Now comes a new offering from Hanson, Ripples of Battle, which once again has a strong resonance with the events of the day. This book arrives in an uneasy climate, a time that seems less certain than the months after September 11. In the long run, will the war with Iraq ignite a democratic revolution in the Middle East? Or will it strengthen the deadly hand of Islamic extremists? Or will there be entirely unforeseeable consequences? After reading Hanson’s book–a case study of three battles long ago–my vote is for the last of these possibilities.

Ripples of Battle is in some ways an even more sober book than An Autumn of War, and I hope that the same important people who read the first will consider the second with care. We all know about what we might call “the waves of war”–that the Civil War abolished slavery and made us one nation, and World War II conquered Nazism and unleashed the atom. Leaders who use only broad strokes to create the impression that wars unfold in neat sequences (enemy identified; enemy overthrown; energies of previously captive peoples unleashed; democracy reigns; security established), however, are not leading well. No serious person should ever try to predict what comes after a war, and in these times Americans deserve realistic and candid assessments of how hard it is to project power and build peaceful nations.

Hanson writes well, in a learned but accessible voice. “Books abound on Hannibal’s encirclement at Cannae, the stealth of Arminius, Rommel’s use of Panzers, or LeMay’s devilish brew over Tokyo,” he notes. “But rarely do we appreciate battles as human phenomena or the cumulative effects–the ripples–that change communities for years, or centuries even, well after the day’s killing is over.” This is not by any means an anti-war argument. It is, instead, a bracing reminder that combat and its wages, while conducted by human beings, are in the end beyond human control. “Battle is the raucous transformer of history,” Hanson observes, “because it also accelerates in a matter of minutes the usually longer play of chance, skill, and fate.” If, as Winston Churchill once said, “The story of the human race is war,” then Hanson is giving us a significant elaboration of the theme: that the ripples of battle are unknowable. In my reading, a key implication of Hanson’s case is that insofar as they can, great war leaders should prepare their people for the unexpected. Landing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit and standing before a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” when men and women are still under fire at the front is not preparing people for the unexpected; it is spinning them in defiance of history. Churchill, arguably the greatest war leader of all, understood this, once saying: “There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The British people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.” From his lips to President Bush’s ears.

Discussing Japanese suicide attacks at the battle of Okinawa, Hanson deftly links that desperate kamikaze struggle with the ensuing 60 years. “The American navy left Okinawa convinced that warfare in the Pacific had to continue to be far more harsh and terrible than what had transpired in Europe,” he writes. “They concluded that Asians in their caves, holes, and suicide ships and planes were a different–usually thought to be a more fanatical–foe than Germans or Italians, and so were deserving of even more extreme treatment. And that conjecture would have consequences in American thinking in the decades to come in the bombing campaigns ahead in Korea and especially Vietnam, where massive caves and underground fortifications were eerily reminiscent of Okinawa and likewise impregnable to occasionally mindless American carpet bombing.”

The Civil War’s Shiloh created a new Yankee hero, William Tecumseh Sherman, and a new Confederate one, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sherman was struck by the sheer bravery of the Southern troops and began to realize frontal assaults were not the key to victory; there would have to be another way. “To Sherman,” writes Hanson, “it was wrong to fight at Shiloh, in which his Midwesterners–themselves no abolitionists–were blasted apart while shooting down poor Southern boys who owned neither slaves nor much property. Far more humane, he grasped, was to burn the estates of the rich and the buildings of the rebel statesmen who had voted for secession; free the slaves who were critical to the Southern economy and whose enslavement had prompted the rebellion; and demonstrate that no Confederate soldier could charge the Union line with the certainty that his government and homeland far to the rear were safe from fire and ruin.” Sherman may have had the humane intention of shortening the conflict by taking it to selected elite targets, but the strategy had huge unintended consequences: It alienated and infuriated Southerners for generations. On the other side of the line, Forrest won the hearts of his troops by defying orders that would have kept him on the fringes of the action. “Boys, do you hear that rattle of musketry and the roar of artillery?” he asked his soldiers. “Do you know what it means? It means that our friends and brothers are falling by hundreds at the hands of the enemy, and we are here guarding a damn creek.” Galloping into the fray, and into history, Forrest became a great folk hero to ordinary Confederate fighters, and he later used that capital to found the Ku Klux Klan. The ripples from this one Tennessee battle in 1862 include, in a way, the painful war against Jim Crow and its long shadows; Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy; the fall of Trent Lott; and endless skirmishes over the Confederate battle emblem.

Hanson concludes his book with a rediscovery of the battle at Delium, in 424 B.C. The Boeotians were threatened by the Athenians. It was, according to Hanson, “perhaps the first recorded defense of the strategy of preemption–of attacking an enemy that posed a long-term rather than immediate threat ” Pagondas, a Theban commander, spoke words that might have come from Donald Rumsfeld in this new century: “Furthermore, those who in confidence of their strength have a habit of attacking their neighbors, as the Athenians are doing now, are emboldened to march out against an adversary who is keeping quiet and will only defend itself inside its own land; but they are less ready to take him on when he is willing to fight outside his borders, and if opportunity arises, to strike the first blow.” The point: Pagondas is making a pitch for a classical version of “shock and awe”–a tricky analogy for our times, given that Pagondas was leading a fight against the democratic Athenians.

“It is well that war is so terrible,” Robert E. Lee once remarked, “or else we should grow too fond of it.” Wars are indeed the way we destroy greater evils. The world is a brighter, better place today because Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt led the battle against Germany and Japan; we must pray that the war on terror led by George Bush and Tony Blair–and by those who come after them–will make us and our children safer.

As Hanson’s book makes clear, however, war is not what happens on a single day or in a single campaign. It is a deeper and more fundamental part of our lives, one we cannot escape. Hanson quotes Heraclitus, who 2,500 years ago observed that war is “the father, the king of us all.” That is a tragic fact of life, and we should hope the men and women who are leading us at this perilous hour appreciate that battles cannot be packaged.

Meanwhile, as fervently as we hope for quick entrances and safe exits, history teaches us that wars tend to have a force and course of their own, and the more direct and honest our leaders are about that essential truth, the better off we will be.

Jon Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. He is the author of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship.

Jon Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. He is the author of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship.

Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is a biographer who holds the Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. He was an editor at the
Washington Monthly from 1993 to 1994.