Victor Davis Hanson,
Ripples of Battle
(Doubleday, 2003)

When we think of battle, we usually think of the effect that the engagement has in the outcome of the war, or perhaps how a specific general excels or disgraces himself on the field. Seldom do we think what effect a battle may have on the outside world. Sometimes, the only effect is on the relatives of those fallen in battle. Other times, there are wider repercussions.

Ripples of Battle, by Victor Davis Hanson, doesn't quite live up to what the cover promises, which is a shame. Its subtitle is "How wars of the past still determine how we fight, how we live, and how we think." Unfortunately, the book isn't quite as far-ranging as this sounds. It covers three battles: the American invasion of Okinawa in World War II, the battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War and the battle of Delium in 422 BC. In looking at these battles, Hanson discusses some of the after-effects they had on Western society. This is fine, and actually quite interesting, but the title makes the book sound like a broad sociological text and the innards don't quite deliver this.

But, once I got past these preconceived notions, I actually found the book quite fascinating. Hanson begins by discussing the bloodbath that was the battle of Okinawa. The Japanese garrison had no illusions that they could defeat the Americans at this point in the war, but that didn't matter. Instead, they meant to take as many Americans with them as they could. While suicidal banzai charges and kamikaze aircraft attacks were periodic occurrences before, Okinawa saw the first instances of organized suicide attacks. This is obviously a ripple that has affected the waters of the modern day, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up for a cause. What the modern day bombers seem to have missed from this history lesson, however, is the fact that it did not work. The Americans did not sue for peace, horrified at the losses they took. Instead, their determination was strengthened and they forged ahead. This is one of the major facets of the Okinawa campaign, though Hanson does discuss others.

As interesting as these stories were, I found the Shiloh history to be even more fascinating. Shiloh was, up to that point, the bloodiest day in the Civil War. It also resulted in the rise in stature of General Sherman, who eventually began the strategy of economic warfare, burning his way through the Confederate economy while killing relatively few people. General Lew Wallace was disgraced at Shiloh, and he spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. One way he did this was by writing the novel Ben-Hur. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Southern cavalry officer, also rose to prominence on that fateful day, and he became one of the driving forces behind the Ku Klux Klan. There were also others. This entire chapter is just one fascinating insight after another, and Hanson does an admirable job of presenting everything in a clear, concise manner.

There is one problem with Ripples of Battle, however, and that is the final chapter. The battle between the Athenians and the Boeotians of Thebes does not follow the theme of the book as closely, and it isn't as interesting, either. The main problem is the discussion of Socrates, who was one of the few Athenian survivors of the battle. Hanson spends an entire section of the final chapter discussing what would have happened to Western philosophy, from Socrates himself to Plato and elsewhere, if he had died. This falls into the realm of "what-if" though, and doesn't fit. The book deals with real and unforeseen consequences to the battles in question. Since Socrates didn't die, it has no place here. The rest of the chapter does fit, however, with the first instance of real infantry tactics and the future effects on Athens from various survivors of the battle. Hanson fails to make it interesting, though, constantly repeating himself (especially in the Socrates section) and generally making it a chore to read.

Hanson redeems himself with an interesting epilogue that ties the whole book together, though he does suffer from repetition yet again. He discusses the various impacts battles can have on us as a society, and how there are so many different reasons that a given battle can affect us. Sometimes it's the accessibility of the history, sometimes it's who's involved (if Socrates had not been involved in the battle of Delium, much of it, if any, would not have been recorded). Hanson relates a lot of what he's discussed to the World Trade Center attacks and the current war on terrorism. We do not know how current violence, like the genocide in Rwanda, will affect us as time goes on, but we can make a supposition based on how it's happened in the past.

Battles will continue to be an important part of history, and Hanson is trying to show the importance of studying them. History has changed to a study of cultural trends, which Hanson believes is incomplete. The point of this book is to show how examining great men (and women) and how they fight each other can still be an important aspect of history. In The Ripples of Battle, he does an effective job, creating a fascinating read as well.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 17 April 2004

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