Book Review: The Western Way Of War

The Western Way Of War:  Infantry Battle In Classical Greece, by Victor Davis Hanson

Overall, this is a fine scholarly monograph on military history that demonstrates Hanson’s skill in writing about the hoplite experience and how it was viewed in ancient and classical Greece.  As someone with some interest in the subject [1], I was pleased to see that however poor the author may be at extrapolating his insights into Greek military history into the larger historical panorama, he at least has a sound understanding of the subject matter of this book.  All that makes this short book of just over 200 pages a deeply interesting one to read.  This is not a book that seeks to appeal to everyone, and there are likely many people who would not enjoy it, but if you are interested in how the Greeks fought and why that could matter for those of us who come from Western cultures with a similar interest in decisive battle, as hard as it is to find, this book is definitely worth a read.  The author, at least, puts no unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of someone understanding and appreciating this work.

Despite its short length, this book manages to have nineteen chapters in five parts.  Before the book begins, there is an introduction by John Keegan that praises the book and helps it gain some credibility with the general reader of military history.  There are then prefaces for both the first and second edition of the work and a chronological table to set Greek warfare in its proper context.  The first part of the book then looks at the relationship between the Greeks and modern warfare (I) with chapters on the ordinary nature of Greek hoplite warriors (1), discussion about the author’s thoughts on a distinctive Western way of war (2), his desire to avoid talking about strategic and tactical matters (3), the context of hoplite warfare in an agricultural society (4), and the sources of inquiry he will use in the book (5).  After that the author discusses the ordeal of the hoplite (II), looking at the burden of arms and armor (6), the old men who participated in warfare (7), and the dread of massed attack and the fear it produced in others (8).  After that the author looks at the issue of the will (III), including the ways that generals fought in the front to lead by example (9), the origins of the regimental system in preserving unit morale (10), and the importance of drinking to overcoming nerves and fear (11).  Then there are a few chapters on battle (IV) that look at the charge (12), collision of men (13), gaps in the line (14), the push and collapse (15), and the problem of confusion, misdirection, and mob violence (16).  Finally, the author closes with a look at the aftermath of battle (V), with chapters on the killing field (17), wounded (18), and an epilogue (19) after which the author includes various supplemental material.

What makes this book particularly worthwhile is that it manages to give the reader a sense of what the Greeks said and how they experienced their heavy infantry tradition.  Warfare does not exist in a vacuum, and the author’s practical experience with farming (quite rare among those who write about history of any kind) gives him insight as to how little damage was being done to the fields and how decisive combat would appeal to armies based on part-time citizen soldiers.  Those of us who are part of nations whose military traditions praise that type of warrior–as does the United States–would do well to understand the military of the Greeks.  Despite the differences in technology, the importance of leaders leading by example rather than by fiat, the concern for the use of self-medicate to deal with the horrors and trauma of war, and the strong preference for decisive warfare and contempt for those who cannot fight honorably are certainly part of the American military experience.  The author does good work here in demonstrating that to understand our own military history and traditions it is worthwhile to understand the Greeks and how and why they developed the hoplite warfare that was so distinctive to them–even if other cultures and civilizations, like that of China, had strong infantry traditions that were similarly fond of decisive infantry battle as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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