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The End of Everything:
How Wars Descend into Annihilation

by victor davis hanson
basic books, 343 pages, $20.95

A few years ago a longtime friend and “bird” (i.e., full-rank) colonel in the Marine Corps returned from joint war-games in Asia with the South Korean military. Marines are not known for their ambiguity. They are known for their backbone and willingness to fight. So their thoughts on the practical aspects of warfare have weight. My friend was a former fighter pilot then assigned to operational planning. When I met up with him upon his return, our conversation turned to his recent tour of duty. And after a few preliminaries he said quite simply that, given current realities, we’d lose any war with China. 

That will sound implausible to some. China has serious weaknesses. But they’re far from fatal, and despite its weaknesses, Beijing is rapidly preparing for armed conflict and sharply focused on its priorities—including but not limited to acquiring Taiwan. It has a fierce memory of past indignities, a renewed sense of national destiny, an obvious intent to replace the United States as leader on the world stage, and it enjoys regional geographic advantages.

Meanwhile, the American military is spread thin, distracted by other war zones, infected with woke claptrap, and its navy—the traditional centerpiece of U.S. projected power—suffers from neglect. Seoul, Tokyo, and Manila have ample reason to fear and resist Chinese expansion. But they’re also much closer to the Chinese mainland than to American soil in Guam or Hawaii. And while forward U.S. bases dot southeast Asia, history suggests that allies have a habit of recalculating their loyalties once the bloodletting starts and a winner begins to emerge. . . . especially when history also shows that American commitments tend to vaporize when they become too costly or inconvenient. The Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021—an exit both contemptible in its bumbling, and contemptuous of many Afghans who trusted us—is merely the most recent example. Allies notice these little details. So do enemies.

On the surface, none of the above pertains to Victor Davis Hanson’s latest and deeply sobering book, The End of Everything. A senior fellow in military history and classics at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Hanson is a specialist on the human dimension and costs of war. His focus in The End of Everything is, as usual, on the past; specifically, the destruction of four great civilizations: ancient Thebes, Carthage, Constantinople, and the Aztec Empire. In each case, an otherwise enduring civilization was not merely conquered, but “annihilated”—in other words, completely erased and replaced. How such catastrophes could happen is the substance of Hanson’s book. And the lessons therein are worth noting.

In every case, the defeated suffered from fatal delusions. Each civilization overestimated its own strength or skill; each misread the willingness of allies to support it; and each underestimated the determination, strength, and ferocity of its enemy.

Thebes had a superb military heritage, but the Thebans’ tactics were outdated and their leadership no match for Macedon’s Alexander the Great. The city was razed and its surviving population scattered. Carthage—a thriving commercial center of 500,000 even after two military defeats by Rome—misread the greed, jealousy, and hatred of Rome, and Roman willingness to violate its own favorable treaty terms to extinguish its former enemy. The long Roman siege of the Third Punic War saw the killing or starvation of 450,000 Carthaginians, the survivors sold into slavery, the city leveled, and the land rendered uninhabitable for a century. 

The Byzantine Empire, Rome’s successor in the East, survived for a millennium on superior military technology, genius diplomacy, impregnable fortifications, and confidence in the protection of heaven. By 1453, a shrunken and sclerotic Byzantine state could rely on none of these advantages, nor on any real help from the Christian West. But it nonetheless clung to a belief in the mantle of heaven and its own ability to withstand a determined Ottoman siege. The result was not merely defeat, but the erasure of any significant Greek and Christian presence in Constantinople. As for the Aztecs, they fatally misread Spanish intentions, ruthlessness, and duplicity, as well as the hatred of their conquered “allies” who switched sides and fought alongside the conquistadors. 

The industrial-scale nature of human sacrifice and sacred cannibalism practiced by the Aztecs—more than 20,000 captives were ritually butchered each year—horrified the Spanish. It reinforced their fury and worked to justify their own ferocious violence, just as the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice had enraged the Romans. In the end, despite the seemingly massive strength of Aztec armies, a small group of Spanish adventurers utterly destroyed Tenochtitlán, the beautiful and architecturally elaborate Aztec capital, and wiped out an entire culture.

History never repeats itself, but patterns of human thought and behavior repeat themselves all the time. We humans are capable of astonishing acts of virtue, unselfish service, and heroism. We’re also capable of obscene, unimaginable violence. Anyone doubting the latter need only check the record of the last century. Or last year’s October 7 savagery, courtesy of Hamas.

The takeaway from Hanson’s book might be summarized in passages like this one:

Modern civilization faces a toxic paradox. The more that technologically advanced mankind develops the ability to wipe out wartime enemies, the more it develops a postmodern conceit that total war is an obsolete exercise, [assuming, mistakenly] that disagreements among civilized people will always be arbitrated by the cooler, more sophisticated, and more diplomatically minded. The same hubris that posits that complex tools of mass destruction can be created but never used, also fuels the fatal vanity that war itself is an anachronism and no longer an existential concern—at least in comparison to the supposedly greater threats of naturally occurring pandemics, meteoric impacts, man-made climate change, or overpopulation.

Or this one:

The gullibility, and indeed ignorance, of contemporary governments and leaders about the intent, hatred, ruthlessness, and capability of their enemies are not surprising. The retreat to comfortable nonchalance and credulousness, often the cargo of affluence and leisure, is predictable given unchanging human nature, despite the pretensions of a postmodern technologically advanced global village.

I suppose the lesson is this: There’s nothing sacred about the Pax Americana. Nothing guarantees its survival, legitimacy, comforts, power, or wealth. A sardonic observer like the Roman poet Juvenal—were he alive—might even observe that today’s America seems less like the “city on a hill” of Scripture, and more like a Carthaginian tophet, or the ritual site of child sacrifice. Of course, that would be unfair. A biblical leaven remains in the American experiment, and many good people still believe in its best ideals.

Or so one can hope. But at the moment we might all benefit from a brisk shower in Hanson realism. Read the book.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the author of True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church.

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Photo by Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive. Image cropped. 

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