Victor Davis Hanson joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss his book The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is the military historian, columnist, and classics scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Victor is an old friend of the Manhattan Institute and City Journal. He’s been a contributing editor for us. He’s the Martin and Illie Anderson senior fellow in residence in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution. He’s a distinguished fellow at the Center for American Greatness and a visiting professor at Hillsdale, among other distinctions and roles. His writing has appeared in dozens of outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and other leading publications. He’s the author of more than 20 books, and today we’re going to discuss his latest, which is called The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation. It’s really a compelling book. It came out in May, and it looks at the causes and consequences of wars of obliteration. So Victor, thanks very much for coming on 10 Blocks.

Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So, in this new book, The End of Everything, you chronicle the demise of four civilizations, classical Thebes, Punic Carthage, Byzantine Constantinople, and then the Aztecs. And there can be, you write, degrees of obliteration, and you described them in each of these examples, but there are also striking similarities in the wartime destruction of whole societies. So I wonder, just to start out, how do you define the total destruction of a culture? What do you mean by that?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, it’s different than just the obliteration of their infrastructure or the mass killing, as we saw during World War II when we firebombed Japan and we bombed Dresden and we left the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire a shell of their former selves, but we quickly allowed them to recalibrate under democratic auspices. And today there’s a thriving German culture. In some ways, there’s a continuity all the way back to the beginning of a united Germany. And the same is true of Japan. But what I was interested in is these rare occasions in history when a society, a civilization, a city state, an empire, a nation goes to war and they lose. And they not only lose their infrastructure—either it’s destroyed or simply absorbed and swallowed by the victor—but the civilization disappears. And by that, in the ancient world, in the pre-modern world, that’s usually either by mass murder or killing during combat in addition to enslavement. In all these cases that proved to be true.

And then of course, quickly after that, the vestigial language, religion, customs, and traditions fade. So that in the case say of Constantinople, there is really no idea of a Hellenic language, a Western tradition, and Christendom in Asia minor within 30 or 40 years after the destruction of Constantinople and the official end of the Byzantines. And so it’s rare, and I found a lot of cases, there was Melos in the Peloponnesian war, the Incas, but these cases were so striking I thought that I would focus on them and then see if there were patterns or similarities that would be of maybe some value in the present. Since we are in an age now where autocratic leaders are increasingly threatening to annihilate or to erase their enemies.

Brian Anderson: It is striking. When I read the book, I did feel relevance time and again as I worked through the chapters to things that are going on around us. I wonder, you described various, I guess you could call them strategic miscalculations or confusions that allowed these disasters to happen to these four civilizations and allowed their aggressors to defeat them. I wonder if you could give a brief rundown of what the most important of those mistakes were.

Victor Davis Hanson: One of them was naivete and an inability to, in a dispassionate and disinterested fashion, assess actually where they were vis-à-vis their origins or their apex. And by that, I mean they were, Thebes was not aware that it was no longer the Thebes of Epaminondas, the great liberator or the classical city in the fifth century that had lost the Battle of Chaeronea. It was alone, it was hated by many of its Confederate cities as well as Athens and Sparta. And the same was true of Constantinople. It was not the city that had lasted for 1,100 years. There was a lot of grandeur and the fumes of past glory. But if you actually look at the city itself, it was a much-diminished population and financially and arrears, same thing was true of Carthage, that they had lost two Punic Wars. They felt that they still were the Carthage of Hannibal, but by any calculated measurement, it was not.

And the Aztecs had already reached, they were a much younger civilization. Thebes was 1,200 years old, Carthage 800 and Constantinople 1,100, but 200 years to 250 for the Aztecs. And yet they were already ossifying, and yet all of these societies were unaware. Second thing is they all had a reliance that there was going to be in the 11th hour, allies on the horizon. The people of the Byzantine Empire looked at from the walls at the Hellespont or the Dardanelles and thought, any moment that Venetian, the Genovese will not let Christendom die in Asia, thought they will be sailing up to attack the Ottoman besiegers from the rear. The Theban said, we hear the Spartans. They’re already in the Peloponnese. They’re on their way here. Carthage said, and Driskos, the Macedonian firebrand is going to attack the Romans from the rear.

And the Aztecs said, the Aztec Empire is 4 million people. They didn’t quite say 4 million, but a huge, and there’s going to be allies that are going to turn on the Spanish. And yet that was not an accurate assessment of what their allies or their friends were guided by. They were guided by a cost-benefit analysis. It didn’t look like it was a profitable investment to sacrifice on behalf of these targeted cities. And then another one very quickly, and then I’ll stop, is that they didn’t really have an accurate assessment of the armies, and particularly the leaders that were outside their walls trying to destroy them. These were not Tamerlane, or Genghis Khan, or Attila, the Hun-like figures. They were much more methodical. They were masters of logistics. They had an agenda that had decided that these targeted cities or nations or empires were antithetical to their own and had to be not just defeated but surgically removed, if I could say that.

And they were also kind of intellectuals. I mean, Alexander the Great was the student of Aristotle, companion of the philosopher Callisthenes as he attacked the city and they thought, wow, he’s only 21. He wouldn’t do this. And he’s a man that’s reasonable. He took over from his father. Apparently, they didn’t really know much how he brought to the throne. In the case of Carthage, Scipio was famous, with a Scipionic Circle. He was a patron of playwrights like Terence. During the siege he had Polybius at his side, the great historian of Hellenistic age in early Rome. And in the case of Constantinople, Mehmed was bragging that he had one of the best libraries, and he was the successor to the Roman Empire. He thought he was intellectual. Cortés was a great rhetorician. So these were all accomplished people, and yet the enemy didn’t really understand what their agenda was, much less their capability to carry it out. So there was a lot of denial, naivete, ignorance about the relative power and the agendas vis-à-vis the army outside their walls.

Brian Anderson: How much of this was culture at work here, in terms of creating misunderstandings between the enemies? Certainly with the Aztecs, it’s quite vivid the way you describe how bizarre they were.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes. They didn’t understand that the people who were fighting were an ascendant culture and ascendant civilization that had decided that they were ossified or relics or anachronisms, and that they needed to be eliminated and that they had the ability to do so. In the case of the Aztecs, at first they thought that Cortés may be a god. They’d never seen people with white skin and black beards with metal corsets, breastplates, steel, huge war dogs. I mean, a Mastiff weighed 150 pounds. And horses, they thought they were centaurs at once connected to the horse as an entity in itself. And they didn’t understand anything, who these people were, that these were the most lethal warriors in Europe. They’ve been fighting the Muslims for 400 years, and the Castilians were the most accomplished of all Spanish fighters. And they had been fighting the Italians, they been fighting, they’d been fighting everyone, and they were extremely deadly soldiers.

And so the Aztecs didn’t understand what their weapons were like, what gunpowder was, who these people were, what they wanted. They didn’t understand their method of war. They took captives. It was kind of like a bowling pin. They knocked people down and tied them up and got credit for captives and then hauled them off to Templo Mayor and sacrificed them. They didn’t realize that the Western way of war was to hit the enemy with shock, kill as many people, take ground, and then demand political concessions from the defeated. That was completely alien. The Ottomans looked at the Byzantines and thought, this is such an imperial, beautiful city, and there’s so few of them now, and they’re so soft that they have to be eliminated. They don’t belong here. And the Byzantines thought, we have the Theodosian Walls. They don’t have any idea that nobody’s ever breached them.

But they were completely oblivious. The idea that the Ottomans were hiring Europeans to make superior cannons. They had mercenaries. They had such a huge force, and they didn’t understand fully that, they wrote letters back and forth to their Muslim attackers. Why are you destroying us? You can have concessions. We don’t hurt anybody. And they didn’t understand Mehmed and what the Ottoman mindset was. Same thing was true with the Romans. They had decided that they were going to master not just the Western Mediterranean, but the Eastern, the Republic was, and that they had been invaded and occupied by Hannibal a half century prior for 50 years. And they were tired of it. And they thought, we have the power now. And they’d sent a delegation to inspect Carthage. They paid off their fines from the second Punic war, and they were half a million strong. And they thought, oh my God, here they go again.

These people can never be suppressed unless we destroy them. And of course, the Carthaginians thought, we’re a commercial city, we can partner with you. We’re a value to you. We’re not warlike anymore. We’ve been defeated. They just didn’t communicate. And then Alexander was a Macedonian. Macedonian was barely intelligible as a Greek dialect. His father had been assassinated. The Thebans thought they were completely free, that there was rumors that Alexander had been killed. There was dynastic feuding, Spartans and Athenians had assured them that the Macedonians, if they did come, would find Greece, all 1,500 city-states in rebellion. Never in their right mind did they know who Alexander really was. He was a 21-year-old killer, that he destroyed them at the Battle of Carinthia three years earlier when he was 18, and that he could cover the 250 miles in less than 10 days.

So when he pulled up with 30,000 of the toughest soldiers in the world, the Macedonian phalanx, they were utterly stunned. And the Spartans said, we don’t want any part of this. And they turned back and marched home. So did the Athenians. They didn’t want any part, and yet the Thebans said, we have seven gated thieves of legend. We can do this. We can sustain them. And they lost their city and their 1,100 years of culture, the cities of Antigone and Pentheus, and The Bacchae and Oedipus, they lost it in an afternoon.

Brian Anderson: It’s amazing. In our affluent age, it’s an age of global connectivity. It might be tempting to assume that these kinds of conflicts, these kinds of annihilating wars are a thing of the past. Yet a strong theme of your book is that human nature is the same. It doesn’t change. And it continues to include the drive to conquer and dominate. And now we have this kind of technological vector—nuclear, chemical, biological weapons, artificial intelligence perhaps now. What does all this add up to in terms of the possibility of wars of annihilation looming in the future?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, when I wrote the book, I had no idea that it would have contemporary relevance. But just yesterday, Xi and Putin said, they had a one-sentence statement saying, we don’t believe nuclear weapons should ever be used and can never win a war. And why were they saying that now? They were saying that now, because both them felt that they had conventional forces that could either respectively take Taiwan and maybe take Ukraine and NATO, and the United States might have to prevent that only through a nuclear deterrent. And in the epilogue, I cataloged all of the threats that people had made existentially. Mr. Erdogan in Turkey promising he’d had a 19th-century solution of his grandparents to deal with the Armenian problem, or the Israelis and the Greeks would wake up and see Turkish missiles raining down on their cities, or Iran the serial, monotonous threats to wipe out Israel. And yet here we are with the first time in the history of the Jewish state. It was attacked by the largest combined aerial assault really since the Korean War. I mean, it was 320 missiles of various types.

And then of course there’s Mr. Putin, I think I counted 17 publicized threats from Russian media and Russian media people, Russian generals, Russian statesmen, same as through Xi and the Communist Chinese. They’ve threatened to use nuclear weapons against Japan. They even made a film about it. And when I mentioned this, the Chinese publisher decided, who had sold a lot of copies of my book on World War II, they just said, you have to take that out, or we’re canceling the contract. So I couldn’t do that. So they did cancel the contract. They were so sensitive to it. But you’re right about human nature. October 7 was a pre-modern, we thought, type of violence we hadn’t really seen, and so well publicized and filmed even, filmed by the perpetrators as if it was an act of honor, mutilations, decapitation, incinerations, mass rape, just horrific things. And yet we had people cheering it on.

Professors at my university, professors at Cornell said they were exhilarated. So yeah, human nature hasn’t changed. But the delivery system, as you point out, and I remarked about that, has speeded up the ability or was a force multiplier of the ability to wipe out civilization much more effectively than muscular strength, whether it’s nuclear or biological or chemical or artificial intelligence-guided munitions. So human nature hasn’t changed, but the ways that people destroy each other have, and I think we should, here in the United States, if you look at some of the things I suggested that was common in all of these, naivete, an unrealistic appraisal of their relative strength, financial, economic, military vis-à-vis what they had been before in the world, their vulnerabilities are internal. And then you correlate that with a completely unsecured border, 10 million people coming in, Chinese nationals, 25,000 of them.

We have no missile defense. Over a half century after Ronald Reagan, almost a half century told us we needed one. We never really built one. We have some, but it’s some ability to knock down a few missiles, but not like the Iron Dome or anything. And we’ve destroyed meritocracy in our military. We’re 45,000 recruits short. Nobody seems to worry that we’re $36 trillion in debt and borrowing a trillion every 100 days. So if we were dispassionate and looked at the status of the United States right now, I think that we would conclude that we’re quite vulnerable, that we have a lot of global obligations, and we are sworn allies by treaty and by intent to protect Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, NATO, European countries in the EU that are not in NATO de facto. And I don’t think we’re anywhere near having the ability to do that.

I don’t think we have the ability to ensure that people are not coming into our country with ill intent. And I say that as someone who lives 12 miles away from a biolab in Reedley, California of all places, a little tiny agrarian town. Right in the very packing house where I worked as a kid, they found a Chinese biolab with vials on the floor of cholera, malaria, HIV, Covid, SARS virus, every deadly type of pathogen, and dead genetically engineered mice, right in the middle of this little town. And it was somebody with connections with the Chinese government who claimed that he was trying to create a testing service, but there was no evidence of that. No one to this day knows what it was all about, except it was very dangerous.

Brian Anderson: Very sobering indeed. I remember reading about that at the time and haven’t read anything subsequent to that initial burst of news. So I yeah, I’d be curious to know what the blazes was going on there. Well, it does highlight the importance of this book, Victor. It’s called The End of Everything. And with that, I will conclude, and don’t forget to check out Victor Davis Hanson’s work in the City Journal website. He’s written for us for many years. That’s at We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can find him on X, of course, @vdhanson. You can also find City Journal on X, @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As usual, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. And anybody interested in history, foreign policy issues, this new book, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation is extremely important. So Victor, thanks for sharing your time this afternoon with us.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, thank you, Brian. I appreciate it very much. Good to talk to you again.

Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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