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The wages of war

BOOKS | Case studies in pride before a military fall

An engraving showing the conquest of Carthage by the Roman army in 146 B.C. Historical image collection by Bildagentur-Online / Alamy

The wages of war
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THE NATURE OF WAR is to destroy. But how often do participants in a military conflict consider that violence might begin a chain reaction that ends in the obliteration of their society? Victor Davis Hanson’s The End of Everything: How Wars Descend Into Annihilation (Basic Books 2024) asks us to contemplate that possibility.

Hanson is a prolific conservative commentator who previously spent almost 20 years at California State University, Fresno, as a classics professor specializing in the study of warfare in the ancient Greek world. The End of Everything warns us about the wages of war by looking at four case studies.

In the first chapter, Hanson examines Alexander the Great’s destruction of classical Thebes in 335 B.C. Alexander’s father Philip had conquered the Greek world, forcing the various city-states to recognize his lordship, but after Philip’s assassination, Thebes rebelled, believing the 20-year-old Alexander wouldn’t be able to hold his father’s empire together. Thebes underestimated its enemy and overestimated its own defenses: After a long siege in which would-be allies ignored Thebes’ calls for aid, Alexander tore down the city’s structures, killed the men, and sold the women and children into slavery.

Chapter 2 recounts Rome’s destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. Rome and Carthage had already fought two devastating wars, both of which Rome won. But Carthage didn’t anticipate that decades later Rome would still hold a grudge against its humbled North African rival. Even so, one doesn’t feel much sympathy for the defeated Carthaginians, who practiced child sacrifice.

The latter two case studies take place more than 1,500 years later. When examining Constantinople’s fall to the Turks in 1453, Hanson explains the former Roman capital’s slow thousand-year decline—to the point that it had a population of just 50,000 by the 15th century. Its famed walls protected it from onslaught, but it possessed no strength of arms to guard those walls. Even so, Hanson offers a thrilling tale of how the beleaguered defenders almost outlasted the attack.

Hanson then turns to the New World in Chapter 4, looking at the Spanish destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtilán in 1521. The Aztecs’ overwhelming numerical superiority lulled them into false confidence. Hanson downplays the idea that the Aztecs thought Hernán Cortés and his men gods. Cortés’ weapons, armor, and horses gave him a tactical advantage, but his biggest advantage was that the Aztecs had asymmetrical goals in the war. The masses of Aztecs fought as individuals, hoping to capture the Spaniards for later ritualistic sacrifice, but the Spanish soldiers worked together and killed their enemies as a unit in the most efficient way possible.

Hanson tries to draw lessons for modern warfare.

Hanson tries to draw lessons for modern warfare concerning naïve expectations, the dangers of factionalism, and shifting political calculations. But while each story he tells is interesting, the connections he makes to the modern world feel tenuous. The case studies involve cities under siege, but it’s been a long time since the world’s geopolitical structure favored the city-state. Hanson warns against annihilation, but he’s inconsistent in whether he’s talking about biological kinship, ethnic culture, or governmental structures. Sure, Thebes was destroyed in 335 B.C., but Greek culture endured.

In his conclusion, Hanson comments on Russia’s war in Ukraine and the belligerence of Iran. He offers sensible warnings to the West concerning the possibility of nuclear warfare, claiming we ought not fall into the trap of thinking it could never happen. His analysis is worth consideration, but it doesn’t have much to do with the 250 pages that came before it.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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