Hanson's strengths - and shorcomings

Victor Davis Hanson (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Victor Davis Hanson
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
OF MAKING books about World War II there is no end, but reading them is never a weariness even when they fall flat, as this one sadly does.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classical historian who found a new, popular and lucrative career for himself as a patriotic cheerleader for the US War on Terror after the catastrophe of 9/11. His book, “The Soul of Battle” is a sheer joy, but “Carnage and Culture,” while beautifully written and a gripping read, is fundamentally utterly misleading.
In it, Hanson focuses on a handful of epic moments when Western democracy, classical and Christian values and free market individualism won decisive battles. But he ignores the many long millennia in between when they simply did not.
Hanson’s reputation took an embarrassing battering in 2014 when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria swept all before it to casually demolish the security structure that US General David Petraeus erected in Iraq during and after the famous “Surge” of 2006-7.
General Petraeus, to his credit, never claimed otherwise than that he had only temporarily stabilized Iraq and that future US administrations would have to come up with a more permanent political and strategic solution. But Hanson, in “The Savior Generals,” haplessly distorted Petraeus’s genuine limited achievement into some allegedly historic turnaround for the ages. He was left with egg on his face.
This large, though for its vast subject not overlong book should therefore be seen as an attempt to establish – or regain – Hanson’s disputed reputation as top-level historian and pundit. His usual neoconservative fans have predictably and dutifully delivered their hosannas, but the end result falls far short of its vaunted ambition.
The past 20 years have seen a plethora of outstanding general histories and popular studies about the war by such masters as Gerhard Weinberg, Andrew Morton, Richard Overy, Nigel Hamilton, Paul Kennedy and Sir Max Hastings. Hanson simply fails to reach those heights. His assessments are generally though not invariably sound, always well-meaning and decent, but he is astonishingly superficial about who won all the crucial battles – and how – on the Eastern Front, which was the decisive theater of the war, and he mindlessly and superficially worships Winston Churchill while being blind to his many – and often terrifying – mistakes and limitations. Most of all, he shamefully underestimates the dominant strategic genius of the war – US president Franklin Roosevelt.
Hanson wrote a full book called “The Savior Generals” about commanders who throughout history pulled off the most miraculous and successful transformations of previously losing armies into crucially conquering ones. So it is astonishing that he is blind to the greatest examples of this in World War II and throughout history – Montgomery at Alam Halfa and Alamein and Chuikov at Stalingrad.
Hanson falls into the common US ludicrous prejudice of belittling Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as a slow-moving plodder. He has no conception of the plan – clearly documented months in advance – with which Montgomery and US General Omar Bradley (whom Hanson also shamefully undervalues) fought and won the greatest and decisive battle in the West, the Battle of Normandy.
Hanson also does not appear to realize that Montgomery’s rate of advance against the German Afrika Korps and Italian Army from Alamein to Tunisia was eight times faster than Eisenhower’s plodding and bumbling advance from the west after Operation Torch. He does not even mention Alam Halfa, the real military tipping point of the Desert War where Montgomery threw out the appalling “cavalry” tank tactics that had nearly lost the Middle East for the British and stopped Rommel and the Axis forces dead in their tracks.
Hanson also falls into the common American – and especially neoconservative – false assumption that the French army was defeated in 1940 because of low morale, lack of martial spirit and a general unwillingness to fight. This simply is not true.
Hundreds of thousands of French combat soldiers fought bravely and inflicted at least 156,000 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) on the Wehrmacht. German dead may have been as numerous as 45,000.
France suffered 85,310 military personnel killed, 12,000 missing and 120,000 wounded – more than 217,000 casualties in all: Those figures were far higher than the United States or Britain suffered in any campaign of the war.
Hanson also shows no sign of knowing about the work of late US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, one of the greatest US tacticians and military strategists of the past century and his OODA (Observation-Orientation- Decision-Action) model of decision- making in military conflicts. But it is central to understanding the fatally, abysmally slow French reaction times in communications and decision-making under the sleepwalking General Maurice Gamelin. Worst of all, Hanson has no conception of the pivotal role Red Army General Vasili Chuikov, commander of the Soviet 62nd Army at Stalingrad, played in winning the entire war.
Chuikov has a strong claim – along with Roman general Caius Marius – who also killed hundreds of thousands of Germans – as the greatest infantry commander of all time.
With a regularly replenished but tiny combat force of never more than 20,000 men, Chuikov engaged the 300,000-man German Sixth Army – the spearhead infantry elite of all the greatest Blitzkrieg victories over the previous three years – at odds of 15-1, inflicted 100,000 casualties on it, exhausted it and set it up for the annihilating encirclement that followed.
Chuikov’s inspiring leadership as well as his intellectual and tactical achievements in outthinking the elite German forces at Stalingrad rank among the greatest in the history of warfare. They have been exhaustively documented in English by many fine historians starting with Alexander Werth in “Russia at War” in 1964 and most notably David Glantz in his gigantic Stalingrad trilogy and by Michael Jones in his 2007 “Stalingrad: How the Red Army Survived the Nazi Onslaught.”
Yet there is not a hint of any of these works in the book.
I found two superficial slighting references to Chuikov in the text and he does not even make the index. He went on to command the conquest of Berlin that ended the war and drove Hitler to suicide.
Hanson is highly critical of FDR for his failure to take any action to try and rescue the victims of the Holocaust. Yet of all the Allied leaders, Roosevelt was the only one who tried to do anything at all.
The War Refugees Board, set up in 1944, led by John Pehle and funded generously by the US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr has been scandalously ignored and underestimated since the war ended. But it worked with, and lavishly funded and otherwise supported a host of better-known rescue efforts, especially in the Balkans and including Raoul Wallenberg’s famous mission in Hungary. Hanson seems to know nothing of this.
In striking contrast to FDR, Churchill did nothing and did not raise a finger to end the reprehensible policy of having the Royal Navy turn back thousands of fleeing Jewish refugees from the Balkans to certain death but Hanson never criticizes his hero.
It is also difficult to understand why Hanson is so worshipful of the British Army’s weak performance until the final year of the war. Until Montgomery took over the largely Commonwealth forces in North Africa and until the US came in on Britain’s side, the British woefully lost every confrontation on their own against both the Germans and the Japanese.
British military historians, unlike Hanson, courageously and honestly recognize this truth. The great “mystery” of the war in the West was not that the British war effort was so small: It was indeed massive in terms of numbers of troops and other resources as Hanson relates. The real question remains why it was nevertheless so ineffectual on its own.
Nigel Hamilton, in his masterful study work on FDR as Allied master strategist in 1942, “The Mantle of Command,” notes that 40,000 of the 45,000 Indian Army force in Singapore not only surrendered to Japan without fighting in 1942 but immediately joined the Japanese in seeking to evict the British from India. Hanson does not appear to even realize that this crucial event displaying to all the terminal collapse of British global power ever happened.
Hanson is similarly uncritical of Bomber Command, which failed to achieve any strategic victory or to adapt successfully to ever- improving German air defenses by night, in contrast to the US 8th Army Air Force, which under the command of General Jimmy Doolittle decisively broke Nazi air power in the opening months of 1944.
Finally Israeli readers should note that Hanson also does not grasp the crucial role Palestine played as a loyal and stable, military, industrial and strategic base. Had Jewish Palestine, the Yishuv, not been so unwaveringly rock solid loyal, the British could not have used it – along with dedicated young Yishuv soldiers like Moshe Dayan and David Raziel – to prevent the Nazis taking full control of Syria and Iraq in May 1941 and later using them as bases to strike into the Caucuses and Russia’s Volga region from the rear.
Hanson here, as in his previous books, comes across as a personally admirable, nice and thoroughly well-meaning man. He worked hard and did his due diligence in trying to produce a magisterial overview of the Second World War(s). Alas, he failed. 
Martin Sieff is the former Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Washington Times and has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. He is the author, among other works of ‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East’ and ‘Cycles of Change: The Patterns of US Politics from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama.’