Iraq conflict shares uncanny likenesses with the Peloponnesian War
by Victor Davis Hanson
Listen to what the talking heads are saying, and it’s easy to believe that we have entered an entirely new era of armed conflict.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, military commentators have emphasized the bizarre nature of the terrorists’ campaign — the beheadings, suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. Taken together, we are told, these represent an entirely new form of “asymmetrical warfare,” one in which the two sides are mismatched as never before in history. How does one fight a suicide bomber in a crowded neighborhood with an F-16, or prepare a Western suburbanite to handle live video streams of the beheading of a young American on his computer screen?
Others make the same argument by turning the looking glass the other way. According to this view, also well-represented by the men who stand in front of giant maps on CNN and FOX News, it is the West’s computer-guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite communications and other high-tech systems that have elevated conflict into a hitherto unknown system of “4th-generation” warfare. In this new era, the antiseptic computer console has replaced the grime and grit of bayonets and bullets.
But to the ears of a military historian — and here, I offer my own perspective — such arguments seem superficial. War is like water. Its fundamental character, like the nature of the humans who fight it, has remained unchanged over the centuries.
Over 2,400 years ago, the Spartans fought the Athenians in a bloody 27-year war that nearly wrecked the Greek city-state in its greatest epoch. I and others have studied the conflict closely because of its enormous historical importance. And one of the lessons to be observed is that, as combatants, we haven’t come quite as far as many think. In many ways, in fact, Iraq in 2005 looks a lot like Greece from 431 to 404 BC.
Indeed, almost every horror we have experienced since Sept. 11 had a like counterpart centuries earlier in the Peloponnesian War, despite the relative poverty and backwardness of that distant pre-industrial age.
Limb-lopping? The Athenians ordered the right hands of captured Spartan seamen cut off both to terrify their enemies and prevent their prisoners from ever rowing again.
Terrorism? On the island of Corcyra, factions burned innocents alive and executed civilians by running them through a gauntlet.
Collateral damage? In the town of Plataea, women and children joined in the hostilities, pelting marauding enemies with roof tiles from their balconies to save themselves from extinction.
The specter of biological attack? The Athenians lost a quarter to a third of their population to a mysterious plague — and blamed the outbreak on the Spartans. Nothing in the entire war, Thucydides wrote, so weakened the Athenian ranks.
Hostage-taking? The Athenians captured crack Spartan infantrymen on the island of Sphacteria. They immediately took them back to Athens and threatened to kill them all if the Spartans ever set foot in Attica again. (The tactics worked: The famously tough Spartans caved in to the blackmail.)
Kidnapped diplomats? The Athenians captured Spartan envoys on the way to Persia, ignored their diplomatic immunity, killed them and cast their corpses in a pit.
Spreading freedom by force? The Athenian Empire was based on the precept that most Greeks in the Aegean Sea embraced the principle of equality — but needed someone like the paternalistic Athenians to foster and sustain democracy through the power of their navy.
The parallels go on. We recoiled in horror last September when Chechen terrorists in Beslan stormed a school and indiscriminately killed more than 150 children during a bloody shootout. But in 413 B.C., the Athenians unleashed their own vicious Thracian mercenaries on the small Boeotian town of Mycalessus. The killers slaughtered men, women and children, burst into a schoolhouse and, Beslan-style, butchered the students. They even attacked livestock and, according to Thucydides, “whatever living thing they saw.”
The Peloponnesian war not only reminds us of how thin the veneer of civilization is when war, plague or natural disaster rips it off. It also shows that the reason states fight each other have remained mostly the same over the years. “Pre-emption” is hardly a novel doctrine invented by today’s neo-cons: Thucydides writes that the Spartans attacked Athens “in fear” of their growing power — notwithstanding the numerous other pretexts they alleged.
The Athenians themselves defended their earlier acquisition of territory by reference to a variety of motives. They took and kept it out of “fear, honor and self-interest.” Thucydides teaches us that we should not blindly believe what combatant states allege when they clamor about grievances, but rather look for the real reasons that explain why statesmen think they must go to war.
“Honor” is a key term here, especially when we scrutinize the motives of our enemies. In this materialistic age, we naturally tend to look for material causes for wars — land, resources (oil especially), money — rather than remembering the pivotal role of emotions. Perhaps we could learn from Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War the next time Osama bin Laden alleges in his fatwas that the West provoked Muslims by stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, or by enforcing the U.N. Oil-For-Food embargo, or by supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
The fact is the deep-seated anger and humiliation of al-Qaeda and its Islamist supporters were more likely incited by an insidious, globalized culture that threatens the old hierarchies of an increasingly dysfunctional Arab and Islamic world — along with the fretful mullahs, patriarchs and theocrats, whose sense of privilege and honor derive from that world.
With the onset of satellite dishes, the Internet and DVDs, the so-called Arab Street at last had unfiltered information about how well the rest of the world was doing, prompting introspection about why their autocratic governments could not provide the same progress to their own people.
Al-Qaeda stepped into the void and offered an answer: A return to Islamic purity, Middle Eastern tribal pride and violent resistance could restore the glory days of the ancient caliphate. As long as such fantasies assuaged the people and turned popular venom on the Americans, the dictatorships of the Middle East were happy enough to give bin Laden and his 8th-century zealots loose rein. At the root of the Islamist campaign, in other words, is something the ancients would recognize instantly: a sense of lost honor.
Of course, we must be careful when evoking the past to make sense of the present. Some historians, for example, recently cited Iraq as the modern equivalent of the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415-413 B.C., when Athens lost most of its fleet by assaulting distant Syracuse for no apparent reason.
But Syracuse was democratic, larger than Athens and theretofore mostly neutral during the Peloponnesian War. So perhaps a more historically apt analogy to that expedition would be if the United States had attacked India in the midst of its war against al-Qaeda.
But there is a lesson here, nonetheless. After describing how the Sicilian debacle weakened Athens and was flawed in concept and operation, Thucydides states the great gamble might have worked nonetheless had those back home put aside their squabbling and supported the expedition fully — a message America’s nominal allies, not to mention its own self-loathing peace lobby, might take to heart.
Remember as well that a half-century before the Peloponnesian War Athens beat the Persians at Salamis and spearheaded the Greek defense of the West — though Athens was poor at the time, and its democracy still fragile. But half a century of imperial grandeur and affluence prompted arrogance. A more fortunate and pampered generation could not repeat against Sparta what their grandfathers had done at Salamis.
This is the final sobering lesson of the Peloponnesian War: It is not assured that the wealthiest, most sophisticated and politically advanced state will always triumph over less impressive enemies. Athens, for all its advantages, finally lost its war — if not against Sparta alone, then under assault from a coalition of Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Syracuse and Persia.
And as Thucydides reminds us, more damaging than the democratic empire’s military blunders or the prowess of its enemies was its society’s infighting and internal discord. Successful societies face their enemies squarely, and with one voice. They undermine their leaders and generals at their peril.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson