The Sage of Fresno
Victor Davis Hanson, down on the farm.
Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By JONATHAN KAY
By 21st-century political typology, Hanson's love of the pastoral life, distrust of large corporations, and embrace of old-fashioned values might put him in the paleoconservative camp. And indeed, he was once horrified by the "neocon" projects he now defends. "I remember it was 1998 and I was in the library reading a magazine article about the [Project for the New American Century's] letter to Bill Clinton asking for regime change in Iraq," he tells me. "And I thought, 'That's crazy!' The whole idea of preemption in Iraq made no sense to me."
But then came 9/11, and Hanson's thinking changed radically. Like the campaigns against Prussian militarism and Nazism, the war against militant Islam is not one of America's choosing, he argues. As a student of military history, he believes there is only one way to wage it--ferociously and single-mindedly, in the tradition of Patton, Sherman, and the Theban general Epaminondas. The result of Hanson's political shift is a worldview that looks back to the ancient virtues even as it defends the most modern of wars and the controversial Bush Doctrine, thus reconciling the two major strains of the conservative movement.
Later, as we sit at his farmhouse dinner table, he points to a chair. "That's where my paternal grandfather would visit, sit, and tell us about World War One, with my other maternal grandfather, the host, in rapt attention," Hanson says. "I used to listen to him, my father, and my uncle-in-law, and they'd count off the family members who'd been killed or wounded in war. That number included my father's cousin--my namesake Victor Hanson--who died at Okinawa. My grandfather himself was gassed in the Argonne. And my father flew 39 missions in a B-29 over Japan. But they had no regrets. I was never tutored in isolationism."
HANSON IS NOW one of the Bush administration's most passionate and prolific defenders. Having recently taken early retirement from Fresno State and joined the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, he devotes much of his time to writing essays. He also contributes 1,800 words per week to National Review Online, and has begun a syndicated weekly column distributed through Tribune Media Services. Later this year, Random House will release his new book on the Peloponnesian War. As if that weren't enough, he also maintains a website (victorhanson.com), where he answers readers' questions about the Iraq war, ancient military tactics, and the modern academy.
Many war pundits have done their best to situate the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts in historical perspective. But few can go back as far as Hanson. In the June 2004 Commentary, he defended the number of U.S. troops deployed in Iraq with the dizzying observation that "Alexander the Great, who never led an army numbering more than 50,000 men, defeated hordes five times that size in battle. . . . Julius Caesar conquered and held much of Western Europe with legions that numbered fewer than 40,000. The British defeated both Cetchewayo and the Great Mahdi with a few thousand redcoats, [and] Thucydides did not believe the Athenian disaster at Syracuse was necessarily caused by the smallish armada sent over by imperial Athens."
Hanson's expertise has brought him political influence. When I visited his farm in January, he had just come back from a meeting at the White House, where he was among five experts who'd been asked for their critiques of the Iraq war. The other four were Charles Krauthammer, Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, and John Lewis Gaddis. Impressive company for a humble farmer. And one senses it all makes Hanson a little uncomfortable. "Everyone I met in D.C. was gossiping about this important guy they met and that guy they met," he tells me. "Me? I spent yesterday negotiating with a Sikh farmer who was renting some of my land."
While gaining national prominence as a pundit, however, Hanson has become unpopular here in Selma. His books on immigration have turned him into a target for local diversity boosters. His stance on Iraq, too, has lost him friends. Hanson has two brothers, one a twin. Thanks to political differences, neither will speak to him. "I've lost almost all the friends I grew up with," he tells me. "People will come up to me, wag their finger, and tell me, 'I knew your mom. Now you're just a Bush lover.'"
Selma is becoming less hospitable in other ways, too. Methamphetamine labs are now common. On one recent occasion, police drove across Hanson's farm in hot pursuit of drug dealers. On another, Hanson had to escort a pair of fugitives off his property at gunpoint. His three sons now grown, Hanson, who lives with his wife of 28 years, is musing about spending more time in Palo Alto. But it's hard to imagine him off the farm: So much of his identity and intellectual energy is tied up with the land. Moreover, Hanson doesn't play so well with others. At a recent meeting at Hoover, he strained to remain polite when a free-market colleague blithely dismissed America's family farmers as road-kill on the path to efficient markets. At a meeting in Europe, he shocked his Bush-loathing Swiss host by lecturing him about the profits his nation made from Holocaust loot. And, needless to say, Hanson's views on affirmative action would make him anathema to most elite university administrations. The safe bet seems to be that he will continue to spend most of his time in Selma, chronicling the breakdown of rural America even as he urges it to rescue the cities from George Soros and Osama bin Laden.
The decay of Hanson's natural habitat, however, only partly explains his melancholy air. There is a sense of unfulfillable longing about the man--for an ideal of citizenship, of culture, of honor and decency and shame that is passing irreversibly into history. (In a recent National Review Online essay, he wrote that visiting Normandy leads one to "prefer the wisdom of the noble dead to the ignorance of the shameful living.") This longing is a powerful muse: Few writers combine such a broad understanding of the ancient world with a deep desire to resurrect its virtues. One suspects also that the tragic nature of the project takes its toll.
But Hanson isn't going to give up the battle any time soon. In fact, he has just started a new project--a novel. "It's about the Helots, the indentured servants of the Spartans," he tells me. "They were freed by Epaminondas. He was accused of all sorts of heresies and ulterior motives. The book's about preemption, multilateralism, confronting your enemies, democracy for the dispossessed, and ending tyranny.
"It's an allegory, I'm afraid," he adds. "That should be pretty obvious."
Jonathan Kay is managing editor of Canada's National Post and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.