Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: It Would Be A Great War

Mark Safranski is hosting a roundtable on Thucydides at Zenpundit. Here is my first contribution. Many others are showing up. 

My approach to Thucydides, or any other old book, is almost diametrically opposite to Tanner Greer’s. It is indeed fascinating to contemplate how people thought in another time, the differences from today’s thinking, to put oneself in the mind of another. I try to do all those things from time to time, but my emphasis is often different.

After suffering through the archaic language of Julius Caesar and Macbeth in high school, I made an agreement with my English teacher: I would not read Hamlet, and he would give me a D for that report period. It seemed fair enough to me. Fighting through the language made it impossible for me to see anything else Shakespeare offered, when there were books I could read and enjoy that contained as much wisdom.

There are reasons to read the classics: to be on the same page with others who have incorporated them into their thinking, and to learn the lessons of difference that Greer describes and the lessons of similarity that I will concentrate on. I have not read Thucydides before, so my essays will be first impressions, overlaid with what I’ve read about Thucydides from more current authors. And yes, I will pluck out themes that still resonate today.

Greer mentions a fact that I could not shake as I read through Book One: that these were very small groups of men compared to what we think of as war in today’s world, although there may be comparisons to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbas, and perhaps to some of the wars in Africa. Possibly all the factions in Syria. Another fact is that deliberations and execution of wars were by men alone, in a society that viewed women as not terribly different from slaves.

But some things remain the same. Victor Davis Hanson points to one, from Thucydides’s opening words:

…it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.

Hanson points out that

the Peloponnesian War was a twenty-seven-year nightmare that wrecked Greece.

Great, of course, does not carry positive connotations only. It can mean more than large, enormous, as in the European name for World War I, the Great War, which is perhaps Thucydides’s meaning.

For a historian, both meanings can apply. Thucydides hit the academic jackpot, still being read almost 2500 years after he wrote. Others, too, can benefit from a war: Vendors of war materiel, those who can attach their political programs to the war, and thrill seekers.

There is also the difference between perception and reality. It is easy to consider a war great in the positive sense, engaging, bringing fame and honor, uplifting, before it starts. We will put the wrongdoers in their place. Our technological capabilities, our vigor and bravery, our strategies cannot but prevail.

From Pericles’s speech beginning at 1.141.432.1:

As to the war and the resources of either party, a detailed comparison will not show you the inferiority of Athens. Personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, without funds either private or public, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across sea, from the strict limit which poverty imposes on their attacks on each other. Powers of this description are quite incapable of often manning a fleet or often sending out an army: they cannot afford the absence from their homes, the expenditure from their own funds; and besides, they have not command of the sea.


Did not our fathers resist the Persians not only with resources far different from ours, but even when those resources had been abandoned; and more by wisdom than by fortune, more by daring than by strength, did not they beat off the barbarian and advance their affairs to the present height? We must not fall behind them, but must resist our enemies in any way and in every way, and attempt to hand down our power to our posterity unimpared.

This has an all too familiar ring. Analytical psychologists call it motivated reasoning: adducing the favorable evidence while leaving out the unfavorable. But war is uncertain and contains surprises. Pericles recognizes this uncertainty at the beginning of this speech and brushes it aside:

For sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as the plans of man; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected.

World War I was welcomed by many Europeans as a way to regain a lost virility and vigor. Enthusiasm for it was shared by the governments, the young men who would die, and their sweethearts.

Ernst Jünger in Storm of Steel “We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war.”

General Friederich von Bernhardi, Prussian general and military historian, bestselling author: War is “a biological necessity,” “the natural law, upon which all the laws of Nature rest, the law of the struggle for existence.”

The reality of that war and the war after shocked people out of a public love for war, but the inclination remains.

Paul Wolfowitz anticipated an easy victory in Iraq in 2003:

There has been a good deal of comment — some of it quite outlandish — about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army — hard to imagine. (House Budget Committee testimony on Iraq February 27, 2003)

There’s a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon. (Congressional Testimony, March 27, 2003)

Similarly, Vice President Dick Cheney:

The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that. (Meet The Press with Tim Russert, March 16, 2003)

[In response to “We have not been greeted as liberators.”] “Well, I think we have by most Iraqis. I think the majority of Iraqis are thankful for the fact that the United States is there, that we came and we took down the Saddam Hussein government. (Meet The Press with Tim Russert, September 14, 2003)

More recently, Vladimir Putin put the Russian military into Syria for the few months he believed it would take to help Bashar al-Assad take control back. That was a year ago. The Duma just voted to keep a military presence in Syria for the indefinite future. In between, there were a couple of attempts to end that presence, both unsuccessful. One may imagine assurances from the generals in the summer of 2015 that sounded very much like Pericles’s. Or Putin’s confidence that the Russian-speakers of the Donbas would welcome the chance to associate with the mother country.

There are many more examples. The impassioned pleas that if only the United States would intervene more forcefully in Syria – specifics unknown – also represents this great faith in war as the answer.

Before the fighting starts, an honest analysis may even favor one’s own side. Often both sides are willing to wage war, as Thucydides documents, which should give pause to analysts. Motivated reasoning plays its part. Ignoring the many openings for what Pericles sells short as “chance” also helps provide an optimistic analysis. War seems like a way to bring about a decisive ending to an unfortunate situation. It provides a testing ground for manhood and national pride.

It would be a great war.


Photo: Soldiers marching through Epsom, UK, during World War I.

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