A Western way of war?

In a recent review of the otherwise excellent collection of essays called Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives, I spent some time criticizing the use of the phrase “Western way of war” to refer to the mode of fighting employed by European cultures and their derivatives, chief among them the ancient Greeks. I find the phrase and the associated concepts repugnant and useless. Encouraged by comments from readers of that review, I wish to set out in more detailed terms my problems with this idea of a “Western” way of war.

First, some history. The phrase was popularized by Victor Davis Hanson with the publication of his The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (1989). Hanson – who has since also made a name as a political columnist – was heavily influenced by John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976), and wished to present a more close-up view of what the experience of battle was like for ancient Greek warriors. Fair enough. However, the Greek hoplite and his mode of fighting are entirely couched in ideological terms: the hoplite was a simple farmer, fighting alongside his brothers to defend his home and farmstead.

There are many problems with this. First of all, the “average” hoplite belonged to a fairly wealthy elite, who could afford the expensive equipment needed to fight. They were therefore not simple smallholders, but usually possessed considerable wealth, owning considerable numbers of agricultural plots and spending most of their time in luxury and comfort in their townhouses. This same class, along with the even richer men who served as cavalry, produced most of the thinkers and writers of ancient Greece, and their accounts are therefore also not wholly objective: in the battle accounts of Thucydides, the light-armed men appear to be wholly useless and only skirmish among themselves a little before the actual fighting begins between heavily-armed ranks of wealthy hoplite.

Hanson is himself the descendant of a line of farmers and owns and works a farm of his own. The re-release of his older doctoral dissertation, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1998), features a picture of Hanson on the back cover in which he is dressed casually in T-shirt and jeans, with one hand in his pocket and a view on part of his farm behind him. The cover blurb even states that he “is a fifth-generation farmer and a professor at California State University in Fresno.” Clearly, Hanson is a farmer first, then a scholar. He actively compares and contrasts Greek hoplite-farmers with pioneers of the American West, as if these are even remotely comparable as far as motives, social backgrounds and historical contexts are concerned. We are dealing with ideology here, not historical interpretation based on empirical evidence.

The “Western” way of war

So, the “Western” way of war, then. The idea is not entirely new and can be seen as a more specific implementation of the age-old fallacy that everything “Western” has descended in a straight line from ancient Greece and Rome. The Athenian democracy of the Classical period, for example, is usually – and quite falsely – regarded as the ancestor to modern democracy. Hanson provides an even more gratuitous example in his The Western Way of War. Early on, Hanson contrasts the supposedly honest and open style of fighting used by Western armies with the tactics employed by their (our?) enemies (p. 13 in the revised edition):

We have put ourselves out of business, so to speak; for any potential adversary has now discovered the futility of an open, deliberate struggle on a Western-style battlefield against the firepower and discipline of Western infantry. Yet, ominously, the legacy of the Greeks’ battle style lingers on, a narcotic that we cannot put away. […] There is in all of us a repugnance, is there not, for hit-and-run tactics, for skirmishing and ambush?

Hanson’s ancient Greeks dislike hit-and-run tactics because, clearly, all us “Westerners” find such matters repugnant. This is easily falsifiable. For the ancient world, there are many examples where ancient Greeks used ambushes, surprise attacks and all sorts of other “sneaky” ways to defeat the enemy. You only have to read, for example, the overview provided by Peter Krentz in his paper “Deception in Archaic and Classical Greek warfare” in Hans van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000), pp. 167–200. Anyone who believes that the tactics used by Western armies since the Second World War are in any way comparable to those employed by the Athenians at Marathon needs to read more about modern warfare, where small-unit tactics have become the norm. As regards the supposed “Western” distaste for skirmishing and ambush and other “dishonourable” ways of fighting, I suggest you look up, for example, the American policy on using drones for carrying out assassination missions.

Furthermore, there is nothing decidedly “Western” about the way that, for example, the ancient Greeks fought. Fighting pitched battles, often in formation, is the way that most relatively large entities solved their military differences when they sought each other out in open terrain. Do we consider the Battle of Kadesh, for example, in which the Egyptians and Hittites fought each other with large armies deployed in formations, as an example of a “Western” war? What of the pitched battles that the ancient Chinese engaged in? Or the large-scale encounters between Mesoamerican rivals? Are all of those examples of the “Western” way of war?

Fighting in formation is not distinctly Greek. Even Herodotus considers the separation of troops into distinct units not a Greek invention, but attributes this to the Median king Cyaxaras, who ruled ca. 625–585 BC (Hdt. 1.103). The phalanx is usually regarded as a typically Greek construct, but this is incorrect in the light of clear artistic evidence from the Near East and Egypt, among many other places. One scene on the Sumerian “Stela of the Vultures”, which predates the famous Chigi olpe by nearly two thousand years, depicts warriors with spears and axes in a tight formation; another scene depicts multiple ranks of warriors with spears and shields forming what can only be described as a phalanx. A well-known wooden model from an 11th-dynasty tomb in Egypt (ca. 2000 BC) depicts spearmen with shields marching in a rectangular formation, four men wide and ten men deep.

A useless phrase

In other words, the phrase “Western way of war” is useless and should be avoided by anyone who is a serious student of the past. The dichotomy between “East” and “West” only serves to drive people apart and to obfuscate matters. Certainly, anyone studying ancient Greece – of all cultures! – should be keenly aware just how difficult it is to separate East from West. One can even make the case, as I did in my doctoral thesis, that it is virtually impossible to separate “typically Greek” elements from “typically Anatolian” elements in the Aegean, where the Greeks, Lydians and other Anatolian peoples formed a kind of cultural matrix. The Greeks borrowed the symposium from the East and together they probably came up with the equipment so typical of Archaic heavily-armed spearmen: Greeks and Carians, for example, were notorious in the Eastern Mediterranean as raiders. But perhaps this kind of cultural understanding comes easier to an archaeologist – who is generally better trained in this regard and has more empirical evidence on hand – than a historian like Hanson.

But why does the idea continue to persist? One reason is because the notion flatters Western audiences and commentators alike. There is a strong ideological agenda at work here. Think about something like the Battle of Marathon, which supposedly prevented the “East” from taking hold of the “West”. For example, change the terms “East” and “West” to make them racial determinants: does that sound like good scholarship, or does it look like something that is dangerously overgeneralized? (By the way, in no way do I wish to imply that people who think in East-West dichotomies are racists: I merely wish to point out the dangers inherent in using sweeping generalizations.) The reality of the matter is simply far more complex than what is presented by Hanson and his followers. If we really want to gain valuable insights into how the past worked, we have to let go of our preconceived notions and our biases, or at the very least make these clear at the very outset. Of course, it is possible that one is not aware of any bias, at which point it becomes the duty of other readers to point these out (that’s one of the things that peer-review should be for).

Another reason is that those who would contest Hanson’s skewed interpretation of the past have so far not managed to explain themselves well enough, or have not done so in a form that makes their ideas more appealing than the existing and seemingly dominant notion. This blog post is an attempt to redress the balance, but much more work needs to be done here. That also demands a more active role on the part of readers, who need to be more critical. And for that, better dissemination of existing knowledge and viewpoints is the only panacea.

Edit: The second paragraph in this last section has been edited slightly to hopefully make the comparison (my “thought experiment” referred to in the comments below) a little less acidic to some readers.

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