Ripples Of Battle: How Wars Of The Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, by Victor Davis Hanson
This book has a deeply poignant feel to it that makes it a very worthwhile book and also one that helps us to understand the complications of battle. In this roughly 250 page book, moderately overrated military historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson examines some battles that he thinks of as obscure–most of them are not–and then looks thoughtfully at some of the ripples of those battles that decided aspects of great importance. As might be expected, the author mixes elements that match his own classical background, popular history, contemporary geopolitics, and a deeply poignant personal story. If you are familiar with Hanson’s approach , none of this ought to be a surprise, but even if this book is not groundbreaking in its approach, it is at least deeply interesting and worthwhile and poignant, all things that make for a worthwhile read. And if you know what you are getting into with the author’s tendency to overgeneralize at times, this is certainly one of the better books in his body of work to see his approach to military history.
This book consists of three chapters, each of them focusing on a battle whose ripples the author wishes to explore in some depth. After a list of maps and a poignant introduction about the death of the author’s uncle in World War II and his own efforts to research his namesake, the author appropriately begins the book by talking about the Battle of Okinawa (1). He examines the planning and execution of the battle, the suicide plans of the Japanese and the way those plans were foiled by the lack of restraint of the United States that led ultimately to the dropping of the atomic bomb and to a lesson that other foes should have heeded that the general restraint of the United States in terms of its military is removed when one attempts terrorism. After that the author examines some of the ghosts of Shiloh, looking at the way the battle affected the reputations of notable leaders like Sherman, led to a myth of the lost opportunity with the death of Gen. Albert Sydney Johnson, ruined the reputation and inspired the thirst for justice and revenge of Lew Wallace, and encouraged Gen. Forrest to fight bravely but as an outsider to the Confederate establishment, even into Reconstruction. The third chapter looks at the culture that resulted from Delium, including a topical play by Euripides, the tragedy of Thespae’s destruction, the faces of Delium, the counterfactual importance of Socrates’ survival and bravery, Thebes’ use of plunder for artistic purposes, and the tactical development of Thebe’s military that would have deep repercussions for Hellenistic warfare. The book ends with a look at September 11 and its likely ripples that will continue for some time.
One of the aspects of this book that makes it so worthwhile is the fact that the author focuses on aspects of life and death, and shows a real interest in the ordinary people whose lives were affected by war. He comments on the reason why it remains important for war to be studied–and at times practiced–by societies that would rather dwell at peace with others. The author demonstrates that the seeming chance effects of warfare can have dramatic effects, cutting off people from having children and passing on a family line, destroying civilizations by crippling their population base, showing the way that tactics and technologies can be used to kill and destroy, and demonstrating the way that the horrors of war can lead to dramatic changes in the lives of those who survive, killing some, shrouding others in immortal glory, and ruining the reputations of others, even in ways that are somewhat unjust. Sometimes battles are deeply unfortunate in their outcomes, even when the outcomes are kind for some of the people involved specifically.
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