by Victor Davis Hanson
1. Why Did Athens Lose the Peloponnesian War?
It really did not in a way: Athens no more lost the war than Hitler did the Second World War between September 1939 and May 1941. Instead it was defeated in a series of wars (only later seen as elements of one long “Peloponnesian War”) against a litany of enemies — none in isolation necessarily fatal, all in succession and ultimately together lethal.
To the surprise of the Greek world, after the ten-year, first phase, “The Archidamian War” (431-421 BC), Athens had fought Sparta to a standstill — despite losing one quarter of its population to the plague (including the irreplaceable Pericles), losing the battle of Delium, suffering five annual invasions, and having to put down revolts from Lesbos to Amphipolis.
At the war’s outbreak, the anti-Athenian alliance of the Peloponnesian League and Thebes lacked both a sufficient navy and coherent strategy to dismantle the Athenian Empire. The second phase, or “The Sicilian War” (415-413 BC), proved a self-induced disaster to Athens, not just by the loss of 200 ships far off on Sicily, and two entire overseas forces, but by the reentry of Sparta into the war, the end of the Peace of Nicias, the new allegiance of the powerful Western Greeks to the Spartan alliance, the treason of the talented Alcibiades, and the new enemy fort at Decelea in Attica.
Nonetheless, in the third phase of the war, “The Ionian War” (413-404 BC, sometimes seen as inclusive of a later land element, or the “Decelean War” of Spartans ravaging Attica), a resurgent Athens fought the new gargantuan alliance of Sparta, the Peloponnesian League, Thebes, Sicily, and now Persia to a standstill, in a series of deadly sea battles off the coast of Asia Minor and in the Hellespont. Finally, after the victory at Arginusae (406 BC), Sparta was ready to call it quits and return to the status quo ante bellum. Athens instead pressed ahead only to see its fleet ruined at Aegospotami and the city besieged by land and sea, with its lines of commerce in the Aegean cut — ensuring its humiliating and utter defeat by 404 BC.
The historian Thucydides notes the resilience of radical democracy and the advantages a maritime empire brings to war; yet, ultimately from his incomplete history (the account ends in mediis rebus in 411 BC, and is continued less imaginatively by Xenophon) he suggests that the Athenian dêmos was too reckless, fickle, and fractious, and thus allowed too many opportunities to go to waste. If Athens could not have defeated the Peloponnesian League outright, it nonetheless might have so pruned away the sources of Spartan power as to render it irrelevant — in the later fashion of Epaminondas, the Theban liberator (ca. 418-362 BC), who must have studied the war, in enacting his brilliant tripartite strategy of freeing the Messenian Helots, creating huge fortified and democratic cities in the Peloponnese to hem Sparta in, and crafting an army that could fight Spartan hoplites at home or abroad on equal terms.
Thematic in the war was the sense of Nemesis — that victories lead to hubristhat leads to overreaching that leads to folly, and eventually ruin. The hardest thing for a nation at war seems to be to judge, at a moment of victory, whether to press on and properly exploit the momentum, or to hold back and avoid overextension. Note MacArthur’s decision to go past the 39th Parallel all the way to the Yalu, or the German campaign of 1942 all the way to the Volga River.
In the first Gulf War, one could argue that we prematurely stopped the four-day ground war (for a variety of reasons), did not destroy the Republican Guard, let Saddam Hussein off the hook, ensured 12 years of a subsequent no-fly zone and a future confrontation, and allowed thousands of Shiites and Kurds to be butchered. Yet in the second war, flush with a seemingly quick victory in Afghanistan and a subsequent legitimate Karzai government installed quickly afterwards, we rushed into Iraq thinking that an equally rapid victory over existing authoritarians (correct) would lead to an equally rapid transition to a consensual government and a cessation of violence (incorrect).
Given US perceptions of victory in Iraq, by the end of 2004 Syria had vacated Lebanon, Gadhafi had given up his WMD program, Dr. Khan was under house arrest in Pakistan, and Iran was worried. But by 2006, with perceptions of US defeat, Syria was sending jihadists into Iraq, no others had followed Gadhafi’s lead, Pakistan was back to its calculated bellicosity, and Iran was supplying lethal new IEDs in Iraq.
Athens never quite learned when to pull back, consolidate, and walk away — most notably after its allies’ loss at the battle of Mantinea and its own victory at Arginusae. Yet once Sparta had assembled the Peloponnesian League, Thebes, the Western Greeks, and Persia into a de facto grand alliance, an absolute Athenian victory, after two decades of massive losses, was impossible.
2. How Did the North Win the Civil War?
Remember, the eventual challenge for the Union was not just defeating Confederate forces in the field, but, in line with Lincoln’s growing agenda, destroying them so as to force a capitulation of the South. The North eventually thought it had to occupy an area the size of Western Europe and completely remake Southern society — quite different objectives from a series of tactical victories in or near the border states to coerce the Confederacy to reconsider secession. That ambitious reality explains why the jubilation of summer 1863 (e.g., Vicksburg and Gettysburg) led to the disasters of summer 1864 (e.g., Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, Petersburg, etc.) as Grant tried to destroy Lee and occupy Richmond (a much different task than the Army of the Potomac defeating Lee in a set battle and forcing him to retreat from Pennsylvania).
Ultimately, the North won not just by superior manpower and material resources (although it certainly had all that), but through an inspired four-part strategy that nonetheless might well have not been enough to win Lincoln the election of 1864 without the fall of Atlanta in early September: blockade the southern coasts and strangle the Confederate economy; let Grant tie down and bleed Lee; allow Sherman to wage a vast war of mobility behind Confederate lines to wreck infrastructure, and demoralize and humiliate the South, as he eventually neared Lee’s rear; keep pressure on subsidiary Confederate armies through gifted subordinate generals like Sheridan and Thomas.
The problem the North faced early on in the war was not whether it could defeat the Confederacy, but rather whether it could lose vast amounts of blood and treasury in reabsorbing the Confederacy without riot and rebellion at home or the defeat of the war party in 1864. William Tecumseh Sherman best understood the Union dilemma, and realized that while the North might afford the huge losses that Grant endured in weakening Lee and pressuring Richmond, it most certainly could not replicate that bloody strategy simultaneously in the West — hence Sherman’s preference to march, outflank, isolate, ruin, free slaves, target the plantation elite, and take cities that proved not so much an antithesis to Grant as a complement. And whereas the South throughout the war had the most brilliant cavalry generals and division leaders (Nathan Bedford Forrest was an authentic military genius), and until 1863 has superior supreme command, by 1864 the belated emergence of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Thomas to top posts finally ensured Union military leadership better than the Confederacy’s.
By July 1864 very few elites outside New England thought the North could win, or that Lincoln could even be reelected. Yet by November 1864, very few thought either the war or the election had ever been in doubt. Lincoln stayed resolute as former supporters slandered him, and modest as they later deified him. Grant and Sherman likewise went through cycles of success, near ruin, resurrection, controversy, and eventual apotheosis — while keeping historical perspective the entire time.
As a general rule in war, when the media and the politicians are in unisondeclaring victory or defeat, it is wise to reexamine the issue, given that the very opposite of considered wisdom is more likely true. “Hopeless” wars have a tendency to be saved — if the right people eventually rise to the top. In 2003 Chuck Hagel voted for the war and then supported our brilliant victory over Saddam; by 2007, he declared the surge would be analogous to a Vietnam-style debacle. The one constant? Agreement with what 70% of the general population felt at any given time.
3. What Exactly Was the “Leading from Ahead” Strategy of the Postwar Era?
I say “was,” in the sense that whatever we once did has largely been replaced by “leading from behind,” and outsourcing legitimacy to trans-national agencies like the Arab League and the United Nations.
What was the old policy? In easily caricatured terms, the US and its Westernized allies once sought to craft a postwar world order, conducive to consensual government, free-market economics, and personal freedom. That did not mean that we would not support opportunistically at times both left-wing and right-wing tyrants, or find ourselves in wars of marginal interest, or resent bitterly the costs in blood and treasure.
Rather, the result was that from 1945 to 1990 the world did not follow the communist lead (the Soviet Union was to implode, and China was to claim an authoritarian capitalist state as a communist success story). Instead, it quite logically evolved along the present lines of globalized free markets and more or less generally recognized accords on trade, communications, and travel, as a vast American Navy patrolled the seas and American air force and army bases dotted the globe.
But to continue that paternalistic role, the US had to assume that it was a better enforcer than the alternative for the rest of the world, and the leadership role sustainable in terms of costs at home. While Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, and Clinton all at times ranged from lackadaisical to near missionary in following this policy, its general contours remained unchanged.
With the end of the old communist order, and the Pax Americana of the 1990s, the US vision began to resemble a global version of mare nostrum. Just as the legions put down national liberationists, tribal insurrectionists, and regional renegades for over four hundred years — a Jugurtha, Mithridates, Vercingetorix, Ariovistus, Boudicca, etc. — so too the US contained or ended the charismatic careers of a Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, etc. mostly on the premises that they threatened US interests, humanitarian pieties, or the “new world order.”
We were never consistent in adjudicating which rogue crackpot warranted lectures, bombs, or an invasion, but there was enough consistency to bring on the world of Amazon, Apple, BP, Facebook, Google, Mercedes, Michelin, Samsung, Starbucks, and Toyota, and steady evolution to consensual government from South Korea to Brazil. Such shared prosperity was the result of American-inspired and recognized rules, the absence of another World War II type conflagration, and the deterrence offered by a militarily potent US.
We may be changing: note the failure of Russian reset, the schizophrenic policy of lecturing, borrowing from (and profiting in) China, the Arab Winter, the lead from behind strategy in Libya and Mali, the loud sermons and nonexistent follow-up in Syria, the leftward tilt in Latin America, the failure to reassure Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan that their security interests are guaranteed by the US and they need not make accommodations with or challenge alone a rising China, and the general worry that the next Saddam Hussein or Taliban will have free rein.
Perhaps finance is the problem. We are broke and depressed, and so like our forefathers in 1939 do not want to borrow money for abroad better spent at home, as the lamentations over Iraq and Afghanistan resemble the earlier depression over the outcome of the “Great War” that likewise seemed to have solved nothing.
Or perhaps Barack Obama does not see the same picture outlined above, but rather a more shameful postwar record of neocolonialism, imperialism, and mercantilism waged by white Western peoples against the former Third World. Or perhaps Obama sees a new cartel of concerned hegemons — Europe, Japan, China, Russia, India, and the US — each equal to the other, and all working under UN auspices to implement a just and fair global strategy in a way that a parochial and unilateral America never quite did.
Who is to say that America has had an exceptional record abroad and a Russia, India, or China has not?
The reasons do not matter as much as the fact that there is a growing perception abroad that America cannot or will not deter any potential rogue nation or alliance of nations. The old warm spots — the Sea of Japan, the former Soviet Republics, the Aegean, Cyprus, the Middle East, the horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Falklands, the 38th Parallel, the Balkans — may get hot again, given the impression that regional hegemons might believe (whether rightly or wrongly is immaterial) that the US will debate rather than deter their opportunism.
Obama is not the sole architect of this new Hagel/Kerry/Brennan vision, but rather quite adroitly has tapped into all sorts of new bipartisan currents in American civilization:
1) The public is exhausted over Afghanistan and Iraq and equates the $1.5 trillion spent there as the cause of its additional $9 trillion in debt from 2002-2013. Blaming the war in Iraq is analogous to blaming Bush — the catch phrase that precludes introspection and provides an emotional end to all discussion of present melancholy. The new America has no problem with a leader who kills suspected terrorists by cut-rate drones, or who outsources power to Europeans, or who tries to back off from the predictable Western alignment in the Middle East — if it costs little and is out of the news.
2) There is a lot of support for Obamism from the paleo-right. Chuck Hagel plays the role to Obama that Pat Buchanan once did during the Iraq War with MSNBC — a useful conservative that is a far better critic than are Leftists of Republican supported foreign policy. Suspicion of big government accruing from neoconservative foreign policy, allegedly too close a relationship with Israel, too much power for the Washington military-industrial-consultant-diplomatic nexus — all these concerns appeal to a new conservative notion of isolationism and dovetail with Obamism.
3) The demography of the US is gradually changing to one of mixed ancestry from a traditional majority population of predominately European heritage. That reality means new areas of the world are of greater concern — Latin America, Africa, Asia — than the old European focus that had led to the UN, NATO, and the trans-Atlantic alliance with Great Britain: thus the “pivot” to Asia, the gratuitous occasional snubbing of Britain, and the haggling with France over supplies to forces in Mali.
The irony is that much of the vast wealth of the US, its unbridled leisure and affluence, and even its huge entitlement industry are the direct results of an active, interventionist policy and a resulting global economic order that sought to replace the isolationism of 1914 and 1939 — even as it is now blamed for most of our problems.
URLs in this post:
 For the first post on 20-Century War Paradoxes, click here:http://pjmedia.com/victordavishanson/20th-century-war-paradoxes/
 Declaring victory or defeat:http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/204467/chattering-classes-seen-orwell-hate-mail-redux/jonah-goldberg
©2013 Victor Davis Hanson
1 thought on “War's Paradoxes II: From the Peloponnesian War to 'Leading From Behind'”
Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.
Your article is very well done, a good read.