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Does military history hold the key to Western ascendency?

By Stephen Barton - posted Thursday, 12 December 2002

In a recent article in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote that NATO is essentially irrelevant. It had been replaced by what he tongue-in-cheek calls NASTY: Nations Allied to Stop TYrants. NASTY is made up of what he calls three "like-minded English-speaking allies", America, Australia and Britain, with occasional French involvement. He claims "what these four countries have in common is that they are sea powers, with a tradition of fighting abroad, with ability to transport troops around the world and with mobile special forces that have an 'attitude'." All four nations, he notes enjoy playing either rugby or American-style football: "violent games where success depends on hurting the other team."

If we exclude the French, it is not a particularly original argument. Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples advances the thesis that there is something unique and special about the English-speaking peoples. He was by no means the first and Baroness Thatcher's Anglo-centric complaint that in her lifetime all the problems have come from Continental Europe and the solutions from the English-speaking peoples, demonstrates that he will not be the last.

Since the end of the Cold War there has been an increase in publications, notably from North America, dealing with what makes not just English-speaking countries, but the West, so unique. The attempts to deal with this question have been varied. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel argued that Western cultural and economic dominance was largely the result of luck. On another level some authors have either explicitly or implicitly reinforced perceptions not so much of Western superiority, but dominance. Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and, to a lesser extent with caveats, Trust broadly fit this category. Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations, in predicting the collision of different cultures, also conforms to this mould. This is by no means an exhaustive list. A recent addition has been Why the West has Won by Victor Davis Hanson.


Works in this area run the danger of either being Euro-centric or sounding Euro-centric; describing a triumphant procession of 'Western' achievements. Despite Hanson's cheeky title, his introduction takes pains to avoid the charge of being Euro-centric or a Western supremacist. Unlike other works on Western civilisation, Hanson does not focus on literature, cultural achievements or evolution of governments, he examines the darker side. His book is an attempt to explain why Western civilisations are so proficient in killing and winning in war. To this end he examines several 'key' battles including Salamis in Ancient Greece, Poitiers in 732, Rorkes Drift and interestingly enough, the Tet Offensive in 1968. He is not interested in whether European military culture is morally superior or inferior to the Non-West, but rather how the West's fighting ability "reflects larger social, economic, political, and cultural practices that themselves [have] seemingly little to do with war".

Broadly simplified, Hanson argues that Western armies have fought with and for some form of legal freedom. Greek infantryman, Spanish Conquistadors, British riflemen and American GIs have all had some sense of rights and responsibilities, and a concept of citizenship. Furthermore, in general their campaigns have been overseen by powers outside the military and religious hierarchy. In varying degrees, free inquiry and rationalism have characterised the Western societies, thus European armies have frequently had a technological advantage, supplied by "a marriage by capitalism, finance and sophisticated logistics". These factors combined to make the West militarily dominant. Just as the standard business attire the world over, the humble suit, comes from London, the most basic weapon of war, the rifle, is Western in origin.

Examining events over a period of 3000 years, and attempting to identify similarities, is a difficult task and leaves the author open to justified criticism. Not surprisingly, Hanson has chosen his ground and his battles carefully. Each battle revolves around a theme: Salamis around concepts of freedom; Gaugamela around the notion of a decisive battle; the Conquistadors around technology; Lepanto around capitalism; and Midway around individualism. Naturally, Hanson is persuasive and secure in the ground of his choosing.

His explanation of why the Greeks repelled the Persians at Salamis and why freemen from Europe defeated Ottoman slaves at Lepanto are convincing. A sense of civic-militarism and, later, a market economy ensured that the Western sailors in both wars had both the spirit and material to defeat, and annihilate, their opponents.

He provides more than adequate explanations for why British riflemen, faced with overwhelming odds at Rorkes Drift did not run, and why their opponents, when the battle was lost, did. It also explains why the British soldiers did not run a day earlier at Isandlwana. Surrounded, running critically low on ammunition they stood in isolated squares around their wounded, their officers with them, using rifles, bayonets and finally fists to fight off the Zulus, before they were killed and disembowelled. Facing defeat, subjects of an absolute king ran, while their opponents, subjects of a constitutional monarch and victims of tactical stupidity, stood their ground.

For Hanson, the Zulus were attacked by a nation whose values had produced the Industrial Revolution, parliamentary democracy and the most sophisticated economy in the world at that time. Its soldiers, whom Wellington had called affectionately two generations earlier "the scum of the earth", though subject to fierce discipline had rights never dreamed of by their Zulu opponents. British commanders were held accountable for their actions, Cetewayo was not. One society had the technology and the discipline, the other just men and bravery.


Hanson observed that when Western nations fight the intent is to annihilate an opponent's force. Unlike other cultures, Western war has no ceremonial role. The idea of closing with the enemy to kill or capture is particularly prevalent in the English-speaking militaries noted by Friedman. Put crudely, war is an extension of those "violent games" like rugby.

Closing with the enemy to annihilate the opponent's military force has been a feature of Western conflict, more so this century. This part of Hanson's thesis, current elaborate rules of engagement notwithstanding, rings true. Even for such sophisticated militaries as the British and Australian armies this determination to close with the enemy is demonstrated by continued use and training with the bayonet. In 1982, faced with determined opposition on Mount Tumbledown, the Scots Guards pressed home their assault with bayonets. Some of Argentina's better soldiers were unable to resist the guardsmen, relatively soft from recent ceremonial duties, who coordinated offensive support assets, rifles and most intimate of all, bayonets.

Imagine the psychological shock of facing soldiers intent on killing and maiming, not only with artillery, mortars, machine guns and rifles, but with a knife on the end of rifle, slashing or stabbing at the throat, face and stomach. Soldiers from an autocratic right-wing junta were unable to match the combined ferocity of citizens from a liberal democracy; as at Rorkes Drift, the British may not have been any braver, but concerted discipline and teamwork proved unbeatable.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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