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What Ancient History Tells Us About Iraq By: Victor Davis Hanson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 13, 2006


Victor Davis Hanson gave the following speech at the Wednesday Morning Club at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, on February 1, 2006. For more information on the Wednesday Morning Club, e-mail Mike. --The Editors.

Michael Wiener: It’s truly an honor to be here to introduce to you somebody whom I greatly admire and whom I consider a friend. Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a classical scholar. He’s a Director Emeritus of Classics at California State University at Fresno. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Science, also at Stanford. He has won awards as a commentator. He has won awards as a journalist. He’s the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and the Manassas Fellow in Greece. He’s a terrific fellow, I might add. And he’s also been a professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He’s written many books and countless articles and I would encourage you to go on his own personal website, VictorHanson.com, which has profound insights about the world today.

Prior to 2003, my wife, Adrienne, and I had heard Victor speak, but I had not yet read one of his books. It was that year that I read Mexifornia. The reason I mention that is because I believe Mexifornia provides the clearest insight into this wonderful man. When you read that book, you learn of his kindness, his goodness, his humanity, as well as his scholarship and the clarity of his analysis. We live in a chaotic world, and Victor Davis Hanson makes order out of chaos. It was in that book, Mexifornia, where we learned much about his personal history. Specifically, we learned about his unique love of the land and the fact that he works and lives on a 40-acre farm in Selma, California, outside Fresno.

 

Now, two years ago, along with David Horowitz, we spent a week with Victor in Florence as a prequel to this year’s trip to Rome. He presented a series of lectures about the Renaissance and the evolution of Western society, but I have to tell you that there was one lecture that I will always remember.

 

We were on a bus going to Siena, passing through the Italian countryside, and Victor made that countryside truly come alive. The structure of the hillside farm, with olive groves at the top, vineyards just below, and wheat fields below that, enabled a family of five to survive and thrive. And it’s the understanding of the land that made possible an understanding of history and the Renaissance. Victor Davis Hanson provided us with that opportunity to learn.

 

Victor Davis Hanson is not only a scholar, but he is a man of the land. He is a farmer, much the way our Founding Fathers –Washington, Adams, and Jefferson – were farmers. They understood the land, and Victor Davis Hanson is that kind of man.

 

This book, A War Like No Other, goes beyond and supplements the multi-volume works of Thucydides. This is a story of a 27-year Greek civil war, told from the unique viewpoint of a humanist and scholar. Victor tells human stories of battle. There are stories of sieges, ethnic cleansing, mass killing, drought, famine, and plague.


But there’s one anecdote in the book that I think highlights Victor’s unique analysis and perspective. In 431 B.C., the Peloponnesians, the Spartans, came to Attica with the idea to destroy the farmland. But there were five to ten million olive trees and even more vineyards in a 1,000-square-mile landscape. The Spartans failed and found it easier to fell men than to kill trees. And Victor writes, “What were they thinking?”:

 

A few years ago, I tried to chop down several old walnut trees on my farm. Even when the axe did not break, it sometimes took me hours to fell an individual tree. Subsequent trials with orange, plum, peach, olive, apricot trunks were not much easier. Even after I chain sawed an entire plum grove during the spring, within a month or so, large suckers shot out from the stumps.


Who else but a farmer could tell that story and analyze what the Peloponnesian war is all about?

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Victor Davis Hanson!

 

Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you very much. You know, it’s funny about the title of this book. A writer for Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine got very angry about the book, and he said the worst thing about it was, “Hanson dreamed up this title.” These were Thucydides’ own words: “a war like no other.”

 

Why would we want to study something that happened 2,500 years ago? After all, Greece was 50,000 square miles. It had no more than a million-and-a-half people. What in the world could it tell us, not only about war in general, but about war in the present age?

 

I think there are three reasons why it’s valuable to look at that particular war. First, you had this clear antithesis: on one side, a democracy: Athens; on the other, an oligarchy. One a sea power and a liberal cosmopolitan society; the other a parochial, inward, and rural society. One with great naval power and an overseas empire; the other didn’t even have money. It was a non-monetary economy, and it had a great army. This was a way of looking at the two systems to judge the relative merits, as if the battlefield can always adjudicate these issues, and that’s a good reason to look at it.

 

The second is that, fortunately for us, unlike the Persian wars or even the Punic wars, there was a great philosopher who was embedded as a reporter: Thucydides. And he wasn’t embedded by desire: he was exiled. Remember poor Donald Rumsfeld? He won the hot war in Iraq in three weeks, and they wanted to have him coronated as king; then the museum was looted and Abu Ghraib occurred, and leftists think he’s the worst thing since Douglas MacArthur. That’s what happened to Thucydides. He was exiled for coming two days late to a naval battle, where he was pitted against an authentic military genius: the Spartan general Brasidas.

 

In response to that bitterness, he went among the troops on both sides and wrote this history. Even then we wouldn’t necessarily want to read it. There are a lot of ancient battles that are tedious, written by authors like Xenophon or Diodorus. But he was a philosopher, and he used this war to reflect a higher theme, which I think is very important at this time. We as products of the Enlightenment, especially the influence of the French Enlightenment – Rousseau’s thought – believe that in modern therapeutic society man is born into the world perfect, and then the family burdens him with hang-ups. Religion burdens him, and society gives him neuroses.

 

Thucydides said just the opposite. We are potentially all savage and what keeps us civilized each day is what he called “the thin veneer of civilization.” If he got to cover a plague, a revolution, ethnic cleansing, hebexpanded that to show – at Corfu, or Athens, or Mytilene – what people are capable of. And when you see something like Katrina, the Pakistan earthquake or what we see with the Islamists in Iraq, it’s Thucydidean to the core. Civilization is so precious that we all must guard it very carefully, because it can be lost in a minute. That’s a second reason to read about this war, to see the brilliant insights of this philosopher, Thucydides.

 

The third, of course, is that Athens lost. That’s not supposed to happen. It was a democratic society. Our Founding Fathers said we were the new Athens. It was democratic. It was sophisticated. It was skeptical. It was often cynical, sometimes nihilistic. Powerful, wealthy, often like America. But it lost.

 

So, I’d just like to talk about the lessons for two or three minutes. The war broke out in 431, when Sparta preemptively invaded and crossed the boundaries of Attica. The question was: how does a sea power defeat a land power? It can’t, because Athens would not fight on land, and Sparta was incapable of fighting on sea. You’d think somebody would have thought of that before the war, but neither side did.

 

So, as is true of all asymmetrical wars, Sparta ran around and tried to egg on the Athenians to come out of their walls. They wouldn’t, and the Athenians tried to surround the Peloponnese, the rural area, the Laconia, by seaborne raids, and they wouldn’t come out to fight. But, like all wars – and this still rings true – things happen in war that nobody anticipates.

 

If you had said that the IED is going to kill 60 percent of all American soldiers, nobody would have believed you just three years ago. What happened was, as Sparta began to invade, the Athenians chose not to fight them, but they went into these massive fortifications and thought they would ride out the invasion.

 

Great idea. This was Pericles’ policy. He was a democratic leader who created the Athenian empire in its greatest age. He had enjoyed 30 years of magnificent leadership. He came up with a brilliant idea to just exhaust the Spartans. Of course, he did not anticipate that a city designed for a 100,000 is not designed for 300,000. A terrible plague, either typhoid – or more likely, I think, a form of smallpox – broke out and killed 80,000 Athenians.

 

After that happened, Athens couldn’t win the war. For the next five years, Athens was weak and depended on its allies for imported food, because they were surrounded and couldn’t reach their own fields. They started to rebel, and everybody thought Athens was going to lose. Then, as Thucydides says is true with democracies, they rebounded. They got back their nerve. They got audacious commanders. They beat the Spartans, and this tit-for-tat went on to produce a peace. Both sides were exhausted. What in Roman history is called a bellum interruptum: things merely return to the status before the war. For seven years, there was a peace.

 

Pericles died during the plague, but the new Athenian politicians said, “They wouldn’t want a peace unless they’re weak. Let’s attack Sicily.” Now, I had a debate once with Arianna Huffington, and she said, “You should be ashamed because this is just like Sicily going to Iraq.” And I said, “Do you really want to make that comparison?” Because Athens attacked Sicily, which was another democracy and larger than Athens. As I said to her, the better comparison would be, right in the middle of the Afghan campaign, we decide to attack India.

 

It got worse, because, after they did this sort of blunder and they sent 40,000 people 800 miles away to attack a neutral democracy, Thucydides came up a right-wing interpretation nobody like Arianna Huffington would ever want to quote: “For all the problems, they could have pulled it off and it would have worked, if they just hadn’t fought and stabbed the troops in the back at home.” And that’s what they did. At least, he thought they did.

 

After Sicily, this is the second great catastrophe. Now it’s 413. Children who were 8 and 9 years old are in the fleet and have been killed. This war goes on for 27 years.

 

Finally, Sparta determined, “The only way you can beat Athens is to build a fleet. The Persians, the people they used to fear and fought at Thermopylae, have the money. We can lose three ships to their two.” This was the sort of strategy Ulysses S. Grant employed in the summer of 1864.

 

Sparta followed this, and Athens was finally defeated at the Battle of Aegospotami, losing its fleet. After 27 years of fighting, the Spartan fleet sailed into the Piraeus. They tore down the long walls, and Xenophon said they did it to the music of flute players.

 

What does all that tell us about today? I’d like recount some of his observations that might also apply to our present ordeal.

 

Why do wars start? Osama bin Laden told us in his infamous 1998 fatwa that he was declaring open season for two reasons: the UN embargo we supported against Iraqi children and the stationing of U.S. troops in the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Well, the troops are not there anymore, and there’s no UN embargo; it’s been replaced by $87 billion dollars pledged to build Iraq – yet there’s still a war with bin Laden. What happened?

 

The answer is a word that Thucydides created that had not been in the Greek language before him: profasis. It means “perceived grievance,” or maybe loosely translated, “pretext.” Sparta said that they had to attack Athens because Athens had had a siege at Potidea. Athens had hurt the Megarians. Athens had been on the wrong side – these were all perceptions, pretext, perceived grievance.

 

Thucydides said the real reason they fought was because they were afraid, and he used a word: phobos. They had a phobia about Athens. Athens was cosmopolitan, growing, powerful, and it excited what Thucydides said were the age-old engines that drive us: envy. Jealousy. Self-interest. Pride. Honor. Thucydides suggests people always allege formal grievances, but they usually hide real hurt.

 

The population today of Germany is 81 million, 15 percent smaller than it was in 1939. Why isn’t German saying that, “If we don’t have Lebensraum, we will die”? Because that wasn’t the question with Hitler. It’s about pride in the sense of inferiority. Is the war in the West Bank really about 93 percent of demands? No. What is it about? It’s about a prosperous, competent Western society plopped right down alongside the PA. We can’t help it, but we’re reminding you every day. And that creates this Thucydidean anger, desires, contradictions, paradoxes.

 

That’s how most wars start. Thucydides teaches us that. These appetites drive them. The Spartans didn’t need the Athenian empire, but they realized everybody went there to see Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Pheidias, and the Parthenon. You didn’t go to Sparta to do anything. It was a loser society.

 

Thucydides also tells us there’s such a thing called “deterrence.” If I were Thucydides in 1998, I would say bin Laden is going to do something terrible to the United States.

 

We had quite a run-up in the Islamic war against the West: the 1979 Iranian hostage, the Beirut embassies, the Beirut annex, the murder of the 241 Marines, the first World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers, the East African embassies, the USS Cole. We lost the sense of deterrence, like a sleeping dog who shoos away a fly, and made it open season on American soldiers and diplomats. Bin Laden said after Mogadishu that Americans will not or cannot do anything about it.

 

The Athenians didn’t realize it, because, when you lose deterrence, you always have the logic of appeasement to suggest you haven’t lost. But the fact of the matter was, once they adopted a policy, they would go into their walls and write it out. Nobody told Pericles, “You have no mechanism to punish the Spartans if they set foot one inch into your land. And when they do it, even though they can’t cut down all of your olive trees, they can send a message to your allies that you cannot or will not stop enemies being right outside your walls.” They lost the deterrence, and the war started.

 

Boy, if once you get that Thucydidean concept, the world starts to become easy to understand. Why did Mr. Galtieri, the dictator who was general of the Argentines, invade the Falklands? Because he said there was a mine sweeper that had left, and the new prime minister was a woman, Margaret Thatcher. He thought Britain had lost deterrence.

 

I supported the withdrawal out of Gaza for strategic military reasons, but I was not naïve enough to think that part of the problem the Israelis have was after the 39 Scuds hit Tel Aviv, and after they gave that generous offer at Camp David of 97 percent of the West Bank. After the unilateral earlier withdrawal from Lebanon, now with Gaza, they are sending a message that perhaps this new generation of Israel can’t or won’t defend itself.

 

It’s not true, just as it wasn’t true with us after 9/11. But that’s what happens with deterrence, and Thucydides teaches us this war broke out because Athens gave the wrong messages. It’s very dangerous during peace not to give a message that, if anybody starts a war, they’ll pay a terrible price. That’s what’s so important about the Iranian president. He needs to know there is a certain point at which, if the intelligence suggests he’s going on a particular pattern, that’s it. Otherwise, we’ve lost deterrence, and we’ll be stuck with a nightmarish situation. We have a bad choice now; we’re going to have a worse one to come.

 

Almost everything we see today happened during this 27-year-long war. We mentioned ethnic cleansing. The Athenians cleansed everybody who was not Ionic or democratic. The Spartans do it to oligarchs, targeted assassinations. They assassinate political leaders and kidnap diplomats. People throw people over triremes, lop off limbs, burn people in houses. It’s all there. Why did he include it all? Because he says, at the very beginning, that he wanted his history to be of some value to the future. And here’s the money line: “As long as the nature of man remains unchanged.”

 

If you believe that, that we’re not in some compressed Darwinian cycle where our brain chemistry is changing due to technology or improved diet – that more education, more money, more therapy can change human nature – then you can study the wars of the past for diagnostic purposes. That’s exactly why this war is so valuable. For every tactic, there’s a reaction and they’re all known from the past.

 

What about peace? We hear a lot about peace in the Middle East. Bin Laden offered us a truce.

 

In 421, both sides were exhausted. There was something called the “Peace of Nicias,” which ended the first section of war, called the Archidamian war. That lasted about five-and-a-half years. Why? As Thucydides said, wars start over perceived grievances and because of a lack of deterrence. In a minute we’ll see how they end.

 

But if the reasons that the war started have not been removed, then why wouldn’t the war break out again? I mean, the Civil War is over with today because there is no chattel slavery. The people who vilified Lincoln in the summer of 1864, similar to our own present-day copperheads, wanted to have an armistice and allow chattel slavery to exist. If you look at the countries that were included in President Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” Germany was not included, because Nazism doesn’t exist anymore. Japan is a great ally. Even Vietnam didn’t make the list. I think we militarily won that war but that was a political defeat and that issue has been resolved. In other words, victory or defeat determine whether a war continues or stops.

 

Who is in the Axis of Evil? Korea is in the Axis of Evil, because that was a bellum interruptum, wasn’t it? In 1952, the decision was made not to go past the 38th paralle,l and we bequeathed a war to our grandchildren, and it will be an ungodly disaster if North Korea uses nuclear weapons. Iran was in President Bush’s nuclear Axis of Evil. That war started in 1979 and has not been resolved because it has a theocratic, fascistic government that’s pledged to destroy Israel and the United States, and until that changes, whether through peaceful or violent means, we will be at war with Iran. Iraq was included, because Saddam Hussein escaped punishment in 1991. We didn’t go to Baghdad in the first Gulf War. We had a second Gulf War called the “no-fly zones” that went on for twelve-and-a-half years. Then we had the three-week war and, this time, we removed him and I don’t think that Iraq is now in the Axis of Evil. That issue is resolved.

 

That was true in the ancient world. How did Thucydides’s war end? The war had to end one of two ways: either Athens had to physically go down to Sparta, free all of the the serfs who farmed and provided the food for the Spartan army, and destroy the Spartan army itself in a pitched battle. Or Sparta had to go on the high seas, blockade Athens so it couldn’t import food, station troops out in the field so Athenians couldn’t farm their own fields, and destroy the Athenian navy. Once that happened, then they could impose a will onto the Athenians and say, “The Athenian empire is over. You have 12 triremes. You might even have your democracy. But no longer are you going to be the cultural renaissance of the ancient world.” And that’s what they did in 404 and 403.

 

That was the end of the Athenian empire and the dream of Pericles as we know it. This is what’s even more ironic: they became as we are with Japan and Germany. They became very good friends in the fourth century, because the issue that had divided them was over.

 

If this has any currency or didactic value for us, it seems to me, if you look at any of the current struggles that are going on that have been repeated and chronic. If you look at Israel in 1947, ’56, ’67, ’73, there’s a pattern there. After aggression on the part of the Arab neighbors who surround Israel, Israel reacts and by day six or seven an American diplomat was negotiating with his Russian counterpart, then calling his Israeli counterpart and saying, “Hurry up, I can only give you two more days.” A nuclear deterrent saw to this arrangement. Those wars were never allowed to finish with a defeat and humiliation of the enemy that might have caused a lasting peace.

 

So today we don’t have a Soviet deterrent, but we have the Arab and Islamic world scrambling as fast as they can to find a nuclear deterrent. If any of you asks yourselves, “Why does Persia want a bomb? Why did Saddam want a bomb?” I think the answer, to be a little bit reductionist, is, besides all the national pride that accrues, and the concern of European diplomats, and the blackmail money, and the effect on oil prices you can achieve, it’s a replacement for the Soviet nuclear deterrent. It allows you then to do things in the Middle East that you used to be able to do and not have to pay the price.

 

But since the fall of the Soviet Union, notice that no Arab country, sovereign country has invaded Israel. That’s because there’s no Gromyko or Brezhnev to call them and say, “Don’t do this.” There’s no deterrent, and that’s what they’re desperately seeking. Because they understand better than we do that wars end when one side wins and one side loses. 

Thank you very much.

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Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A War Like No Other" (Random House).


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