People who do not understand strategy, tactics, or history often say that democracies are at a disadvantage in waging war against authoritarian regimes. A democratic people, the argument goes, prefers peace and prosperity over the rigors of battle, while militaristic societies eagerly and effectively mobilize war.

Victor Davis Hanson challenges this common view in The Soul of Battle. Hanson acknowledges that most of history’s great captains—Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon—were conquerors and aggressors. But their magnificent armies were formed to kill, not preserve; the prize of their victories was absolute rule, not freedom. In short, they and their armies lacked a moral sense and purpose. As a result, no matter how tactically brilliant their battles may have been, they were soulless. Hanson’s remarkable book argues that, on rare occasions, “there can be a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle.”

Hanson, a distinguished classicist at California State University, Fresno, and an accomplished military historian, contends that the “soul of battle” results from a combination of a just cause and the right commanding general, who creates an instrument of retribution, imbues it with moral fervor, and then directs “the horror of killing into a higher purpose of saving lives and freeing the enslaved.”

This soul of battle “arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement. Only then does battle take on a spiritual dimension, one that defines a culture, teaches it what civic militarism is, and how it is properly used.” The soul of battle has permitted democracies to “produce the most murderous of armies from the most unlikely of men.”

Hanson recalls his father, William Hanson, though not a violent man, helped to kill thousands of Japanese as a member of a B-29 crew in Gen. Curtis LeMay’s 21st Bomber Command. Hanson asks: “How [did] a democracy make a willing killer out of my father and other farm boys, putting their lives into the hands of an unhinged zealot like LeMay, who ostensibly was neither emblematic of democratic citizenry nor representative of the values that we purportedly cherish?”

Hanson examines three campaigns involving generals who, like LeMay, were as warlike as those great conquerors listed above, yet led armies whose purpose was to save lives, not to kill; to free slaves, not to enslave free men; to liberate territory, not to annex it. The first of these campaigns is the destruction of Spartan military power by a Theban army under Epaminondas in the winter of 370-369 B.C. The second is Sherman’s march to the sea through the heartland of the Southern Confederacy in November-December 1864. The third is the incomparable campaign of Patton’s Third Army against Nazi Germany in 1944-45.

* * *

Each of these generals led a democratic army into the homeland of an oppressive regime and, by ravaging an area previously inviolate, undermined the inequality upon which the power of the ruling class had been based. Epaminondas’s Theban army invaded Laconia, dismantling a system in which Spartans claimed a natural right to enslave 200,000 Messenian helots. Sherman’s Army of the West changed the psychological and material course of the Civil War, writes Hanson, by applying the “hard hand of war” to Georgia, freeing black slaves and discrediting the high-and-mighty planter aristocracy. Patton’s Third Army, despite obstacles thrown up by his own superiors, cut through the vaunted Wehrmacht, helped liberate the death camps in Germany, and put an end to “German military power an its entire pseudo-science of an over-class of genetic supermen.”

Hanson strives to show that Epaminondas, Sherman, and Patton had much in common. They were “eccentrics, considered unbalanced or worse by their own superiors.” But in each case, the general transformed untrained amateurs into “a deadly, fast-moving horde of predators who traveled continuously and left fire and ruin in their wake,” ripping the heart out of tyrannical regimes.

These three great democratic campaigns also contradict the view, advanced by military sociologists, that soldiers fight for their comrades rather than for abstract principles. On the contrary, argues Hanson, “Theban hoplites, Union troops, and American GIs were ideological armies foremost, composed of citizen-soldiers who burst into their enemies’ heartland because they believed it was a just and very necessary thing to do. The commanders who led them encouraged the ethical zeal, made them believe there was a real moral difference” between the goals for which they and their opponents fought.

The most controversial part of this book is, no doubt, the section on Sherman. Neo-Confederates will take issue with Hanson’s forthright description of the South as a slaveholding society. And military historians may also object to Hanson’s elevation of Sherman at the expense of Grant.

But these are quibbles that should not detract from the powerful argument advanced by this book—that the most lethal, most disciplined, and best-organized armies can emerge from the “chaos of democracy.” Yet once the war is over, the soldiers disperse and the army disappears, never to assemble again. It does not advance the personal ambitions of its general, or influence public policy, or threaten the constitutional order it serves.

In his epilogue, Hanson asks whether a “democratic march” against tyranny ever will be possible again. This is a troubling question. Circumstances today would seem to militate against the factors that gave rise to a citizen militia led by an Epaminondas, a Sherman, or a Patton—the combination of just cause and military genius.

Hanson notes that even during World War II, liberal American society was becoming increasingly hostile to eccentrics like Patton. Americans at large preferred the bland exemplars of the modern bureaucratic state, men such as Eisenhower and Bradley, to the coarse, boisterous, anti-democratic Patton, despite his role in shortening the war. The universal popularity of Colin Powell today is an indication that not much has changed, especially given his role prematurely ending the Gulf War, which Hanson argues is the most recent example of a democratic march against tyranny.

With the end of the Cold War, America has become a global hegemon. For better or worse, such a role requires “imperial policing,” constabulary operations designed to keep peace and underwrite the security of what we hope will continue to be a liberal world order. Democratic American “armies of a season” led by eccentric geniuses helped to create this order. One wonders whether America has the will or the wherewithal to sustain it.