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Wars worth fighting

Books | Memorial Day read explores the principles and history of warfare

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

Looking for a Memorial Day present for an old soldier who may be fading but likes to read? Try Victor Davis Hanson's The Father of Us All: War and History (Bloomsbury, 2010), a compilation of 13 superbly written essays that show why Hanson, a Hoover Institution fellow, is today's most lucid writer on war and why some wars are worth fighting.

For example, in writing about the Persian invasion of ancient Greece, Hanson ridicules the tendency of many pundits today to think sociologically rather than morally about aggressors and terrorists: "Call the Greeks reductionist, but they did not believe Xerxes had legitimate prior grievances . . . or that he concluded that Hellenic olive trees were essential to the Persian economy. Instead, they saw the conflict as one of an arrogant aristocracy, in hubristic fashion, seeking the destruction of its far smaller and free neighbor, for understandable reasons of pride, vengeance, and honor."

Hanson's summary of Iraq I: "We fought the 1991 Gulf War with dazzling computer-enhanced weaponry. But lost in the technological pizzazz was the basic wisdom that generals and their overseers need to fight wars with political objectives in mind." Regarding Iraq II, he writes that when U.S. troops reoccupied Fallujah in 2004, they found "torture cells, bomb factories, and a veritable terropolis that had been constructed after our withdrawal-macabre, grotesque revelations that should have shocked the world." Press coverage, though, "highlighted supposed American atrocities inflicted on the insurgents in 2004 rather than real atrocities inflicted on the innocent by insurgents."

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Hanson's justifiable concern is that the American public "is becoming ever more sophisticated, nuanced, and cynical-postmodern, if you will-even as the majority of our enemies remain unapologetically uncomplicated, single-minded, and zealous, attitudes than can prove advantageous when war breaks out. War is not litigation, regulation, or adjudication; rather it's a primitive nasty business, in which the greater force of one side prevails over the other-force often defined as much by morale and commitment as material strength."

Hanson concludes that many among the American public and leadership "assume their wars in awful places like Afghanistan and Iraq can be switched on, progress reliably, and be turned off in predictable fashion. They cannot-a fact accepted by others less fortunate, whether in post-Soviet Russia and Communist China or Islamabad and Tehran. We the people-not just the First Marine Division or an array of satellite lasers-will keep us safe. And finally this means sometimes we must wage war to defeat our enemies, even as we lament that they are not our enemies and that our good enough soldiers prove to be not quite perfect."

Other books on fighting

Mark Totten's First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition (Yale University Press, 2010) examines when it's right to use preemptive force against international threats, as George W. Bush claimed he was doing regarding Iraq. Totten examines "just war" theory and concludes that first strikes may sometimes be justified, although America's Iraq incursion was not.

The best war book of any that I've read-and perhaps the best American history book-is not one book but three, Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War, which he wrote and Random House published from the 1950s through the 1970s. The books are still in print and sell well, but be prepared to spend some time, for the three volumes total 2,946 pages in the edition I have. The volumes are America's Iliad, and I highly recommend them not only as history but as a tutor in how to write.

Volume I opens with events 150 years ago as the war was about to commence: "It was a Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate. . . . The galleries were crowded, hoop-skirted ladies and men in broadcloth come to hear him say farewell." Almost at the end of Volume III, Foote quotes Davis' last public speech, years later, when he asked young Southerners to "lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling," with the goal of having "a reunited country."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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