The Magazine

The Sage of Fresno

Victor Davis Hanson, down on the farm.

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By JONATHAN KAY
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Selma, California

MOST PEOPLE who earn Ph.D.s aspire to tenure-track professorships, think-tank jobs, or careers in government. When Stanford University awarded Victor Davis Hanson his classics degree 26 years ago, he chose to become a farmer.

"My grandmother was 93 and living alone," Hanson tells me as his pickup bounces along a dirt road winding through his family's grape vineyard. "My brothers, cousins, and I decided we'd come home and see if we could put the farm right."

But his career as a full-time farmer lasted just four years. In 1984, the price of raisin grapes fell from $1,300 per ton to $450. Struggling to make ends meet, Hanson reluctantly dusted off his résumé, got into his truck, and drove to the closest university, California State at Fresno. "I was dressed like this," he tells me, gesturing to his red and black lumberman's jacket and work-worn blue jeans. "The dean couldn't believe I was a Stanford Ph.D. The chairman made me go home and get my diploma."

On weekdays, Hanson would wake at 5 a.m. to prune his grape vines, then drive 25 miles to Fresno where he taught Greek and Latin to Mexican immigrants and working-class students. In what time remained, he managed to author a slew of weighty tomes on the wars of the ancient Greeks that made his name as one of America's preeminent military historians.

Farmer and classicist in equal measure, Hanson has led something of a double life. But read his work and it becomes clear that the two identities are intimately joined. From his early books on the Peloponnesian campaigns to his widely read post-9/11 essays on Afghanistan and Iraq, the connection between agriculture and war emerges as a constant theme.

Most classicists trace the advent of Greek democracy to the urban culture of Athens. Hanson takes another view. In his 1995 book, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and The Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, he argues that such institutions as constitutional government and property rights originated in large part with rural landholders. The patterns of rural life also influenced the way Greeks went to war, he believes. As Hanson notes in Carnage and Culture, most Greek foot soldiers, the hoplites, were not full-time conscripts like those of Persia or other Eastern powers, but rather volunteer farmers who were needed back home at harvest time. Greek armies thus favored quick, decisive infantry battles. The resulting theory of war, Hanson argues, has survived through the centuries and even finds echoes in campaigns fought by modern Western armies.

Hanson, representing the fifth generation of his family to work this land since it was first homesteaded by Swedish ancestors in 1871, also sees an important connection between farm life and America's role in the world. The farm is a "crucible of character" and martial valor, no less in the United States of today than it was in ancient Thebes. Hanson takes as his model the citizen-soldier, a humble creature of the land who puts down his hoe and takes up the rifle in a proud tradition carried on by America alone.

"There's an element in this country that is unchanged in the last 200 years," he says. "It cannot be defined by race or religion. They are the people who made this country unique and retain a tragic sense. They gravitate to the military or live in rural America or work with their hands. If you talk to captains or lieutenants in Iraq, you won't find anything in them that is different from their equivalents in World War II."

And so, even as Hanson has spent the years since 9/11 filling the pages of Commentary, City Journal, and National Review with articles about fighting militant Islam, he spends as much time worrying about what corporate agriculture and demographic trends are doing to his native San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County is home to six of the ten poorest towns in California, and attracts a steady stream of illegal immigrants looking for agricultural work. In 2003, Hanson wrote a book focusing on their plight, Mexifornia. (The provocative title was not his idea, he's quick to mention.) His politically incorrect prescription for the region's woes is a return to the melting pot. From watching two generations of farmhands work his property and teaching students at CSU-Fresno, he's concluded that Mexican-American children must learn proper English or inherit their parents' limited prospects.