I just finished reading Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. The point of the book is that the West—Greece, Rome, and the societies founded on the ruins of the Roman Empire—has always been superior militarily because of a Western way of war that emphasizes decisive shock battle by citizen soldiers, and a Western mode of civic life that emphasizes individual rights, consent, free speech and rationalism. It’s a useful book for understanding the strength of some of the trends that have favored liberalism, and the reasons many have had for making a firm distinction between pre-welfare state liberalism and its degenerate successor.
The civic life characteristic of the West has been admirable. It has also involved a difficult balance between individual freedom and judgment on the one hand, and common principles of moral and spiritual order on the other. Freedom and openness can’t be absolute because they depend on an order they can’t of themselves generate. In classical antiquity not all were citizens, and prosecutions for impiety were common. Since then, and until very recently, religious establishments and narrow national and class boundaries have been usual in the West. The creation of civic order on a very large scale—the rise of large nation states—in Northern and Western Europe was accompanied by the creation of national churches, religious persecutions, and expulsions of Jews. In America, where the land is vast, there’s been no formal religious establishment since the 1840s, and the force of tradition has been comparatively weak, we’ve gotten by with conformism and (until recently) racism and an informal establishment of moralistic nondenominational Protestantism.
Now, of course, all bigotries are to be done away with. Freedom and openness are to become not attributes but the very substance of social order. It’s altogether unlikely such a goal can be achieved, and VFR has chronicled the contradictions of attempts to do so. An issue Hanson’s book raises is the ultimate effect of such developments on military power. The attempt to make freedom, equality and rationalism absolute destroys those things in the form in which they can actually exist, and in which (Hanson tells us) they have been essential to Western military success. Will the Army go the way of NASA? TV images, and Norman Mailer’s contention that the purpose of the Iraq war was to display the continuing competence of white males, suggest it has not yet done so. Something of the spirit of the Republic survived in the Roman army long after it had died elsewhere. Do we have something similar to look forward to? The best solution to the problem of freedom and order would be sort of quasi-medieval combination of federalism and localism with Catholicism as the established religion. We’re unlikely to get that, though, and may have to settle for a combination of militarized chaos and PC ideology.