Thucydides: Ur-Historian of the Ur-War

Our West Point-educated wisemen on the matter of Iraq have been beating the drum: Read Thucydides! Col. Peter Mansoor tipped me over the edge with a post-game remark about the daily brutalities in Baghdad. “Read Thucydides on the revolt at Corcyra,” he said. “You can practically see the drill bits in the head.” So we’ve plunged.


Thucydides (c. 465 – 395 BC) wrote — “for all time,” as he prophesied — of the Peloponnesian War between the imperial city-states Athens and Sparta at the close of the 5th Century, BC. He was the first modern historian of, arguably, the first modern war. It was long and merciless civil slaughter — a “war like no other,” on land, sea and islands — that ended the glory years of Hellenic civilization. Thucydides narrates, in effect, a world war in the Mediterranean, “a twenty-seven-year nightmare that wrecked Greece,” in the judgment of our contemporary Victor Davis Hanson.

Thucydides, I find, is as modern as Neil Sheehan in Vietnam or Peter Arnett on CNN in the Gulf War of 1991. No thunderbolts from Zeus, no visits from Pallas Athena to Achilles in his tent, lighten or mythologize this Peloponnesian War. Thucydides gives us gritty black-and-white reporting from the meticulous and critical eye of an Athenian war officer. He is famously careful about sourcing his evidence and justifying his judgments of men, battles and human behavior in general.

And what a grim lot of judgments it is!

On the local and personal politics of war, for example. Cleon of Athens and Brasidas of Sparta

…had been the two principal opponents of peace on either side — the latter from the success and honor which war gave him, the former because he thought that, if tranquility were restored, his crimes would be more open to detection and his slanders less credited.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 5

On power: As the Athenian envoys explained to the independent islanders of Melos, about to be crushed like bugs:

The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Chapter 17: The Melian Conference, The Fate of Melos

On the politics of empire: For the Athenians, enmity in external affairs was preferable to friendship, as the same sorry Melians were instructed:

… for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power… so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Chapter 17: The Melian Conference, The Fate of Melos

On the inversions and corruptions of language and character in wartime:

And people altered, at their pleasure, the customary significance of words to suit their deeds: irrational daring came to be considered the “manly courage of one loyal to his party”; prudent delay was thought a fair-seeming cowardice; a moderate attitude was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything. Rash enthusiasm for one’s cause was deemed the part of a true man; to attempt to employ reason in plotting a safe course of action, a specious excuse for desertion. One who displayed violent anger was “eternally faithful,” whereas any who spoke against such a person was viewed with suspicion. One who laid a scheme and was successful was “wise,” while anyone who suspected and ferreted out such a plot beforehand was considered still cleverer. Any who planned beforehand in order that no such measures should be necessary was a “subverter of the party” and was accused of being intimidated by the opposition. In general, the one who beat another at performing some act of villainy beforehand was praised, as was one who urged another on to such a deed which the latter, originally, had no intention of performing. Indeed, even kinship came to represent a less intimate bond than that of party faction, since the latter implied a greater willingness to engage in violent acts of daring without demur. For such unions were formed, not with a view to profiting from the established laws, but with a view toward political advantage contrary to such laws. And their mutual oaths they cemented, not by means of religious sanction, but by sharing in some common crime.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 3:82 – 3:83: Civil War in Corcyra

On the price of the tragedy:

Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book III 69 – 85, The Civil War at Corcyra.

My first question: Is it the right use of Thucydides to say of human nature that we are an unredeemably domineering and self-destructive species of killing machines?

Take heart, for there are peace-mongers, too, in this book, like Hermocrates, the most influential among the Syracusans at Sicily, who prevail in the end against the Athenians:

And why, if peace is acknowledged by all to be the greatest of blessings, should we not make peace among ourselves? Whatever good or evil is the portion of any of us, is not peace more likely than war to preserve the one and to alleviate the other? And has not peace honours and glories of her own unattended by the dangers of war? …As I said at first, I am the representative of a great city which is more likely to act on the aggressive than on the defensive; and yet with the prospect of these dangers before me I am willing to come to terms, and not to injure my enemies in such a way that I shall doubly injure myself. …Let us remember too that we are all neighbours, inhabitants of one island home, and called by the common name of Sicilians.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book Four: The Jowett Translation

Victor Davis Hanson’s powerful introduction to Robert Strassler’s admirable edition of The Landmark Thucydides concludes:

The Peloponnesian War turns out to be no dry chronicle of abstract cause and effect. No, it is above all an intense, riveting, and timeless story of strong and weak men, of heroes and scoundrels and innocents too, all caught in the fateful circumstances of rebellion, plague, and war that always strip away the veneer of culture and show us for what we really are.

Victor Davis Hanson, Introduction: The Landmark Thucydides

Is this who we really are?

Robert Strassler

Editor, The Landmark Thucidydes: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War

Victor Davis Hansen

Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Author, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War and The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, among many others

Kimberly Kagan

Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University

Author, The Eye of Command

Director, Understanding Military Operations

Extra Credit Reading
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (downloadable), trans. Thomas Hobbes, 1628.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (downloadable), trans. Richard Crowley.

Brent Ranalli, The Iraq War and the Sicilian Campaign, theGlobalist, January 22, 2006: “Does history repeat itself? If it does, it may be worthwhile to look back further than the Vietnam War and to compare the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with the Athenian campaign against Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 415 B.C.”

Brad DeLong, The Civil War in Iraq Corcyra, Vrad DeLong’s Daily Journal, December 18, 2006: “For some reason, both the New Republic and the Weekly Standard rejected this forecast of civil war in Iraq account of the civil war in Corcyra when it was submitted to them back in 2003.”

Harry Kreisler, War: Conversation with Victor Davis Hanson, Conversations with History, 2004.

Via Ben Jonson: Francis Macdonald Cornford, Thucydides Mythistoicus, Kessinger Publishing, March 2004.

James F. Trumm, Thucydides Nails It, Framed, December 12, 2006: “Talk about being condemmed to repeat the past: fast-forward to Atrios, our modern-day Thucydides, writing about our own times.”

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  • al in PT

    I was totally astounded when I read the History of the PW. Thucydides, along with Herodotus, are indeed authors that a democracy *not* read at their own peril. They are the original historians, and the overarching thing I gained out of reading them is that, barrring slight linguistic differences, not much has changed since they wrote. Yes, it is absolutely who we are. Why they are not taught in all schools, is beyond me.

  • In the future people will read Juan Cole as we read Thucydides.

  • Hansrudolf

    The “really” word looks very much like the “truth” word Rorty is writing about. There is no “really” out there. And that’s good news. For 2007, too.

  • Thucydides was indeed incredibly modern. 2 examples have remained with me since my college days, over 25 years ago.

    The first was his description of the plague which struck Athens during the Spartan siege. He noted that no amount of hommage payed to the Gods or similar superstitous activity seemed to have any affect at all on the ravages of the disease.

    Secondly, in a brilliant stroke of insight, he sums up the ultimate cause of this great conflict in one pithy observation: that Sparta was fearful of expanding Athenian power as a threat to its independence, and acted pre-emptively in an attempt to preserve its own traditions and way of life.

    He is modern becuase his observations and insights are rational, reasonable, and enduring.

    Notice that even though today, since we have so many of the Athenian contributions to western culture in areas such as politics, philosophy, art, literature, and mathematics to name a few, and no such legacy from the militaristic Spartans, one tends to view the ostensibly democratic Athenians as the ” good guys” and the Spartans , with their deplorable system of helotry, as the “bad guys’ of the conflict.

    Thucydides’ genius lay in his ability to describe, observe, and analyze, the conflict, and to none the less make us aware of the oppresive and threatening nature of the imperial rule of the cultured Athenians.

    We may want to ask ourselves the same question today, when, in the wake of Vietnam,Iran in 1953,Chile in 1972, and of course, most recently in Iraq, we, the cultured, freedom loving Americans wonder , ” why do they hate us?”

    Mark Borowsky, M.D.

  • hurley

    Good idea, I look forward to the show. Also the related notion of examining the dreadful present through the distant past. How about a reconsideration of the classics in light of current affairs? Or vv…Next up, the Aeneid, anybody? Of arms and the man…

    In the meantime, apropos Corcyra and elsewhere:

    Words strain,

    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

    Will not stay still. Shrieking voices

    Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,

    Always assail them. The Word in the desert

    Is most attacked by voices of temptation,

    The crying shadow in the funeral dance,

    The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

    T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

  • loki

    Neil Sheehan would be a great guest. I met him years ago in his hometown Holyoke MA just after he finished his book on John Van Dan (sp ?) When our military recommends turning over more responsibility to the Iraqi Military or embedding advisors it would be very interesting investigating Viet Nam-ization again. Neil Shee would be the perfect witness!

  • loki

    Why not bring together David Halberstam, John Laurence, Al Gore(a war reporter fro the army) and Neal Sheehan to talk war along with present Iraqi reporters.

  • You may want to consider another battle in the same war: The details. Thucydides isn’t the only one to look at; and other battles have valuable lessons.

  • Chris writes “Thucydides, I find, is as modern as Neil Sheehan in Vietnam or Peter Arnett on CNN in the Gulf War of 1991.” as well as ” It [the Peloponnesian] was long and merciless civil slaughter — a “war like no other,” on land, sea and islands — that ended the glory years of Hellenic civilization.

    What I find fascinating is what this reveals about Chris perspective on Vietnam / Sheehan and the first Gulf War and Arnett.

    With hindsight, we can look back and see the Peloponnesian war was in fact, the beginning of the end of Classical Greek society and especially the Empire of the City State of Athens. But, it didn’t require thousands of years nor even hundreds of years to pass after the war to know that this was the case. Greek society was in tatters after the war and never recovered.

    The US has however, since the Vietnam War and especially since the first Gulf war, moved past all other countries / societies and have even begun to accelerate away from them. The only people / ideas for whom these 2 American War experiences were like the Peloponneisan war was to the Greeks are to those who didn’t understand them and try and give to them more importance than they deserve.

    The Vietnam war was nothing more than a purgative for US society in general and the US military in particular that allowed us to “pass” the waste left over from WWII and the early vestiges of the Cold War and move on to a posture that allowed us to speed communisms rush towards the trash bin of history. Then, move onto to THE predominate influence in the world today.

    The only thing that we can learn from someone who wishes to teach us anything from the Vietnam era is that old saying is correct -“50% of everything that anyone tries to tell you is wrong and the problem is determining which 50% is which”. Anyone who will try and argue that the US has done anything but prosper since Vietnam is obviously on the wrong side of that 50% and if they think that the root cause of that prosperity that today, the US today is like a US that would have been much more successful in that war then they are delusional – the reason why we are the way that we are today is that our society, institutions almost everything, tends to marginalize people / ideas that wish to use the Vietnam as anything other than a minor stumble in a great upward arc.

  • Chris forgot the most important quote “But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

    This doesn’t sound like someone line Kerry whose “vision” is said to be shaped by his Vietnam experience.

  • A few more:

    “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.”

    “It is from the greatest dangers that the greatest glory is to be won.”

    “We should remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.”

    All from the History of the Peloponnesian War.

  • katemcshane

    The other day I listened to a friend defend his support of George W. Bush, defend his own view that illegal immigrants should be deported en masse, go on about the “destruction” of Europe by Muslims, his hope that Muslims will destroy France because the French deserve it. Also, there were the usual comments about how women have the edge over men in this society — women get the breaks, basically. When I tried to articulate my disagreement, I did a lousy job. I heard my voice trailing off into a mumble. After a few hours, I went home exhausted. And I felt cowardly, afraid to go up against his loud voice, his anger, his self-righteousness. I felt stupid and inarticulate. Even though I suspect that I work much harder to learn about what is happening in the world, on some level, I assumed that he knew more than I do, i.e. that he spoke with authority I do not have.

    I guess I felt like “the weak (who) suffer what they must.” This is the new soundbite about Iraq: they’re not worthy of our help, too weak or crazy to get their country together after all we’ve done for them, so we may have to pull out. What makes Bush so appealing to my friend is that Bush and his cronies, even with their pathetically low approval ratings, are on top. They have the money, the power, the willingness to use any amount of aggression against anyone in their way and the utter lack of shame over it. My friend, who is a really nice guy, would not for a second want to imagine himself in place of an “illegal immigrant” or anyone in the “weaker” position. What occurred to me after our conversation was the cliche, “The best defense is a good offense.” It’s hard to seek the truth unless you’re willing to experience a great deal of pain.

    I know this kind of comment doesn’t really fit into the discussions on these pages, but every so often I have to get past my usual fear and believe I have a right to my own voice. Thanks for Thucydides, Chris. It’s not the kind of thing I usually read, and I enjoyed it.

    At the risk of going on too long, I want to include a poem by a Vietnam Vet, Bruce Weigl, from his book SONG OF NAPALM.


    Into sunlight they marched,

    into dog day, into no saints day,

    and were cut down.

    They marched without knowing

    how the air would be sucked from their lungs,

    how their lungs would collapse,

    how the world would twist itself, would

    bend into the cruel angles.

    Into the black understanding they marched

    until the angels came

    calling their names,

    until they rose, one by one from the blood.

    The light blasted down on them.

    The bullets sliced through the razor grass

    so there was not even time to speak.

    The words would not let themselves be spoken.

    Some of them died.

    Some of them were not allowed to.

  • Sutter

    If you’re looking for a classicist guest, I would recommend the erudite and eloquent Peter Pouncey, president emeritus of Amherst College and a Thucydides expert.

  • mynocturama

    So, perhaps, the Petroleum War, as our Peloponnesian War?

  • Ben Jonson

    well … I think you have missed the point somewhat of Thucydides as you did somewhat of Melville.

    Thucydides hardly thought of humankind as ONLY killing machines and mourned the loss of the greater Hellenic Dream as personified by Pericles. Melville of cource had NO civic ideal, NO equivalent of Pericles ( closest in his time was Lincoln [Gettysburg Address modeld omn funereal orations as was Pericles speach – cf Gary Wills] and Melville in part intended Ahab to equal Lincoln — but even Melville would not have considered pychotic/psychopathic mass murders like Hitler and Stalin (whom you cited as pursuers of the whale) to be pursures of the white whale. Thucydides was capable — as Melville was not — of seeing high ideals in human endeavor and was stung into chronicling their debasement AND mourning the LOSS of said ideals and civilization.

    {Melville like Henry James had a great command of language but was a very bad JUDGE of what was actually going on in America — both seem to me exceedingly nearsided and prone to interpret events from inside their own “green zone” in America

    read Francis MacDonald Cornford Thucidides Mythohistoricus

    As for Iraq, we continue to get it wrong — the civil war there has little in common in cause and effect with the Peloponnesian War although it does demonstrate the brutal behaviour of humans at war. We may be using Thucydides to mask the emptiness of the regeme we are trying to establish —

    jornalist/commentators continue to try to assign blame to either Sunnis or Shiites but BOTH are guilty of bloodshed and are to some degree (yet to be determined/assigned) as guilty as Saddam — Saddam rose to power because of the fractured non-civic nature of Iraq (which was carved out of various communities by Europe as part of the peace to end all peace)— and that nature continues with him or with out him. Saddam was the evidence of the flaw in the European design — a design which we are trying to ressurect and revivify and which seems to continue to fail.

    (there was nothing of PERICLEAN ATHENS to mourn for in Iraq before during or after Saddam —- although one could contrast the besetting sin of Iraq — tribalism/clanism/sectarianism with the overall disorganisation of the Hellenes and their city states

  • Potter

    It would be good to read Thucydides from this vantage point, with older eyes, even if we have read Thucydides (in part or entirely) years ago in college so thanks for this opportunity to focus.

    I have been listening to a lecture series on Ancient Greece and coincidentally I am at the place of the Peloponnesian War and this history. It is noted by the lecturer that conflict was the more normal state in Ancient Greece, not peace, even if an ideal may have been peace.. If a leader was advocating war against the Persians, then another or the next would be advocating against Spartans. This was after the period of internal strife in Athens,stasis, which seemed to hold power in balance. (Did I get that right?) So perhaps making war was believed to help hold things together (a risky business). Conflict was deemed essential to building (Athenian) strength as the most of the above quotes from Thucydides (with the exception of that of Hermocrates the peace-monger) illustrate.

    It is pointed out that Athens was a democracy but imperial and threatening “geo-politically” whereas Sparta although very powerful militarily and not a democracy did not threaten it’s neighbors. There are many such countries (of the latter variety) today. And we who are more democratic appear as threatening to much of the world As perhaps Athens did then, especially lately.

    I have thought that the wars or military operations that the US has either participated in or begun (more recently Viet Nam, Granada, Panama, The Gulf War, Iraq) above all were a means to prove and show our might (regardless of cost or consequence), to evoke awe and fear, and also in the process to add to our strength militarily through “practice” (as crude as that sounds).

    So Thucydides ( according to my lecturer)

    *Shows how history occurs and will occur again and again b/c of human nature.

    *Believes history illustrates the human soul b/c of underlying laws (of human history)

    *Articulates ( the belief that) weakness invites domination of the stronger

    *Says that power always seeks to increase itself

    *Compulsion or necessity is an engine that drives history

    *Leaders must impose their will on those whom they lead

    My nomination for the Thucydides of our time is John Burns of the New York Times who I call ( with affection) “the Wildman of Baghdad” mostly because of his hair which gets wilder and wilder. Did any of you see him last night on the Newshour? Amazing! (He wrote a very good piece on Saddam’s execution this past Sunday.)

  • This is an interesting discussion on the nature of human beings. We certainly do seem to have a brutal history that repeats itself. I often lament that I can’t see that we’re any more enlightened today than we were a millenia ago.

    I wonder about this idea that weakness invites domination of the stronger. There may be something to it. But i believe that it creeps up from small interactions to larger ones. I find myself thinking that it may be that those who are power seekers begin to seek power in small ways. Those who are not power seekers let them get away with it to avoid a power struggle. But the inaction feeds the power seeker’s engine and by the time they are power mongers who have very destructive capabilities it is too late.

    I’m not sure I would describe it as weakness. This is semantics, but I think it takes a lot of strength to endure suffering. The aggressive power seekers may be the ones who don’t have the strength to endure. They wouldn’t know how to survive if they had to suffer.

    I haven’t read Thucydides, so I don’t know if there is a comparison to our non-military leaders who march us into wars. Would Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove et al be so willing to go to war if they actually had to stand on the battlefield? Could they bear the lifelong scars of combat? Can you even imagine Bush as a POW?

    I have long felt that any leader who commands us to war should be seated on the battlefront, at great personal risk and discomfortI can’t respect someone who is willing to sacrifice the lives of others while they sit in the royal comforts of home. Of course, I don’t believe in any positive point to war, at all, but if war is a given…)

    Is this a relatively new phenomenon? Or did this kind of leadership exist then, as well?

  • pryoung

    In line with the first half of Ben Jonson’s post above—

    Analogizing too readily with a distant past seems just as hazardous to me as making assertions about a timeless human nature. Neither is an especially historical practice. Thucydides as modern journalist? Forgive me for saying that flatters the second undeservedly, in light of its recent performance.

    Thucydides did certainly base his account far more in observation, research and fact than was common in a culture as mythologically based as Athens. But he very clearly emplots his “history” as tragedy, and has ready recourse to tragedy’s conventions throughout. There is of course hubris and the tragic blindness hubris tends to induce, as well as the sudden reversals of fortune that arrive as punishment for hubris. There is also heavy irony throughout, as when the Melians and others are better able to articulate Athenian ideals about justice than the “rule of the stronger” Athenians, as a grimly ironic prelude to their slaughter or enslavement by the latter. Unintended consequences abound throughout the History as well, just as they do in tragic drama.

    That tragic sensibility, to me, is the great enduring value of Thucydides’ History. It fully shows the perils of power’s exercise in politics and war, though also the inescapability of that exercise. It captures all of the contingency of human events, and the many and varied voices at play in a given moment of history. Appreciation of such complexity is surely one antidote to the mythologies states propagate when they are trying to gird their citizenries for battle. Thucydides would have a lot to say about American good intentions.

  • pryoung

    on a snarkier note:

    perhaps you could ask the eminent Victor Davis Hanson—whose endless shilling for war in Iraq and utterly misguided predictions as to its outcome have been on full syndicated display these last three years—whether he isn’t himself a cautionary tale about the perils of facile historical analogizing.

  • Potter

    Edith Hamilton says (“The Greek Way”): “Thucydides wrote his book because he believed that men would profit from a knowledge of what brought about ruinous struggle precisely as they profit from a statement of what causes a deadly disease. He reasoned that the human mind does not change any more than the nature of the human body, circumstances swayed by human nature are bound to repeat themselves, and in the same situation men are bound to act in the same way unless it is shown to them that such a course in other days ended disastrously. When the reason why a disaster came about is perceived people will be able to guard against that particular danger. “It will perhaps be found,” he writes “ that the absence of storytelling in my work makes it less attractive to listen to, but I shall be satisfied if it is considered useful by all who wish to know the plain truth of the events which happened and will according to human nature happen again in the same way. It was written not for the moment, but for all time”

    The operative phrase for me at the moment is “all who wish to know” which means to me that reason and responsibility and compassion and humility must outweigh all other compulsions. So in this information age more of us have been talking about the Viet Nam War since the invasion of Iraq and sharing thoughts. Those who reason, who feel the consequences, those who lost relatives, classmates then and now, who marched in moratoriums then, or who protest on blogs, with their votes, are remembering. Now we remember greater numbers and even eventually make our voices heard. But at the level of leadership the “compulsions and necessities” prevail, today still we hear of “victory” despite the cost.

    So would Thucydides be disappointed or to put it in terms of last night’s show: would he be pessimistic or still optimistic?

  • Igor

    Does Victor Davis Hanson _really_ believe that we are all selfish killing beasts under a thin veneer of culture? Or is he trying to put his own (propagandistic) point across? And why do we have to believe him, he didn’t choose to be a (manly) soldier after all, but rather a (wimpy) historian/intellectual. Maybe it’s time to put his priorities in order…

  • nother

    Presently, with the prospect of defeat in Iraq so real, our administration is contemplating the tactic of a desperate troop “surge.” I read a quote in chapter 17 that I find chillingly apropos. Like us, the Melians are facing certain defeat but are determined to fight on and an Athenian representative tries to talk sense to them and get them to see through their pride.

    “You will surely not be caught by that idea of disgrace, which in dangers that are disgraceful, and at the same time too plain to be mistaken, proves so fatal to mankind; since in too many cases the very men that have their eyes perfectly open to what they are rushing into, let the thing called disgrace, by the mere influence of a seductive name, lead them on to a point at which they become so enslaved by the phrase as in fact to fall wilfully into hopeless disaster, and incur disgrace more disgraceful as the companion of error, than when it comes as the result of misfortune.

    I ask you, how many of our young people will die for the futile cause of saving this administration from “disgrace.”

  • Igor

    Who are you asking? Ask those who make these these decisions…

    The relevant question would be “how many of our young people _want_ to die for the futile cause of saving this administration from “disgrace.”

    And the “futile cause” in not so vacuous as you imply, it is related to something called “credibility”, like, if USA (elites) threaten somebody, they really mean it and can do something to back up the threats. So the cause is there, whether you agree with it or not, and about it being “futile”, we’ll see…

  • pryoung

    Interesting what you say here, Potter, about the phrase “all who wish to know”, and got me thinking as well about last night’s show. Thucydides’ use of that phrase shows that he imagines himself writing for an audience of citizens, present and future—rational, engaged, public-spirited in their commitments. As I read that sentence, he is suggesting history to be the necessary resource for a polity that wants to be more fully in charge of its destiny. A democracy, in other words.

    Lamentably, I think the Iraq War was/is clearly pitched more at “all who wish to believe”, which is why rational historical considerations have been and remain so marginal to the debate. It was in fact all about silencing our difficult and unresolved history in Vietnam, and those like you, me and others who wanted to speak about it.

  • nother

    My 18 nephew just joined the Army and he has no real sense of what he is fighting for, he only knows it’s an American cause. We have been taught growing up that the US has the moral high ground, that they fight the moral fight. I see a blind trust in my nephew, they don’t want him to ask any questions and he doesn’t feel he needs to; he is fighting for the good old US of A after all. This administration has taken advantage of this trust built up through the years by so many great American leaders. It has taken this trust and used it for ideological purposes, and it has failed.

    Igor, you say, “about it being futile, we’ll see” When will we see? Are you willing to go over there and fight Igor until we “see.” What would need to happen in Iraq for you to “see.”

    We “threatened” Osama but we haven’t backed that up have we? Now the military is spent and the real bad guys know we have played out our hand. We have lost our credibility and that’s the problem – now the emperor wears no clothes.

  • loki

    who is our Pericles? Negraponte or Abiziad? General Powell has left the scene of the Pottery Barn.

  • “All who wish to know” is another interesting topic. No one told me when I was going to school about how relevant and important history was. I experienced it as an endlessly dull recitation of dates and names. It never came to life and no one ever spoke about current events with history as a context. Hence, in college I took no history courses. Not one. My education ended in HS where I had a snippet of European History and American History and whatever I took away from 3 years of Latin classes.

    Sadly, I feel that I may be one who “did not wish to know” out of ignorance. Now, I would like to go back to school and see what I can learn.

    How many Americans actually “know” enough history to be able to learn from it?

  • Sir Otto

    Isn’t it the victors that write the history? Who are the war criminals? If not for a simple twist of fate, it would have been Ws neck in that noose the other day. Guilty of war crimes.

  • Perhaps it still will be.

  • robert leaver

    War is hard wired into our pysche as James Hillman makes clear in his recent book, A Terrible Love of War. War is inevitable; can’t get rid of it. There is one move we can make: remember the gods and goddesses come in pairs. The god of war — Apollo– and goddess of beauty — Aphrodite — are inseparably paired.

    War has become technological, letting go of the pomp and beauty of the “uniform” like feathers in the helmet and the ritual ceremony of war — the only move to make is to mount a counter “war” of aesthetic intensity. Bring back the experience of aesthetics in the public realm as what we do to breathe in through the heart, each other and the our experience of the public realm. Make Aphrodite more present in our culture. One move is to bring beauty back into war.

  • Ok, that was facetious. I don’t believe in the death penalty. But I do believe we need to hold our leaders responsible for war crimes. Imprisonment and reparations would be good.

    Is there anything in history where a cultural group has decided that they’ve done another wrong and that they owe them and have work toward some level of reparation?

  • robert leaver: “War is inevitable”

    Really? Do we have to accept that? Does our history pre-determine our future? Is there no chance for a shift in human development? Is it that fatalistic? How dismal a view of life.

    And why would bringing beauty back to war help? So it would be nicer to look at? I’m sure you meant something more, but I can’t fathom why we would want to continue to glorify war by applying our creative energies to it. I prefer to leave it as barren as it is. All the feathers in the world don’t make it any better to have your legs blown off. I thinkw e should be foreced to see it as it is.

  • Igor

    I really don’t understand this war against culture argument. Isn’t war a cultural phenomenon? I’m using culture in a value-neutral positivist sense. Look, other primates don’t always fight, there’s a lot of cooperation there. And there are tribes (humans, not apes) in Oceania that don’t fight.

    Also, what’s irrational about war? Klauzewits said that war is just a continuation of policy by other (military) means. Was Woodraw Wilson irrational to pull USA into WWI?

  • nother

    When I look at the military industrial complex, I come away with the feeling that war is inevitable. Half of our budget is fed into that machine, and like any dormant car in the backyard, you have to start it up once in a while. We need to use missiles to make room for the new ones.

    Also, when my nephew (who actually just turned 19) talked about basic training, he said that the commanders that had combat experience were much more revered. This may seem obvious, but it speaks to the point that our huge military needs war, that’s what they are there for; the fighting “cause” is secondary.

  • Igor, I think when people say war is irrational, they mean that launching one is. Comng to the aid of another may not be considered irrational.

  • Igor

    Right, but why don’t you ask the question _why_ half of our budget is fed into that machine? Are these guys on top stupid or what? And of course they aren’t stupid, they know what they are doing, simply put, in order for capitalist economy machine to run smoothly USA have to project power all over the world, so in their reasoning this is a good investment, especially because they make _us_ to pay for it. It’s their usual game, socialize the risk (or costs) and privatize the profits.

    And your second paragraph is just another illustration of war culture, you can train people to many different things, you can train them to kill other people, or you can train them to help other people.

    I don’t think military needs war, at least people in the military and their famiies don’t. There might be some institutional incentives, like promotion, etc. but it is irrelevant, it’s civilians who decide war matters, not uniform guys.

  • Igor


    Again, was Woodrow Wilson irrational to enter WWI? Was Abraham Lincoln? Or the confederate leaders? Those were not irrational people, they were the best of the best of their times, weren’t they?

  • Of course, in WWI, we didn’t come to anybody’s aid until we were angry about some of our own men being killed. It was definitely a reactionary decision. (One that some leaders had wanted earlier and couldn’t get support for until our men went down.)

  • Igor

    Interestingly, in Russia the WWI has long been known as “imperialistic” war (to distinguish from “patriotic” WWII). In USA it is known as a “great” war and a “good” war. I wonder, who chose these names? This is how propaganda works…

  • Igor

    > It was definitely a reactionary decision.

    Well, kind of. German sank Lusitania, that were carrying munitions to Britain, thus making itself a legitimate target. Who decided upon a passanger ship to carry military cargo? Was that irrational?

    But I was talking about major propagandistic effort Wilson administration made to persuade American people to go to war, you can read about it if you want, it is well known, in fact, it is considered a birth of public relations indistry as we know it.

  • Igor
  • Potter

    Allison, I agree. One of the guests on the show tonight said that he thought that those who took us to this war were really surprised by the results. They thought it would be easy. Well they should not have if they cared to have known better and if compulsions and imagined urgent necessities had not drivn them to willful ignorance. But if we collectively let it pass without holding them accountable we are doomed. I question the viablility of our democracy.

  • Cubit

    The results of war, while not random, are certainly not preordained. That simple truism should be enough to warn any political leader, orany people with democratic principles to decide upon a course of military action out of emotion or without careful consideration of possible consequences should the enemy not follow the script written for them by planners or rhetoriticians. Thucydides shows us that this happened too often in 5th Century BCE Greece for any state that considers itself democratic to ignore.

  • DavidMFen

    I would like to reccomend Victor Davis Hansen’s latest book “A War Like No Other” a commentary on the Peloponnesian War. Thoroughly researched and a pleasure to read for both scholar and neophyte, Hansen displays his passion for the subject and will go so far as to comically use himself as guinea pig to examine the efficacy of Spartan pillaging strategy in Attica (by timing himself cutting down a Walnut tree on his own property). I read this book to glean some insights as they apply our current situiation in Iraq and sadly, there are two many parallels. I would have thought that we might have learned more in 2500 years.

  • Battling tops spin

    Jostling in a pyrrhic dance

    Of mournful folly

  • nother

    nice, sidewalker, keep’em coming.

  • Igor

    So the general consensus of this forum is that wars are good if they achieve their goals easily. Well, I strongly disagree, in fact, not only me, but also chief prosecutor at Nuremberg trials Robert H. Jackson, who said:

    “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

    What Victor Davis Hansen has to say about this “thin layer of veneer”? Keep in mind, also, that only perpetrators were tried in Nuremberg, but also facilitators, like people who wrote legal opinions, ideologs, etc.

  • Igor

    A little more about “thin layer of veneer” theory. Why do you think they turned citizen’s army into mercenary army after Vietnam? The answer is simple, uprepared people can’t fight wars of agression (for long), you have to train them, drill them, turn them into robots, and only then you send them to Iraq or whatever place you want to “project power” to.

  • Igor: “So the general consensus of this forum is that wars are good if they achieve their goals easily.”

    Is this the concensus? Do you mean with the guests or amongst the ROS bloggers? I certainly don’t believe that any war is good. I find it brutally meaningless.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “So the general consensus of this forum is that wars are good if they achieve their goals easily. Well, I strongly disagree,”

    “Is this the consensus?” Nope.

    I would first propose the questions: What are the goals (strategic, diplomatic, ethical, human, economic, etc)? How will we measure success or failure? Who is proposing them and what is their agenda? Without explicit enumeration of these goals, any actions whether peaceful, diplomatic, economic, or militaristic are dubious at best, a path to chronic crisis at worse, without any reasonable metrics beyond rhetorical objects.

  • RobertPeel

    Great show. It raised fundermental questions on what it is to be human,thin veneer of civilation vs brutality of ou instincts.

  • jazzman

    Igor says: Also, what’s irrational about war? Klauzewits said that war is just a continuation of policy by other (military) means. Was Woodraw Wilson irrational to pull USA into WWI?

    Yes – Wilson and ALL the presidents who have taken this nation to war were IMO irrational. You, they and others can rationalize going to war for any number of reasons but as I note below:

    Rationality is a function of one’s beliefs, predilections, and system of logic. It cannot be defined by consensus or bandwagon. Just because actions are deemed rational by group opinion doesn’t mean that those actions comport with my sense of rationality or that of others.

    There are myriad systems of logic available to the human species and where it may be logical and rational for some people to commit violence on others or themselves in return for imagined or concrete rewards (be it abstracts like freedom, safety, and martyrdom, or material possessions, land, oil etc.) for others (like Hermocrates) violence is an anathema. IMO there is never a justification for violence, as Isaac Asimov noted in his Foundation trilogy Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.

    Wars are started by ideas (that the end justifies the means and so war is justified – usually due to FEAR and impatience on the aggressors’ part) and they are stopped by ideas (that peace is desirable and war will not be tolerated.)

    If enough people eschew violence then it will cease to be acceptable. It’s a matter of desire – John Lennon & Yoko Ono said War is over if you want it. We as a nation (and world) haven’t developed our ethos to want it yet and so it remains a part of the mass reality.

    Peace to ALL,


  • darwhin

    thought it was amusing how quickly they changed subjects when he mentioned that one big reason for losing the war was lack of support at home. much of the antiwar movement really does want to lose the war to prove how right they are. it has been evident from the beginning where they demonized the us to such a degree that they basically legitimized and gave moral support to the insurgents. they may not claim responsibility for such things or deny responsibility, but unforeseen consequences or consequences from actions which are not well thought out or impulsive are consequences nonetheless. the same crime they accuse the bushies of oddly enough. its amazing how two sides who are both incompetent and irresponsible in their own way can collude to lose a war, and basically leave far more dead than necessary.

  • Forton Twelve

    Here’s a lesson from history: It’s not from classical literature of the ancient world – but it’s about the classics: The leaders of Nazi Germany promoted the idea of a “Third Reich” – a re-creation of the glories of the ancient Roman Empire. There’s no doubt they convinced the majority of the German public with their argument that return to a world empire would bring greater peace and prosperity to everyone. In time it became more than an argument – it was a cultural movement – reflected in performing arts, architecture, visual art, literature – All were engaged in active re-interpretation of the models provided by ancient Rome and Greece. Think of the impact the movement might have had on you. Imagine yourself as a German citizen of “the Reich”, sitting in a huge neo-classical amphitheater designed by the Reich’s prominent architect Albert Speer. A ring of vertical spotlights reaching a thousand feet into the sky surrounds you like the ancient colonnade of the Temple of Athena. You’re there with 90,000 other citizens listening to your leaders as they teach lessons they’ve gleaned from the arts and literature of a successful ancient empire. Everyone dressed in the same uniform – all united in the cause. All surrounded by a modern reinterpretation of the greatness of the ancient Roman Empire. It would have seemed obvious to anyone – ‘the way forward is with the leadership’. Unfortunately – as time would tell – this did not turn out well for anyone.

    Step forward to the 21st Century – US in a time of crisis – the war with Iraq not looking so good to the public. It’s interesting that several scholars of the classics have recently been “offered-up” as Iraq war pundits on public broadcast shows. The author of “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” (a pre-text for the Iraq invasion) was recently on a PBS show arguing that Iraq is not experiencing a civil war. Surprisingly the author’s credentials are “light” on contemporary Iraq culture/politics but “heavy” on the literature of ancient Rome and Greece. In “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” (a publication of “The Project for a New American Century”) the author coined the term “American Peace” – a reflection of “Pax Romanum”, the term popularly used by classical scholars to describe a peaceful phase of the ancient Roman Empire. The term is sprinkled throughout “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”, providing implicit justification for US global hegemony. Two other classical scholars have recently been heard on PIR and NPR – both promoting a pro-war agenda. And both are authors of publications that similarly promote U.S. hegemony in geopolitics.

    We should proceed cautiously before accepting “lessons” which employ the classics to justify contemporary geopolitical action – we run the risk of oversimplifying complex situations – this has already proven disastrous in the Iraq war (as it did for the Third Reich). Of course we can learn from the classics – but a lot has happened since the fall of the Roman Empire. The classics are only valuable to the extent that we can temper our reading with an understanding of intervening history and a complete analysis of the contemporary situation.

    And when we consider the “lessons” offered by contemporary classical scholars we must inquire as to the scholars’ background, who they are associated with and how extensive is their understanding of the actual “on-the-ground” contemporary situation to which their “lessons” pertain.

  • Potter

    Darwhin your reasoning is specious.

    From the get-go two things: this was a very risky endeavor and it is not at all clear that with 100% public support this thing could have been “won”. Secondly you seem to be suggesting that unless everyone shuts up and gets with the program they are aiding “the enemy” ( as declared imperiously from above).

    Protesting against war is not an impulsive act, it’s a very considered and brave act. The visible protesting against THIS war certainly was not that strong. I can only think of Cindy Sheehan and perhaps one or two other formal protests. Most were silently grumbling or blogging their anger, writing to their congressional reps ( as yours truly) until finally this past Fall when there was a tipping point.

    The irresponsiblity on the side that is now and was then opposed to this war lies and will lie on whether they hold those who WERE REALLY irresponsible ( a mild word for criminal) accountable.

    In addition you do not consider the lack of support wordwide, especially amongst the Euro populations where we DID see more protests. Oh if we could have only controlled those, perhaps we would be whinning.

  • Potter

    In a democracy one is allowed to protest, not only to have one’s own opinion, freedom of thought, but speech as well. We have the right, the duty, to assemble and protest.

    How do we convince others that democracy and freedom (the word used by GWB to describe what we are fighting for) is the best system as we diminish or own?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “How do we convince others that democracy and freedom (the word used by GWB to describe what we are fighting for) is the best system as we diminish or own?”

    It’s simple: 1st grow your Democracy. 2nd build up your military industrial complex. 3rd Invade countries and foist your political belief system upon others via your military industrial complex. Repeat and rinse…

  • babu

    This excellent discussion is reminding me that I have been thinking lately about the manifest effects and affects of our human acuity at pattern recognition — or lack thereof.

    I think it is our collective ability to recognize any single action’s membership in a larger pattern which has ultimately written the bigger History. In this statement, the word ‘our’ is self-referential, and in my case means post-modern western America, with its unrealized wish for democracy.

    It’s very curious to me that at this moment it appears that the Mid-East’s Jihadists have become expert at intentionally manipulating the look and effect of small, single acts so that THEY APPEAR TO BE PART OF A MUCH LARGER PATTERN, when in fact they are not. They are trying to write a new History faster than actual events would normally allow. And GWB et al are simply assisting them by providing the set-up due to our lcollective lack of recognitiopn of the pattern.

  • hugh

    for anyone interested, here’s a public domain unabridged audio (mp3 & ogg) version of “The History of the Peloponnesian War” :

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • Pingback: Total War and Thucydides | GPAblog()

  • tim

    Hello! It seems that the link to the audio is broken. Does anyone happen to know a mirror to the audio? Thank you so much.