Wasps only, please

Why the West has Won

Victor Davis Hanson <em>Faber and Faber, 492pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0571204171

This strident, sloppy, often preposterous book has been very fortunate in its timing. Published in the lull between the attack on America and the bombing of Afghanistan, its theme of a millennia-long east-west military conflict and the west's supposedly ubiquitous triumph has achieved an urgent, accidental currency. It also feeds prejudices that needed nourishment after the events of 11 September. At another time, it might well have slipped out unnoticed and unreviewed.

Hanson discusses nine decisive east-west military encounters. These are an oddly assorted bunch, chosen, it seems, not because of their special world-historical importance, nor because they were characteristic of anything much, but to illustrate Hanson's own grand but shaky theory of history. They are not well selected, even for that dubious task.

The grand theory is that the west has triumphed on the battlefield for 2,500 years because of capitalism and all the qualities it supposedly brought in its train, such as superior technology, individualism, civic pride, rational leadership and decisiveness in action. Hanson repeats the argument, in very similar words, many times: at great length in his first and last chapters, and more briefly at the beginning and end of almost all the intervening ones.

Yet it is absurd to suggest that ancient Athens and Rome were capitalist, or that 16th-century Spaniards fighting the Aztecs represented the west against the east. Even Hanson occasionally seems to realise this, so he makes numerous ad hoc adjustments to his theory as he goes along.

More drastic adjustments are required to deal with all the battles the west did not win. Hanson copes with these by ignoring most of them, and by saying of the others that temporary western setbacks occurred only when "we" were outnumbered and badly led. Repeatedly and ridiculously, he does think of ancient Greeks, medieval Franks and Hernan Cortes's murderous conquistadors as "we". By contrast, the Persians or Carthaginians are emphatically "them". Perhaps the book should have a warning label on the cover: "No Entry for non-Wasp Readers". Hanson's claims about relative numbers are often untrue and he has a puzzlingly uncritical attitude to his sources on such issues. If an ancient Greek writer says his people defeated enemies numbering 250,000 men, Hanson takes this at face value even if no other modern historian would do so. In any case, he adds, when the oriental hordes have managed to beat "us", they have done so only through adopting western technology and tactics.

Repeating himself so often has not saved the author from self- contradiction. He seems particularly confused about the Zulus. At one point, their attack on Rorke's Drift was planned; a few pages later, it was spontaneous. Several times, Zulu soldiers are depicted as undisciplined; elsewhere (more accurately) as quite the opposite. More fundamentally, he swings between attributing particular victories to technology and awarding the prize to soldierly civic virtue. A special role across history is granted to a body of citizen-soldiers, preferably drawn from the ranks of a small-farming population, fighting on foot as infantry. They are supposedly - in one of Hanson's inconsistent arguments - the key to all the west's military successes. He thus links prowess in war with private property ownership, agrarianism and an idiosyncratic, restricted conception of democracy, which owes something to classical republican thought, but little to real history.

The nature and intensity of Hanson's prejudices are most evident as he approaches the present. Americans in Vietnam, he says, were fighting a just war with great skill and restraint, but were undermined by radicals at home. They won every battle, and lost the war only because of their own excessive squeamishness and that of the peace campaigners and crypto-communists. It becomes evident that it is not even a generic western chauvinism that animates the book, but an American one; Hanson believes that Europe is united by "collective antagonism toward and envy of" the US.

When, at the end, he repeatedly refers to the "age of decadence" in which we supposedly now live, but rejoices that despite this "we" still have soldiers "who shall kill like none other on the planet", the style becomes positively fascist.

Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair