantages of wealth, a talented ruling class, and military superiority. His conclusion, that empire is tenable so long as it is led by an extraordinary leader like Pericles, should chill the blood of anyone who has spent any time observing the Bush, Clinton, or Obama administrations, much less the House and Senate.

Lee’s essay, “Urban Warfare in the Classic Greek World” is a reminder that what we think we know often does not bear close scrutiny. While one tends to think of the Greek warfare as consisting of phalanxes of armored hoplites colliding together, Lee reminds us that two-thirds of the battles recorded by Thucydides actually took place inside various city walls. What is often described as 4th generation warfare and takes place in urban Iraq today has a surprisingly close relationship to ancient warfare circa 450 BC. Hanson’s essay, on the other hand, focuses on an individual, Epaminonides the Theban, who crushed Sparta in what could be seen as a precursor of 20th and 21st century wars of democratic liberation. I found “Epaminonides the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War” to be much more convincing with regards to the Roman opinion of Epaminonides, who Plutarch ranked as a greater man than most of the Athenians and Spartans that we remember today, than as a coherent establishment of a preemptive doctrine. But Hanson’s perceptions are keen, as always, and he is careful to point out the inherent risks of Epaminonides’s preemptive war. He writes:

While successful preemptive war may result in an immediate strategic advantage, the dividends of such a risky enterprise are squandered if there is not a well-planned effort to incorporate military success into a larger political framework that results in some sort of advantageous peace. By its very definition, an optional preemptive war must be short, a sort of decapitation of enemy power that stuns it into paralysis and forces it to grat political concessions. In democratic states, sucha controversial gamble cannot garner continued domestic political support if the attack instead leads to a drawn-out, deracinating struggle, the very sort of quagmire that the preemption was originally intended to preclude. Like it or not, when successful and followed by a period of quiet, preemption is often ultimately considered moral, justified, and defensive; when costly and unsuccessful in securing peace, in hindsight it always looks optional, foolhardy, and aggressive.”

I also enjoyed Tom Holland’s essay on the Persian view of the fractious Greek city-states and Peter Heather’s essay on the approach to frontier defense in the later Roman empire. The only weak essay was Barry Holland’s “Slave Wars of Greece and Rome”, which didn’t go into much detail of any of the aforementioned slave wars, didn’t provide any useful statistics, and didn’t relate the ancient slave wars to modern insurgencies in any meaningful manner. Even so, it was interesting to read of the near-complete absence of any doctrine of abolitionism in the ancient world, barring one of the early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa.

Makers of Ancient Strategy is well worth reading by any armchair historian with an interest in the Greco-Roman world, and wargamers in particular will find it five or six of the essays to be fascinating. And speaking as one of the commentators who drew upon the example of the Sicilian Expedition to criticize the Iraqi occupation, I have to admit that VDH provides an effective rebuttal to that analogy in this volume. Not necessarily a conclusive one, mind you, and perhaps even one that could be viewed as contradicting some of the lessons he draws in the Epaminonides essay. But it is certainly not one that the fair observer can reasonably ignore.

The essays are all well-sourced and in some cases the notes are nearly as interesting to read as the essays themselves. I highly recommend it for historically literate readers with an interest in Greco-Roman history, military history, or the politics of the current military occupations.

RGD: a rather good review

An academic economist reviews RGD:

The book is simply a brilliant masterpiece. It is written remarkably well and gets you to read more and more. It provides a balanced mix between telling a story and zooming in on the economic fundamentals. Right from the very beginning, it becomes perfectly clear to the cognoscenti that Vox is a member of a small, ultra-elite club that has figured out the fundamental flaws of our modern-day Keynesian economic dogma, as well as the finest points of the Austrian school that only few people in the world are familiar with and understand. As an Austrian myself, it is easy to see how sophisticated Vox is in the area.

I am a professor in Economics who has been trained in and disillusioned from the mainstream economics. As an economist, I was completely reborn when I became an Austrian 7-8 years ago. Ever since, I have been teaching economics and finance mostly as an Austrian. During the Spring semester of 2008, I was teaching a course on the Financial Crisis at the American University in Bulgaria. My biggest regret is that I did not have at that time available to use Vox’s book for my course. It would have been perfect. The book may be somewhat difficult for first year Econ 101, but it is absolutely perfect for juniors and seniors – it could well be the book that will make them rethink their mainstream economics foundations. For my course, I had to use Peter Schiff’s “Crash Proof” as the very best available at the time. If I had to do it today again, I would use “The Return of the Great Depression” as my primary book. When combined with “Crash Proof”, it provides a killer combination that would open the eyes to any student willing to read. My third choice would be, without doubt, “Meltdown” by Thomas Woods.

Enough praising Vox and his book. Do not hesitate to get your copy and read it – I guarantee that you would be glad you did it.

This is without a doubt the best book review I have ever received from Bulgaria. Possibly the most interesting thing about Dr. Petrov’s review is that I happen to know he does not agree with me on the most important question of the day, inflation vs deflation. But, as I have said many times in writing about the issue, including in RGD, there are very smart and informed individuals on both sides of the issue and it is only the less sophisticated observers who think that the issue is simple enough to be critical of the other side for the way they interpret the available evidence. While I think that evidence of the last fifteen months has tended to favor the deflationary scenario, I don’t regard the matter as settled. And I certainly don’t think any less of excellent economic observers such as Marc Faber, Jim Rogers, Peter Schiff, the Mogambo Guru, or Dr. Petrov due to their expectation of a Whiskey Zulu situation.

Economics is a complex science wherein the timing remains an art. This means everyone gets something wrong sooner or later; even when you have interpreted all the evidence correctly you can still get the timing fatally wrong. I very much appreciate Dr. Petrov’s review, as it is great to see academics who have opened their minds to Austrian School economic theory. But, to return to the inflation/deflation matter, this chart on the diminishing marginal utility of debt nicely illustrates why I fall on the deflationary side and why I am confident that we are still in the early stages of the Great Depression 2.0.

WND column

Blame Republicans

For the last three weeks, the conservative media and Republican Internet sites have been up in arms about the monstrosity that is the de facto nationalization of the American health-care system. It goes without saying that the Obama health-care bill is an ideological nightmare as well as a masterpiece of budgetary fiction, and there can be little doubt that it will significantly reduce both the quality and availability of health care while increasing its cost for the average American. Increased government intervention has never been the harbinger of either improved service or reduced expense.

A postscript to today’s column: It appears I was correct in assuming that Obamacare would pass. “On the cusp of succeeding where numerous past congresses and administrations have failed, jubilant House Democrats voted 219-212 late Sunday to send legislation to Obama that would extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, reduce deficits and ban insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.”

Welcome to Third World America. It is now upon you. I now wait with no little amusement for Republicans to clean up in the November elections, then, in the name of pragmatism, completely fail to repeal anything. And in an impromptu Mailvox, RC says we shouldn’t think too much of the past, but must instead figure out how to repeal what has become the law of the land:

“You make good points. However, Bush was pre-occupied with the attack on America and the wars pursuant–not trivial matters. Yes, I agree he was not strong enough on domestic policy. With regard the initial bailout–we were told world-wide financial collapse was in the offing. True, I did not like it–but–how could we take a risk that large? No. Never has such a huge bill been passed without the consent of the governed and on a partisan basis. Ron Paul was not in a position to carry the day. For now–we need ideas on reversing this legislation.”

In answer to his question, I replied that it is hardly risky to bet that politicians and bankers are lying when their solution to the world-wide financial collapse of which they are warning is to give those very same bankers billions of dollars. In like manner, you can’t expect the same Republican party that laid the foundation for this national debacle to be capable of fixing it.