Bateman on Hanson, Round 2: Poitiers, 732 A.D., and beyond
I really do not know what happened between the Frankish cities of Tours and Poitiers in the fall of 732. I do know there was a fight somewhere around there, and I know that it was between a strong Muslim raiding party and the forces of the Frankish battle-leader Charles Martel. I know that after this fight the Muslims returned to the south, and that Martel recaptured some of the Frankish land that the Muslims had earlier taken in the South of France. I cannot know much more than that because the only sources for this battle are scraps from two different medieval chronicles which together offer only two or three descriptive sentences about the actual fighting. But then again, I did not try and extrapolate an entire chapter out of those few lines and use that to fill a 1,700-year gap in my thesis, as Victor Davis Hanson does in his chapter on the battle of Poitiers/Tours in his book Carnage and Culture.
Of the two sources that Hanson, or anyone, must rely upon, here is the more commonly read one. This comes from the "Continuation" of the Chronicle of Fredegar:
There the victorious prince Charles came before them, with all the aid he could muster; he drew up his battle-lines and plunged in among them with miraculous courage, like a hungry lion attacking sheep. In the name of the power of Our Lord, he made such a great slaughter of the enemies of the Christian faith that, as the history witnesses, he killed 385,000 of them in that battle, together with their king, whose name was Abdirames. Then was he first given the surname Hammer, for, as a hammer breaks and smashes iron and other metals, so did he break his enemies and all foreign nations in battle. Miraculously, in this battle he lost only 1500 of his own men.
A chronicle written by a Christian in Islamic Spain wrote this of the battle:
The northern peoples remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier in the cold regions. In the blink of an eye, they annihilated the Arabs with the sword. The people of Austrasia, greater in number of soldiers and formidably armed, killed the king, Abd ar-Rahman, when they found him, striking him on the chest. But suddenly, within sight of the countless tents of the Arabs, the Franks despicably sheathed their swords postponing the fight until the next day since night had fallen during the battle.
And that is it. Not a lot to go on, is there? We can obviously throw out the numbers of dead, as that was purely a medieval rhetorical device (and indeed, one not necessarily limited to that era) meant to convey the idea of "a lot." We may, or may not, disregard some aspect of the Frankish losses for the same reason. What remains is a single descriptive line in the first account: "[H]e drew up his battle-lines and plunged in among them with miraculous courage like a hungry lion attacking sheep." Obviously, in the first version of events, Martel was attacking. He was on the move and assaulting, and he won the battle.
Using the other source, Hanson relates how the Franks were "an immovable sea" and "stood close to one another" and how "as a mass of ice, they stood firm together." (Hanson's translation is similar, but not the same as what I have.) OK, the two existing documents almost perfectly contradict each other. One described Martel in the attack, and the other seems to say that he stood still and was on the defensive. Neither says a single word about the enemy. They do not say how many there were, or how they fought. It is a conundrum. Hanson, however, has no such qualms. For him this was a classic battle of pure infantry versus cavalry.
What? What cavalry? Where?
It does seem likely that there were a fair percentage of horses on this raid. We know, for example, that the Muslim leader (who died at Poitiers) had earlier crushed a force of Franks under Duke Odo in two successive battles, and that he apparently had some heavy cavalry with him there, but the idea that the Arabs were exclusively mounted, and used only mounted tactics, seems somewhat out of whack with what we know about the period overall. The Muslim armies of this period, while using more and more horses, were still infantry-based when they were invading. The percentage of horses that may have been present at this battle was probably due to the character of the operation: It was a raid. That also suggests that despite Christian sources, the Muslims did not press hard at all. Why bother? There is no loot in fighting. But for Hanson, that is not good enough. This was a cavalry battle of the first order in his descriptions, between an all-cavalry Muslim force and the Frankish infantry. It seems Hanson's knowledge of the Arab/Muslim armies of the first three centuries after the founding of Islam, however, is based almost exclusively on histories of the Crusades, which start almost 400 years later.
Hanson says, for example, "The army of the Arabs was never designed to engage in a systemic collision of heavy infantry, followed by possession of territory and the installation of permanent garrisons, in the manner of Western imperialism of Macedonia, Roman, and Byzantine militaries. The Islamic army, itself largely mounted -- counted on swiftness, mobility, and terror..." [pg. 148] He then cites a passage from J. France, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades (but neglects to include the full title, which notes that the book covers the years AD 1000-1300). Excuse me, but what good is a source describing tactical organization, structure, equipment, and doctrine 300 years after the event you are describing?
The fact of the matter is that Islamic armies were originally infantry-based. From the time of Mohammed they were designed for massed infantry shock combat, and they had (especially at the outset) very few horses. (They had camels, but you don't fight from a camel. You use it for carrying luggage and food and water.) Take, for example, the classic battle of Yarmouk in 636 A.D.
This battle, which took place in the area which is now known as the Golan Heights, well inside the borders of the Roman empire, occurred just two years after the death of Mohammed. It was one of the first major battles of expansion of the new Islamic empire. At that battle, although outnumbered by roughly 4-to-1 by the Romans of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Muslims utterly destroyed the Romans, killing as many or more than had Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C., roughly 50,000, and doing so with an army that was smaller than Hannibal's! In this fight the Muslims had an army that was 75 percent infantry (and of the infantry, at least 50 percent heavy infantry). They then moved on and conquered the rest of Syria, then Lebanon, then Palestine, before moving on and across north Africa. It was like that for much of the first century of Islamic expansion, with infantry-based armies defeating the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire again and again. It was not until around the 10th century that the Muslims truly began to focus upon the horse as the center of their efforts in warfare. (As opposed to raiding.)
But then also one must ask, when looking at Poitiers and Hanson's thesis, how did we leap from 216 B.C. to 732 A.D.? Cannae, you recall, was the subject of the last chapter , and occurred in 216 B.C. To get to Poitiers we just leapt 948 years without a single intervening case study or example. Hanson does it again too, since the chapter after this one concerns events in 1521, almost 800 years later still. And thus we arrive at one of the core problems of Hanson's book: He makes an assertion for a thesis which he contends is valid over 2,500 years of history, and then more or less skips providing evidence for the middle 1,700 years out of that 2,500.
For a moment then, let us set our back to the problems with Hanson's version of Poitiers and proceed on to the meat of the issue. Let us address the thesis. At issue is Mr. Hanson's central assertion in Carnage and Culture: that there is a uniquely Western way of war, derived from Western culture. I may have overstated this two weeks ago. Mr. Hanson, commenting upon my characterization said last week:
I never wrote that the West was "always successful in war." How silly! That's a laughable distortion, and again Mr. Bateman should use quotation marks when he writes what I did not write. [Hanson wrote this on his blog .]
Fair enough; I will report, you may decide. This, fair readers, is what Mr. Hanson wrote in his book:
In battles against the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the New World, tribal and imperial alike, there is a shared legacy over the centuries that allowed Europeans and Americans to win in a consistent and deadly manner -- or to be defeated on rare occasions only when the enemy embraced their own military organizations, borrowed their weapons, or trapped them far from home. [pg. 441]
He also puts it this way:
After Thermopylae, and with the exception of the Moors in Spain and Mongols in Eastern Europe, there is virtually no example of a non-Western military defeating Europeans in Europe with non-European weapons. [pg. 14].
From the fighting of early Greece to the wars of the entire twentieth century, there is a certain continuity of European military practice.' [pg. 440]
An examination of these battles shall show, throughout the long evolution of Western warfare there has existed more or less a common core of practices that reappears generation after generation... which explains why the history of warfare is so often the brutal history of Western victory..." [pg. 24]
This, 2,500-year tradition explains not only why Western forces have overcome great odds to defeat their adversaries but also their uncanny ability to project power well beyond the shores of Europe and America. Numbers, location, food, health, weather, religion -- the usual factors that govern the success or failure of wars -- have ultimately done little to impede Western armies, whose larger culture has allowed them to trump man and nature alike. Even the tactical brilliance of a Hannibal has been to no avail. [pg. 441]
First, for nearly a thousand years (479 BC to AD 500) the military dominance of the West was unquestioned, as the relatively tiny states of Greece and Italy exercised military supremacy over their far larger and more populous neighbors. [pg. 19]
Now, it does appear true that he never said "always." You can decide for yourself, based on the above sampling of his comments, if I overstated his general thrust and intent. But in making his sweeping assertion Hanson also commits one of the worst faults of a historian by throwing out some straw men. Here are Hanson's favorites:
- "Adrianople (378) and Manzikert (1071) were horrendous Western defeats; but the Romans and Byzantines who were slaughtered there were for the most part vastly outnumbered, far from home, poorly led, and reluctant emissaries of crumbling empires." [pg. 13]
- "Even a random catalog of exclusively abject Western defeats -- Thermopylae (480 BC), Carrhae (53 AD), Adrianople (378 AD), Manzikert (1071 AD), Constantinople (1453 AD), Adwa (1896 AD), Pearl Harbor (1941), and Dien Bien Phu (1953-1954) -- would not lead to radically different conclusions. In most of these cases, vastly outnumbered Western armies ... were unwisely deployed and poorly prepared -- and again far outside Europe." [pg 443]
The problem, of course, is that even if he were honest about the depictions, these are not "randomly selected." They are selected by Hanson. But for the sake of argument, and because they illustrate his technique wonderfully, let us just focus upon two of those exceptions that he cited no fewer than four times in the book, Adrianople and Manzikert.
Note how when he asserts his selected counter-examples, Hanson tries to let the "West" off the hook by asserting that the "horrific" losses at Adrianople and Manzikert were somewhat understandable because they were fought "far from home" or were fought by the armies of "crumbling empires," or that they were "vastly outnumbered." These are not true statements.
Adrianople was the site of a battle between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths. The Roman Emperor was killed during the battle, and the Goths moved on. A generation later they would invade the Western Roman Empire and sack Rome. Adrianople is now the Turkish town of Erdine. In 378 A.D., when this battle took place, it was (and still is) only 120 miles from the very capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, instead of being "far from home" it was the very opposite, as it was the closest city to the capital at Constantinople. Moreover, although it is inconvenient for Hanson, the Roman troops were not "vastly outnumbered" at Adrianople, but may well have outnumbered the Goths, as the Romans are estimated at having between 15,000-20,000 men on the battlefield. The Goths, according to modern scholarship, seem to have had only around 12,000-15,000. (Unless you include the Goths' women and young children, who were also nearby in their wagons, and which would boost their numbers immensely.) Moreover, no matter how Hanson twists it, it is difficult to call the Eastern Roman Empire "crumbling" in 378. Why? Because although he hides the fact from his non-historian readers by changing the name of the empire, his other example (Manzikert) was also fought by the Eastern Roman Empire, only by then they are depicted as the Byzantines. That second battle took place in 1071. So how can the Eastern Romans be "crumbling" if they last for another 700 years?
(By the way, Mr. Hanson, if you are reading this, please note that although you refer to the Roman Emperor defeated at Adrianople in 378 as Valerian (pg. 162), his name was actually Valens. Valerian was the Roman Emperor defeated and captured by the Persian King Sharpur I in 260 A.D.)
Hanson's second example, Manzikert, though it would be a slow march to get there, is about the same distance from the capital at Constantinople as Taranto, Italy, is from Genoa, Italy. And, unlike what Hanson would have his readers believe, the odds between the armies were just about even there too, though that apparently did not matter all that much. Hanson calls the loss "horrific," but when he does so he is apparently leaning upon 19th century interpretations of the battle. The battle was certainly a disaster for the Eastern Romans/Byzantium, but apparently there was not much bloodshed. Modern scholarship suggests that the Byzantines did not lose as many men as earlier historians thought. In fact, it appears, physical loses were nearly negligible from an Empire standpoint. What was destructive about this battle was the resultant loss of alliances for the Byzantines thereafter, and in that respect you could say that after this battle, the Empire started to crumble. Why, the Byzantine Empire only had a couple hundred more years (about the same distance in time between us and the war of 1812) left after that.
But despite Hanson's attempt to determine which battles are considered, the reality is that there were plenty of examples of the West being beaten, regularly, on home turf, during that 1,700-year gap in Hanson's evidence.
Does anyone remember Attila the Hun? It was the migration of his people, from further to the East, which triggered the migrations of the Franks, the Goths, the Vandals and the other "barbarian" tribes that destroyed Rome. By the mid-400s Attila was leading raiding parties of his Huns out of their new home base in what is now Hungary and into Western Europe.
Remember, Hanson says, "After Thermopylae, and with the exception of the Moors in Spain and Mongols in Eastern Europe, there is virtually no example of a non-Western military defeating Europeans in Europe with non-European weapons." [pg. 14].
Yet here we have Attila, who began to rampage and was soon burning out the Romans and the Franks in 451-452. The Mongols, I should note, were not to arrive for about another 500 years. (Mr. Hanson's assertion may be because he does not know the difference between the Mongols and the Huns, but they are two completely different peoples, I assure you.) In the process he and his raiding army defeated every Western force in their path, using decidedly non-European weapons and techniques, and in 451 alone they sacked and burned the following European cities: Mainz, Cologne, Tournai, Amiens, Beauvais, (they apparently skipped Trier), Metz, Reims, Worms, and Strasbourg, before turning back. (Attila later fought a rearguard fight during his withdrawal at a place near Chalons, in France.) And that was just France. He really let Italy have it, and indeed that is why Venice was built on a swampy island in a lagoon: People were trying to get out of the way. Yet Hanson skips all of these, just as pretty much 1,700 years of history is skipped, fairly obviously because it is inconvenient.
Hanson also asserts of non-Western peoples (again, "Western" for him only applies to those deriving their cultural heritage through the Romans to the Greeks) that "none outside the West drafted fighters with the implicit understanding that their military service was part and parcel of their status as free citizens who were to determine when, how, and where they were to go to war" [pg 445]. Yet that was exactly the case with the not only the Visigoths and Ostragoths who destroyed Rome, but also with the Danes, the Norwegians, the Jutes and the other sea-going warriors known collectively as the "Vikings." The Vikings conquered "Western" England, on foot, as infantry. A few centuries later Hanson just ignores the fact that the non-Western Vikings also defeated the Franks so badly (the very "Western" Franks, as this was a couple of hundred years after Poitiers), and so regularly, that the Franks basically handed over what is now known as Normandy, forever. Hanson goes on about how "Western" know-how was incomparable in allowing the Western forces to expand beyond their borders, and how this was unique, but does not mention the Viking raids which got as far as Constantinople. By sea.
He does cede that the Muslim armies took Spain, but glosses over the fact that they then held it, a country in the heart of Europe, for more than 600 years. Similarly, he completely ignores Sicily and Corsica. Instead, he focused on the Crusades to make a point. According to Hanson, "It was impossible for any Muslim army, unlike the Crusaders, to transport large armies by sea to storm the heartland of Europe" [pg. 168]. Yet in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, the Muslim armies took to the sea and did just that, they conquered both places, sending army after army (it took 75 years of reinforcements to conquer Sicily) despite Mr. Hanson's assertions, and once completely subjugated, held them for longer than the Crusader states existed in the Middle East. Oh, and they did this with infantry-based armies.
No military historian I've ever met disagrees with a general thesis that culture contributed to, if not overwhelmingly influenced, the expansion of the West to dominate the planet from, generically speaking, the 1450s or 1500s (depending upon who is your favorite). Culture does matter in many ways. It colors your decisions about everything from equipment to logistics to your military philosophy. There are a lot of good books that deal with these ideas, in parts and in whole, I strongly recommend reading some of them. But as for Carnage and Culture, eh, not so much.
Indeed, in his distortions, obfuscations, and general torturing of the facts in order to arrive at his preconceived thesis, Hanson is on par with historian-turned-polemicist Howard Zinn. If you do not know of Zinn, do not regret. You are missing as little as you were before you ever heard of Carnage and Culture. Zinn's signature work, A People's History of the United States, now on its gazillionth printing, follows the same formula as does Hanson's, albeit on a different topic. Indeed, were they not coming from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, one could believe that they learned the craft of history under the same tutor, so similar are their methods. Both of them ignore facts inconvenient to their thesis. Both of them approach their topic as though it were a strawberry patch, picking only the ripest of selected strawberries, removing them from the area, and then using the artfully displayed fruit to "prove" to people who have never seen a strawberry bush that all strawberries are ripe. I suspect that it is not coincidental that both of them are very vocal in modern political issues, and both make illogical appeals to their historical credentials to support their respective opinions. Yes, Howard Zinn and Victor Davis Hanson, to continue the produce analogy, are two peas in a pod.
Next Week: Conclusions and Wrap-up.
You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@Hotmail.com 
"I know. Times are tough. Here, in the United States, the bottom's threatening to blow out of the housing market. Here, construction companies are laying off employees and builders are wondering where their next jobs are likely to come from. But there's still hope that can be summed up in this bit of advice: Go East (or West), young builder, but leave the country."
So Tom Engelhardt  begins his latest post on the endless Pentagon building -- or upgrading -- of U.S. bases around the world. This piece, couched as "advice" to a young builder in tough times domestically on "imperial opportunities," is actually a little tour of the facts-on-the-ground, when it comes to the American garrisoning of the planet -- from the seldom described billion-dollar mega-bases the Bush administration has built in Iraq to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan (about to be enlarged by a third) to bases ranging from Italy and Qatar to the horn of Africa, not to speak of the monster embassy (essentially another base) being built with staggering cost overruns by the State Department in Baghdad. It also offers a little side trip into another burgeoning area of Bush administration construction -- the expansion of America's offshore prison system from Camp Bucca in southern Iraq ($110 million in construction contracts) to Guantanamo (another $26-28 million in such contracts, with a $110 million one waiting in the wings ).
Explaining to his young builder why he might know little about these opportunities, Engelhardt concludes:
Here's the strange thing: We Americans garrison the globe in a way no people has ever done -- not the ancient Romans with their garrisons stretched from North Africa to distant Britain; not even the nineteenth century British with their far-flung naval coaling stations. Our garrisons around the world are our versions of "gunboat diplomacy" and colonialism all wrapped in one. They are functionally our modus operandi on the planet. Everyone out there knows about them, but few Americans are particularly aware of them.
Staggering billions, for instance, have gone into those state-of-the-art mega-bases in Iraq, and scores of smaller ones, since Baghdad fell in April 2003. They are presences, facts on the ground of the first order. No matter what anyone was saying in Washington at any moment, they spoke of permanence, of a desire to be in Iraq forever and a day; and yet the Iraq debate in the mainstream these last years has taken place almost without serious mention of them. You can turn on your TV and watch American journalists, standing somewhere in Camp Victory, report on other subjects. But when has one ever taken you on a simple tour of that mega-base?
Name: Jeff Weed
Hometown: Little Elm, TX
Dr. A, I hope each copy of Why We're Liberals includes a diagram (like those I've seen for Sgt. Pepper) indicating each person on the front cover. Most of the folks are easily identifiable, but it would be a useful educational tool for younger readers or those recently acquainting themselves with liberalism and its ideas. Plus, the inclusion of Jesus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is sure to get some right-wingers steamed.
Eric replies: We're on that, thanks ... though I don't think George Washington made the cut ...
As you all know by now I was regrettably put in a situation where I had to postpone my performance at the Ahmet Ertegun Benefit show, on November 26th, due to a fractured finger. We have now rescheduled this show to take place, at the same venue, on December 10th.
In doing so I was very conscious of the fact that many people are travelling great distances to attend. I do want to let everyone know that this decision was unavoidable. My apologies to anyone who has been inconvenienced by this change.
I would also like to thank everyone else involved for their help with making this change. Harvey Goldsmith, the trustees of the Ahmet Ertegun Foundation and, of course, the other artists who so willingly agreed to join us on the show.
I look forward to the 10th December!
(P.S., added later so it did not make most people's press releases: Will someone please give Eric Alterman a ticket? I know he's free that night ...)