THE WESTERN WAY OF WAR: Infantry Battle in Classic by Victor Davis Hanson
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THE WESTERN WAY OF WAR: Infantry Battle in Classic

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A thoroughgoing appreciation of the warfare waged by Greek city-states that is at once erudite, original, and immensely readable. Hanson (Classics/California State Univ., Fresno) draws upon a wealth of sources that range from contemporary drama, poetry, and vase paintings through the military histories left by Herodotus, Thucydides, Zenophon, et al., to reach some decided provocative conclusions. To illustrate, he contends that fellow scholars vastly overestimate the cultural achievements of Hellenic civilization. Indeed, the author asserts, the citizens of Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and their counterparts were mainly down-to-earth agrarians or artisans whose pragmatic concerns were manifest in the way they settled differences among themselves. In chilling, often gruesome detail, Hanson reconstructs the ritualized, albeit deadly, clashes that the ancient Greeks staged by mutual consent on level fields at Delion, Koroneia, Marathon, and other venues. Phalanxes of citizen-soldier hoplites (so called for the heavy wooden shields they bore) whaled away at one another with edged weapons. These pitched battles produced decisive outcomes in a matter of hours; freed of any need to campaign further, surviving losers and winners returned to their farms or shops. The author covers these brief, brutal engagements from every conceivable angle, including the participatory role of commanders, the democratic aspects of universal service, and communal responsibilities. The Greeks' unsentimental approach to mortal combat, Hanson argues, has left the West with a burdensome heritage, i.e., the presumption that set-piece onslaughts are somehow preferable to hit-and-run tactics or guerrilla actions. He attributes this bias in large measure to a misreading of Hellenic realities. Classic Greeks viewed infantry encounters "as economical and practical," the author maintains; despite their conviction that "War's image must never be anything other than that of falling bodies and gaping wounds," later generations have romanticized these belligerencies. Hansen's against-the-grain insights afford a convincing account of what really happened on the killing grounds of ancient Greece, plus a compelling assessment of the implications. In brief, then, a modern classic.

Pub Date: April 19th, 1989
ISBN: 394-57188-6
Publisher: Knopf
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