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Classical Wisdom
Matthew Craig • An interview with Victor Davis Hanson
April 2003

Victor Davis Hanson is a professor of Classics at California State University - Fresno and is currently a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy. A world-renowned scholar of classics and ancient warfare, Professor Hanson is the author of Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, among many others. He is also a contributor to National Review. The YFP spoke with Professor Hanson about the current conflict in Iraq, our military power in historical context, and the role of international coalitions.

Professor Hanson, What do you believe is the basis of a just war and to what extent does the current war in Iraq fulfill this definition?

Well it’s an old concept that’s a combination of classical Greek ideas of law coupled with Christian notions of compassion and humanity. It’s usually defined as the decision to take lives so that more life of the innocent will be preserved. It’s not necessarily, as critics of this war have said, decided by terms like preemption, attacking first or unilateralism. In this case taking out Saddam Hussein and guaranteeing some loss of life will ensure more preservation of life for us in our country who are the enemies of Saddam Hussein and also for his own people and by that criteria I think that it’s a just war.

Does the international community’s approval or disapproval in anyway affect this classification?

No because if you look at the people who make that decision, for example at the UN, they’re usually of two types. They’re either from governments that have no elections and expect a vote in the UN even though Syria, Cuba or China don’t allow their own people to come to a consensus or they’re people themselves who for their own perceived interests, such as China going into Tibet, or Syria going into Lebanon, France going into the Ivory Coast, Britain going into the Falklands, or Russia going into Chechnya all act unilaterally. There is no moral consistency with any of them.

Do you believe that this is inherent to certain governments or is it something we can improve?

There are two problems: one is that multi-lateral multi-national institutions are not inherently democratic. The members that make them up are not always democratic. These organizations are like a chain, they are only as good as their weakest link. You have countries like Syria, who wiped out a whole town of Hamat and killed twenty thousand people, or China, which had fifty million people killed during the twentieth century, educating what’s moral with blood on their hands. The second is that there is no mechanism to use force to back up sanctions. Whether it is Rwanda, Serbia, or Iraq the UN can pass decrees but is not willing or able to risk lives to sanction their protocol. They just won’t do it.

Do you believe that America has a responsibility to further democracy? One accusation that America has faced is that of cultural imperialism. How accurate is this claim and what ramifications does it have?

There are two problems here. One is that the United States is not consciously inviting people to immigrate to the United States. They flock to our borders from Mexico, the Middle East, and from Korea. We’re not forcing people to eat our food, watch our movies, or fly our airplanes abroad. The problem is that people are voting with their feet, their bellies, and their remote controls to accept and embrace American culture. That has a lot of diverse consequences including envy, jealousy, divided loyalties and a desire to know why they would embrace a culture that they condemn in the abstract and embrace in the concrete. Another problem is that never in civilization have we seen such an inordinate amount of military power in one nation. The United States Marine Corps is larger than any army in Europe. One U.S. battle group is larger than any navy in the world. That means that the United States can do certain things that it’s never been allowed to or wanted to do. Sometimes if we don’t do things we are said to be immoral, such as in Serbia and Rwanda. Other times we are said to be immoral for intervening in situations such as Panama. Intervention or isolation doesn’t matter. People are still going to blame the United States if they cannot control that power and it doesn’t dovetail to their own interest.

How do you think the strength of the American military corresponds to previous instances of global hegemons?

We’ve never quite had a situation like ours before. Rome had formidable enemies, such as Parthea, Germany, and the people of Southern Africa and the Euphrates. Britain always had France to worry about it, and later Germany. Later, in the Cold War, we had the Soviet Union. The problem now is that there really isn’t a potential enemy that has any of the military capability that we do. That power is so vast that we can go seven thousand miles around the world and conduct a war against the most powerful government in the Arab world, surround its capital within two weeks and suffer fewer than fifty casualties. The world is trying to see that as a defeat, which in classical military terms would be absurd, but they are so desperate to find some way of seeing weakness where there is no weakness that they have documentaries on one Apache helicopter being shot down while their country is overrun. It is really sort of Orwellian.

Do you believe there is a correlation between the strength of our military and our form of government?

I think that it gains strength from the fact that it is a democracy, has a consensual society, has civic audit of its military, and has soldiers that have certain rights and responsibilities that other conscripts don’t such as in North Korea, China and Iraq. Unlike Europe, we have a multiracial citizenry united by ideas of freedom, liberty, and individualism, and not necessarily by a common ethnic background– and a frontier history that makes us define morality as acting rather than not acting. We are in some ways a rejection of the aristocratic protocols of Europe and are even different from other Western consensual societies. This is one of the reasons we are so powerful.

What do you believe that the relationship is between the current coalition and historical ones, particularly those of sixteenth through eighteenth century Europe?

The problem is that there was a parity of military power before and you never had a situation where the entire world combined is less powerful than twentyfive percent of our aggregate military strength. There was an alliance system where France and Britain would gang up on Germany, who would enlist Austria – and then Russia would be opportunistic. What we’re seeing now is that those balances are almost impossible with the demise of the Soviet Union. Potential rivals like Germany and France seek multinational organizations like the EU, or the International Criminal Court, or the UN as mechanisms to curb American military strength. It is a new complex situation because there is the rhetoric of peace used against us when in fact the efforts of France and Germany are in many ways just nineteenth century realpolitik.

Finally, what do you believe are the possibilities of beginning a democratic tradition in the Middle East?

They are mixed. Turkey, Qatar and Kurdistan have the embryonic institutions of parliamentary government but it is going to take longer to create broad based consensual institutions like guilds, local governments, and assessment districts that are based on democratic government because there is a much stronger tribal and religious authoritarian system in place. After 9/11 we are at our last gasp of alternatives. We know that backing authoritarian regimes or abject neglect doesn’t work, so we have been dragged kicking and screaming into the Middle East and we’re going to have to see if this works. I hope it does.

Matthew Craig is a sophomore in Davenport College.


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