An interview by Frontpage Magazine
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Victor Davis Hanson, director emeritus of the classics program at California State University, Fresno, and currently a classicist and military historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of The Western Way of War, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, The Soul of Battle, Carnage and Culture, and Ripples of Battle. His new book is A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
FP: Victor Hanson, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
Hanson: Thank you Jamie for having me back.
FP: In your new book, you draw some powerful and fascinating parallels between the Peloponnesian War and our modern-day conflicts. Before we talk about that, can you first tell us a bit about the Peloponnesian War and its significance?
Hanson: It endures for roughly three reasons:
First: the war pitted two antithetical systems — cosmopolitan, democratic, Ionic and maritime Athens at its great age versus parochial, oligarchic, Dorian and landlocked Sparta — and thus became a sort of referendum on the contrasting two systems.
Second: the historian Thucydides who recorded the war was both a participant and contemporary witness, and a brilliant philosopher who employed the war to illustrate his tragic view of human nature and how thin is the veneer of civilization when ripped off during plague, war, and civil discord; his descriptions of the plague, the stasis at Corcyra, the debate over Mytilene, and the Melian Dialogue then are riveting and almost literary in their power to evoke emotion.
Third: Athens lost and with its spiritual and psychological depression ended the city of Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, Pheidias and the dream of an enlightened democratic empire that employed its power and wealth in the service of high culture.
That has been troubling us supporters of democracies these past 2,400 years.
FP: How do you think this ancient conflict can serve as a metaphor to some of our modern conflicts, including the terror war today?
Hanson: Everything we have seen in the present global war — slaughtering schoolchildren in Beslan; murdering diplomats; taking hostages; lopping limbs; targeted assassinations; roadside killing; spreading democracy through arms — had identical counterparts in the Peloponnesian War. That is not surprising when Thucydides reminds us that the nature of man does not change, and thus war is eternal, its face merely evolving with new technology that masks, but does not alter its essence.
More importantly, Athens’ tragedy reminds of us of our dilemma that often wealth, leisure, sophistication, and, yes, cynicism, are the wages of successful democracy and vibrant economies, breeding both a sort of smugness and an arrogance. And for all Thucydides’ chronicle of Athenian lapses, in the last analysis, rightly or wrongly, he attributes much of Athens’ defeat to infighting back at home, and a hypercritical populace, egged on by demagogues that time and again turned on their own.
So the war is also a timely reminder about the strengths — and lethal propensities — of democracies at war. And we should remember that when we hear some of the internecine hysteria voiced here at home — whether over a flushed Koran or George Bush’s flight suit — when 160,000 Americans are risking their lives to ensure that 50 million can continue to vote.
FP: Your book is a first rate military account. You are clearly an expert in your understanding of strategic objectives in war. What strategic objectives and tactics would you recommend to America today in fighting the terror war in general and the Iraq war in particular?
Hanson: We need to know what our objectives are and where we wish to be when the fighting stops, and, as the failed peace during the Peloponnesian War reminds us, that it will stop only with the defeat of one side and the victory of another. After all, there is no living with a fascist jihad; in its own words, it promises to destroy all a liberal West holds dear.
Otherwise, we have a classic bellum interruptum of the Middle East or Cypriot kind, and should not ask our precious young people to die for a war we do not intend to win and perhaps should go back to the Clintonian strategy of appeasement with cruise missiles and tolerance for the occasional harvesting of diplomats and soldiers abroad. But if we wish to stop all that and to go to war, then we must be determined to win and know how to do so.
So it seems to me we must articulate our goals: the creation of a stable democratic Afghanistan and Iraq; a global coalition of Europe, India, Russia and China that establishes that Pakistan can no longer harbor terrorists, that Syria cannot promote terrorism, that Saudi Arabia cannot use its petrodollars to promote jihad; and that Iran cannot become nuclear in its pursuit of hyper-terror. We have had success and are really down to these four countries whose behavior must radically change.
We must establish a culture of ostracism for radical Islam. We are seeing that now inside Holland, Great Britain, and now apparently France as well. By that I mean we wish to create a landscape similar to what a Nazi felt in 1946 or a Stalinist saw in 1989: that the ideology is bankrupt and no one will tolerate it anymore, and praising suicide bombing in Haifa or celebrating IEDs in Iraq is the moral equivalent of calling for Waffen SS victories in WWII or praise for the Baatan Death March, which earns a person deportation from the West and social exile abroad. There is no reason, after Iran’s boast to wipe out Israel, that such a country belongs in the U.N., or that any civilized country would have diplomatic personnel in Teheran. It should be seen as Nazi Germany circa 1939.
We are not there yet in establishing such a moral reawakening, but these should be our ultimate military and political goals; defeat and kill terrorists in the field; pressure and isolate their national sponsors; and discredit their ideology. Do that and we win; fail and we endure the present sort of global Lebanization of seeing schoolgirls beheaded in Indonesia, or schoolchildren shot in Beslan, or schoolteachers assassinated in Iraq, beside the sick carnage from New York to New Dehli and the spectre of escalation to the nuclear level in Iran.
FP: What are your thoughts about the Left’s role in the terror war?
Hanson: I am baffled by it. After all, al Qaeda, Dr. Zawahiri, Zarqawi, and others are not 1960 communist icons like Fidel, Che, and Mao, mass murderers who deceived the gullible with their fashionable veneer of radical egalitarianism.
No, what we saw on September 11, Madrid, London, Washington, Kabul, and Baghdad is a horrific fascism — anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-modern — that is at war with all the Enlightenment had achieved. So I felt a Chomsky, Moore, and the European intellectuals would hate fascism more than they disliked the United States, and this was at last a war against real fascism that the Left could get behind.
In that, I was in error, and now grasp that whether we recall Michael Moore’s comparison of the killers in Iraq to “Minutemen”, or former Clinton advisor Nancy Soderberg musing about hoping we “lose” in Iraq, or recent accounts that French ministers thought a rapid U.S. victory in Iraq would be disastrous, we can detect a broad desire on the part of the left that we should lose in Iraq. Some are candid about that, others more subtle, but it is clear that U.S. defeat would be welcome to a variety for a variety of reasons. Maybe if Al Qaeda were to go after Fidel or Hugo Chavez — in the way Hitler turned on Stalin — they would eagerly at last join the fray against the Islamic fascists.
This was not a war for Israel, not a war for oil, not a war for hegemony, but a costly dangerous, and yes, idealistic, gambit — and thus logically hated by both the palaeocons and the Scowcroft realists — for radical change in the Middle East, an end to the old pathology of backing dictators who allow terrorists to deflect popular angst against the United States. The only man of the Left who rightly fathomed that was Christopher Hitchens — a dream-come-true for proper leftists should have been when the United States at last unleashed its formidable power to help the oppressed under the Taliban and perennially despised Kurds and Shiites. Like it or not, we are on the side of the underdogs; Sunni dictatorships, E.U. triangulators, and the global left, either by inaction or implicit sanction, are mostly on the side of fascists with a horrific past record.
FP: What do you think of Cindy Sheehan?
Hanson: I think she is a tragic figure who in her grief said and did things that she will soon come to regret, since she transferred her anger away from the jihadists who killed her son to the country that is trying to defeat such fascists and allow democracy for millions from Kabul to Baghdad.
The left energized her as a useful popular icon, and then when the dog days of August were past and the chill winds of November brought the next media hysteria — Libby, Rove, the Miers nominations — they dropped her.
The greater tragedy is the relative silence about the hundreds of other mothers, both of the dead in Iraq, and of the 3000 who died on September 11, whom we have forgotten in the media circus that surrounded Ms. Sheehan. Most felt anger at the Islamic fascists for their violence, not anger at the United States. So if you ask the U.S. public which grieving mother did it know, they would reply “Sheehan” although she is not representative of the great majority that did not blame the U.S. government for their losses. In that sense Ms. Sheehan was emblematic of a press that reports only the IEDs, but never the heroism of American soldiers, and accentuates the pessimistic, without mention of anything optimistic.
FP: How do you interpret the riots in Paris?
Hanson: In two ways: the banal take that is on everyone’s lips is that France fails to integrate and assimilate its “other” due to innate aristocracy, smugness, and racism so embedded in European postmodern society. So this Parisian intifada can be a good reminder of why we would not wish to create such apartheid ethnic blocks inside the United States. Paris is a wake-up call for America to get serious about illegal immigration, and begin to dismantle the machinery of ethnic separatism — bilingual government documents, etc.,ethnic chauvinism in our schools, tribal set-asides, romantic, crack-pot history about a mythical Atzlan, etc.— and work on improving the melting pot.
But second, I was struck how few in France had the intellectual courage and integrity to ask anything of the Muslim immigrants: why did they come, why did they stay, what do they want? Obviously if life is bad in the west, North Africa is a day’s voyage away; so why romanticize the culture you under no circumstances wish to return to, but demonize the country under no conditions you wish to leave? Both the immigrant and the naturalized citizen should be asked that, and told to go half way: learn French well, the history and culture of your country, and the larger traditions of the West that you have chosen to join.
Yet when we see such inexplicable and contradictory psychological states of desire and anger, then we realize the primordial emotions are at play: hurt pride, envy, jealousy. And when you add a jobless society that offers rich unemployment benefits, then you have the worst of both worlds: just enough money to subsidize and encourage an idle cohort of angry young men, who lack the character of their fathers to sacrifice for the future, but have the time and enough money to nurse their hurts and envy with relative ease.
Even Mr. Villepin will now realize that the logical escalation of all this is for a radical cohort of these intifadists to embrace the West Bank/London route of real terror and bombing, especially if they sense French weakness and easy concession. They should read the 3rd book of Thucydides to remember the cycle of events on Corfu that spiral into something like Lebanon of the 1980s.
FP: Victor Davids Hanson, it was a pleasure to speak with you today.
Hanson: Thank you for having me again, Jamie.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson