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20141107 Carnage and Culture



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This book is about interconnection between culture and military success of the people. Specifically it is trying to explain the fact that over 2000 years numerically smaller western armies won multiple battles and engagements with practically all other competing groups. The main explanation for this fact provided in the book is that culture of perceptually free and independent property owners defending their property and families produces highly organized, disciplined, and technologically superior military, generally undefeatable on the home turf. Moreover, spillover of this quality into mercenary troops produced highly successful conquerors and colonizers who were capable to basically subdue the whole world by the end of XIX century. The army produced by western culture has no serious opponent except for another western army and in this case carnage is extremely high. Correspondingly military produced by other cultures with complete suppression of individual where there is no notion of freedom and personal property produce inferior armies where lack of discipline, organization, and technology have deleterious effect on individual bravery, sacrifices, and even tactical genius of leaders.



This is review of a few specific battles across 2500 year of history that demonstrates qualitative difference of Western way of war and its special lethality.

ONE – Why the West Has Won


It starts with Anabasis – the history of 10000 Greek mercenaries who in 401 BC were hired by Persian king and wind up far away from home without any support when king died. They managed to march back through 1500 miles of hostile territories winning all their battles with little casualties. The point is made that while these Greeks were thugs, their culture provided for democratic method of decision making, conscious understanding by each man his objectives and duties, superior camaraderie and discipline, and superior military technology. The same qualities were demonstrated throughout 2500 by different western armies that consistently won battles against numerically superior armies of non-westerners.


The war in this book is treated as expression of culture that defines what kind of people constitute army fielded by the society, quality of their arms, and most important their behavior during the battle. Author selected a number of battles for review with diversity of place, type, and outcome to analyze specifics of Western way of war.


The first order of analysis is to establish reality of western military preeminence. It is done by looking at cases when western armies lost and confirming that nearly all of them characterized, by numerical superiority of non-westerners, their possession of military technology developed by westerners, motivation superiority when non-westerners often defended their land, while westerns were colonizers with little support from their own population. Author reviews and rejects explanations such as Jared Diamond’s superiority of western geography providing advantage despite inferiority of western people or common explanation by superior technological advantage due to west first achieving industrial revolution. The idea of inherent inferiority / superiority of populations is rejected out of hand, geographical explanation dealt with by pointing at superiority of geographic endowment of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and technological superiority reason by pointing to initial technological superiority of China in ships, guns and just about everything else.


The key to western military superiority is psychology of individual soldier who is culturally conditioned to fully believe that he is voluntary fighting for his own, his family, and his clan’s freedom and prosperity. These abstract ideas may or may not be consistent with reality, but they define soldier’s behavior in the battle.

PART ONE – Creation;

This part is reviewing 3 key components from which western way of fighting grew out. These components are Freedom, Preference for decisive battle, and a special quality of troops as citizen-soldiers.

TWO – Freedom–or “To Live as You Please”

The TWO is about naval battle at Salami in 480BC when Greek fleet destroyed Persians despite huge numerical disparity. The main point here is made that free men make much better fighters the slaves. The reason being that free man has habits of live conductive for initiative, quick change in behavior to accommodate to changing circumstances, and self-reliance in decision making. Author also specify meaning of freedom:

  1. Freedom of speech with two different meanings: to be able to say what one wants and to be able to speak publicly. This freedom leads to better consideration of option and diversity of ideas providing for much better considerations then lack of freedom when only opinion of superior is heard with no opportunity to challenge it if it is erroneous.
  2. Government with consent of citizenry. The free choice of action makes individuals much more prone to stick to it.
  3. Economic freedom and property rights, which provide for high battle morals because the fight is for wellbeing of individual and his family.
  4. Freedom of action that provides for highly diverse trial and error probes leading to finding better tactical solutions in the battle.

The legacy of battle is survival of unusually individualistic western civilization and confirmation of its military superiority over despotic collectivistic civilizations.

THREE – Decisive Battle

This part is about battle at Gaugamela 331 BC when Alexander won against Persians who had not only superior numbers, but also superior cavalry. The main point here is that Western way of war is to seek decisive battle with annihilation of losing force. The key is not a formality of the battle, but annihilation of the enemy and removal of any options for future resistance in contrast to traditional tribal wars where the objective is to identify a winner with minimal losses and destruction on both sides. The main method of achieving victory is combination of maneuver with ruthlessness. In short the western military approach was to create local superiority both numerically and technologically and annihilate subset of enemy troops, then quickly repeat it in another place with another subset. The net result is that at any given time in any given encounter western army has overwhelming superiority and chip out key pieces of enemy force until it is defeated. In such situations the ability to act independently and decisively achieved due to the quality of troops is a necessary condition. Such quality is achieved through civic militarism of relatively free and independent farmers who take arms consciously to defend their way of life and families. It is difficult if not impossible to achieve with an army of slaves.

FOUR – Citizen Soldiers

This chapter continues discussion of military qualities of army of citizen soldiers using example of western defeat at Cannae 216 BC. Interestingly the point of this chapter is somewhat contradictory, but also complementary to the idea of decisive battle. It is an idea that western way of war is not to accept defeat until it is final. Despite being massacred at Cannae due to poor generalship, Romans raised new legions, analyzed and corrected mistakes and keep coming back at Hannibal until they eventually won. There is also a discussion of the structure and method of fighting of Roman legion that made it such a formidable force. One of the most important features was discipline and well thought through and trained for process of fighting. Every soldier knew what to do in the process of battle: through spear, engage with short sword, move back to form next line, and so forth. Also important was synchronization of action that significantly increased their effectiveness. Very interesting note from Josephus about this: “their training maneuvers were battles without bloodshed and their battles were maneuvers with bloodshed”. Finally, lots of attention is paid to Roman soldier as citizen, which is a person with clearly defined rights and responsibilities, which are not subject of change by leaders.

PART TWO – Continuity.

The second part is reviewing the next layer of western way of war that makes it so lethal: Preference for infantry as the core of the military structure on land. Technological superiority initially based on specific features of western culture: curiosity, constant search for new / better solutions, and easy adaptability of such solution even if they are foreign and contradict to tradition. Finally it reviews impact of industrial revolution as product of western culture that tremendously increased technological capabilities of western armies.

FIVE- Landed Infantry

This chapter based on battle at Poitiers 732 against Islamic army discusses western infantry as one of the core reasons for military advantage. It is linked to the nature of western soldier as a member of propertied middle class wealthy enough to have good infantry equipment, but not wealthy enough for heavy cavalry. This is enmeshed with high requirements for discipline because cavalry is useless against disciplined group of heavy infantrymen, but would easily defeat in unorganized one on one encounter. Once again western way of war presented with stress on technology, group discipline and incentive with lower value put on individual brevity and/or numerical superiority.

SIX – Technology and the Wages of Reason

Battle for Mexico City 1520 was used in this chapter to demonstrate qualitative difference between Aztec and Western military. Aztecs’ military method while very effective in American environment was limited by its ritualistic character, centralization, and lack of both initiative and discipline. Conquistadors’ military method was hugely opportunistic with no qualms about rules, ready to use whatever works however unethical and/or unusual it was. Existing technological advantage provided by scientific superiority of Europe made it all, but inevitable that conquistadors would win any military encounter with reasonable ratio of participants. Obviously inadvertent use of biological weapon of smallpox assured that this ratio would not be completely overwhelming.

SEVEN – The Market–or Capitalism kills

In this chapter the naval battle at Lepanto 1571 where European coalition fleet won over Ottomans is used to discuss financial and capital investment side of war making. As usual reason for victory was superior technology and discipline of Christians despite of inferiority of their numbers. However while Christian fleet had inferior number of ships and people, the number of canons was much higher and quality of ships and weapons by far superior. The point is made that this superiority came from new economic system capitalism that dramatically increased level of innovation placing western military power into position of such technological superiority that no other culture was able get even close to until the raise of Japan in XIX century.

PART THREE – Control.

The last part is dedicated to the quality of individuals that typically constitute western fighting force. These qualities: discipline, individualism, and dissent / self-critic are critical for military success because they dramatically increase flexibility, adaptability, and ability to learn from error that are necessary in unpredictable situations of battle;

EIGHT – Discipline, or Warriors Are Not Always Soldiers

Zulu War; Rorke’s Drift 1879. This is a very interesting episode of Zulu war when within 2 days British troops experienced defeat of relatively big force that followed by victory of much smaller force against the same enemy. In both cases British inflicted disproportionally high damage on opponent, but in the first case they lost due to tactical incompetence of leadership, while in the second case the adequate leadership provided for victory. The chapter reviews Zulu war and overall features of colonial conquest. The stress is on match between individual bravery combined with lack of discipline in Zulus, with high level of discipline of British troops typical for western military tradition.

NINE – Individualism

Midway 1943. This battle is used to demonstrate superiority of western way of war even in conditions when enemy in this case Japanese Navy was technologically as good or even better then American Navy. Author makes case that victory was obtained to significant extent due to the fact that American fighters were much more inclined to act based on individual decisions with little fear for punishment if decision turned out to be wrong. Contrary to this Japanese counterparts were restricted in their action by culture of compliance with rules and norms and fear of making a mistake.

TEN – Dissent and Self-Critique

The final battle reviewed in this book is Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968. This battle was won by all conceivable military parameters, but lost in the court of public opinion that eventually led to America loosing this war. Somewhat contrary to usual approach author not only criticize media for this loss, but also praises it for exposing the lies and errors of leadership to the American public. The point is made that such critic, even if devastating, is one of the main strengths of western way of fighting because it provides for much better error analysis and improvement opportunities then other cultures in which critic of leadership is severely punished. However author accuses media in one-sided presentation of events and it was mainly the side of communist propaganda.


It is impossible to deny lethality and effectiveness of western way of war. However in my opinion the direct impact of culture on soldiers’ behavior as cause of victory is somewhat exaggerated and technological causes somewhat understated even if author mentions unstoppable Mongols who all but conquered the world, but could not produce anything beyond superior military power and consequently had relatively low staying power. As of now, no military can compete with western forces, but technology provided for such powerful weapons that individual qualities of soldiers and even group coherence are not as important as they used to be so a small group of leaders and soldiers could use WMD to achieve whatever objective they want to achieve as long as they are not limited by humanitarian considerations. This fact creates a dangerous situation for West, which being the cultural source of humanitarian considerations could not be able to use WMD when threaten and would be inclined to surrender rather than devastate the world. However I am optimistic that huge western technological superiority and cultural conquest of potential enemy population will lead to eventual elimination of war as tool of human interactions. However until it happens this tool should be used decisively and effectively to avoid huge human suffering from low intensity conflicts that west allow simmering due to the false humanitarian considerations.

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