Reviewed in the United States on August 30, 2012
I've read other books by Victor Davis Hanson, notably "The Western Way of War" and a lot of his political commentary, and I generally enjoy him. At his worst he's a wordy intellectual, very argumentative, and it turns out that this book is a good example of those characteristics, writ large and long. "The Soul of Battle" is an attempt to argue that "Democratic Marches" by armies of freedom-loving people can defeat tyrrany and end wars, destroying evil empires. While this may be true in certain instances, and was probably more true in the past, Hanson more or less dismisses these qualifications with a wave of the hand, and just steams on with his assertion.
So Hanson has 3 examples of "Democratic Marches" to rely on for his thesis. The first is the march by Epaminondas, which ended the rule of Sparta over the helots in neighboring provinces. The helots (slaves) were what allowed the Spartans to create a small core of highly-trained, very-motivated infantry that were feared throughout Greece. The second is General Sherman's famed "March to the Sea," which gutted the Confederacy and destroyed their morale. The third is George Patton's drive across France and Germany to victory in World War II.
Now, I'll say right off that I'm in no way an expert in ancient warfare or ancient anything else. Some of my friends might tell you that *I'm* ancient, but they're messing with you. My opinion of the Epaminondas chapter is therefore going to be brief, because I don't have any criticisms, really. At one point Hanson wonders why Epaminondas hasn't garnered the attention Alexander the Great (whom Hanson loathes) has been given; at the risk of sounding flip, might it have something to do with his name being a tongue-twister?
Then Hanson moves on to William T. Sherman, about whom I do know a bit having read 4-5 biographies, and numerous books about his campaigns) and we immediately get into trouble. Hanson has a pretty good grasp of the "March to the Sea" and its consequences, and he rightly brushes aside the claims that Sherman was a war criminal. Most Southerners now will try and tell you that Sherman was a war criminal on a par with World War II Nazis, and then in the same breath try to convince you that the war wasn't about slavery. Both opinions should carry about equal weight; neither has much validity. From there, however, Hanson gets in trouble. He makes much of how dangerous the march was thought to be at the time, and little of how easy it was in terms of actual danger. His army of approximately 60,000 men was never seriously opposed during the march, the main issue being supplies. Once it became apparent that they would be able to live off the land, there was no doubt that Sherman and his army could go anywhere. Hanson, however, tries to contrast this with Grant's travails in Virginia. I think Sherman himself would be the first to tell you that Johnston wasn't Robert E. Lee, and John B. Hood *certainly* wasn't Robert E. Lee either. Further, prior to the capture of Atlanta, Sherman outnumbered Johnston by a larger numerical superiority than Grant had over Lee, and while some generals in the Army of the Potomac were pretty competent, luck of the draw had given Sherman a very good group of subordinates. Equating the two campaigns is similar to comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. The author attempts to turn Sherman into more or less an abolitionist, though acknowledging that he had hated abolitionists before the war and blamed them for its onset, but he ignores the fact that Sherman activly resisted black regiments being assigned to his forces, sending them all to Thomas's army. The result is that the reader gets a rather one-sided view of Sherman as having won the Civil War himself, a view which he would have rejected with considerable vehemence and anger.
Then we get to Patton, and things really fall apart. The author's just made a big thing out of Sherman's supposed abhorrence of slavery, and the Union Army's collective disgust at the institution, once they saw it up close. This is reasonable (most Northerners had never been to the South, and had only read of slavery in the abstract) but when the author gets to World War II, he chooses one of the most "Southern" of U.S. Army officers of the era to epitomize our crusade for Democracy in World War II. Patton was the grandson of a Confederate officer (and namesake, who was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864), bounced on the knee of John S. Mosby toward the end of the old irregular's life (they played Civil War together, with Mosby letting young Patton play Lee, while Mosby took orders from him) and then attended the Virginia Military Institute (complete with its shrine to Stonewall Jackson) for a year before attending West Point. This most aristocratic of U.S. Army officers in World War II (his family was wealthy, and his wife's family was filthy rich) is presented as a more or less flawless leader of a democratic army. This was no doubt Patton's view of himself; others had different views, and though Hanson sometimes acknowledges them, he also brushes them aside casually, without really refuting them in any meaningful way. It gets a little silly.
I'll give you a couple of examples. During the campaign across France in 1944, the major issue was logistics. Armies during that era were enormous, and they gulped even larger amounts of fuel. During this era there were four armies in France, excluding the forces coming up from the Riviera (which had their own supply lines, not connected to the other allied armies yet). These four armies were the 1st Canadian and 2nd British, which together formed the 21st Army Group under Montgomery, and the 1st US and 3rd US (Patton's) armies, which comprised the 12 Army Group under Bradley. When the Battle for Normandy ended, the Germans had posted most of their good defensive forces in the East, opposite Montgomery, figuring that the British formations were more of a threat, because of their experience and proximity to Paris and then the German frontier. As it happened, the breakthrough occurred at the other end of the line, and Patton's army was activated just as the pursuit phase of the operation began, so all he had to do was drive across France, advancing literally as fast as his tanks could travel, and as far as his gas supplies would carry him. Soon, Patton began to speak of his "rights" and how he "deserved" more gasoline, as if this were some sort of moral contest between himself and Montgomery. It was nonsense, and everyone at the time saw it as such, but Hanson actually uses the words, as if they had real meaning.
A second example can latch onto the first. As Patton's army surged across France it met really no serious opposition. The Luftwaffe was crippled by a lack of fuel, much of the German army in the West had lost all of their vehicles (tanks, half-tracks, armored cars, self-propelled artillery, tank destroyers, trucks, etc.) in the Mortain pocket earlier in the campaign, and the German high command was literally throwing together anyone they could find to try and rebuild formations, so that they'd have something to plug into the Western Front. The author approvingly quotes at least one German general as saying Patton could have driven right into Germany in 1944 with nothing to stop him, that this would have ended the war, and that no one on the German side could understand why the Allies didn't do it. The short answer was pretty simple: it would have been almost impossible to supply Patton that far from his base, and it was highly doubtful whether it would have worked anyway. Giving all the fuel supplies to one army (making the other 3 sit idle, moving little at best) would have been very difficult politically, in that Eisenhower would have been completely sidelining the victor of El Alamein to have his own American Army forces win the war (assuming this worked; if it didn't, the recriminations would have probably cost Ike his job). In addition, often overlooked by people who acknowledge the logistics difficulties in 1944, as the summer turned to autumn, the Allies were confronted with the problem of supplying France itself, which they had just liberated. Millions of civilians had lived through 4 years of occupation, with meager food and fuel supplies, and a transportation network ravaged by four years of armies driving over it, and air forces bombing railroads and bridges. The domestic supply of food and fuel was inadequate, and pretty much everything had to be trucked to where it would be used, unless that was along the coast and there was a viable port--of which few were, German garrisons occupying many, and the rest having been the victims of German demolition teams as they left. So Patton's drive would have deprived them too of their supplies, and this would have set off another firestorm, as Ike would have had to do battle with de Gaulle (who got along poorly with almost all the American high command, and the British only slightly better).
If Patton had gotten across the Rhine and into Bavaria, the problem then becomes what it would have meant for the war. Hanson confidently opines that the Germans would have surrendered (based on what I don't know) but of course with the Soviets (much scarier than Patton, certainly) surrounding Berlin, they didn't give in, so why would they when an American army entered Bavaria? It's not exactly the heart of Germany. Perhaps from Bavaria Patton could have moved further, but remember the further he gets from his bases, the more tenuous his supply situation becomes, and the Germans themselves were starved for fuel, so he wasn't going to be stealing it from them. The end result is that it's a nice problem for armchair strategists to think about, but realistically it's doubtful he would have done much damage, or shortened the war, and he might have soured our relations with our allies and in turn lengthened the war, to boot. Hanson doesn't really refute any of this; he just ignores it, and sails on obliviously.
Hanson also at times is very tough on the other American Generals in the theater. Bradley is always treated badly, as common man types are when they're in competition with American aristocrats. Nixon vs. Kennedy comes to mind, with the newspapers deciding that Kennedy was preferable because he was handsome, and his wife prettier than Pat (and Jackie spoke French, too!). Bradley grew up poor, and scrabbled for what he had. His command style was completely different, very low-key and plain-spoken, without all of the theatrical obnoxiousness that Patton exhibited. Hanson of course can't forgive Bradley for getting promoted past Patton, nor can he forgive Eisenhower for recommending the promotion. What Hanson overlooks is that this was largely in response to the slapping incident, which Hanson dismisses with a "I don't see what the big deal is" paragraph that argues the whole thing should have been ignored. Unfortunately he's ignoring the sequence of events as they actually occurred. When Eisenhower originally heard about the slapping incident, he ordered Patton disciplined and told Marshall about it, but he also tried to put a news black-out on it, because he knew what would happen if the word got out. Word leaked out, however, and columnists back in the States were calling for Patton to be broken back to his prewar rank and returned to the States, or even court-martialed (striking an enlisted man can cause an officer his rank and career). Eisnehower insisted that Patton would be useful, if he would just keep his mouth shut and stay focused on fighting the Germans; Hanson almost makes Eisenhower the villain of the piece, and ignores the fact that Ike essentialy was the one who saved Patton's career, and kept him fighting.
The whole thing is so argumentative and selective in its use of facts that I wound up being very annoyed. There are good points to be made here; the author shouldn't try to make them into something more than they are.