Victor Davis Hanson goes to the seashore
In Jules Dassin's 1960 film Never on Sunday, an American tourist tries
to redeem the Piraeus whore Illia by showing her the treasures of classical
Greece. At Athens' ancient amphitheater, they see Euridipes' tragedy Medea,
in which the eponymous heroine murders her two sons by the faithless Jason. As
the actors take their final bow, Illia laughs and claps, for she innocently
believes that the play is still in progress. The presence of the live actors
proves that no one really has died, she insists to
her exasperated host, concluding, "And then they all go to the seashore."
Illia's understanding of Greek tragedy reminds me of Victor Davis Hanson's
understanding of Greek history. The mind of this popular military historian,
purveyor of White House bedside reading and Internet apologist for US foreign
policy, turns in tight circles around a single thought: Why did Athens invade
Sicily in 415 BC? The Sicilian disaster sent Athens down to defeat in the
27-year Peloponnesian War, and paved the way for the Macedonian conquest of
Greece and the end of Athenian democracy. "That has been troubling us
supporters of democracies these past 2,400 years," he concedes [A
War Like No Other]. It was all a matter of bad luck, Hanson
concludes, and might as well not have happened.
John Maynard Keynes famously observed that the most practical man of business
may be the slave of a defunct economist. One might add that the most pragmatic
Texan, the former baseball-franchise owner George W Bush, might be the slave of
a defunct political scientist. In the minds of democracy fanciers, Athens still
represents the foundation stone of Western civilization, the model for the
United States' founding and, by extension, the solution to the problems of
today's Middle East.
Hanson's history of the Peloponnesian War appeared last autumn.  It contains
exhaustive description of the mechanics of killing in ancient warfare. For
those who fancy that sort of thing, like me, it is a good read. Ancient warfare
is Hanson's discipline, and in this field he has no peers. Because I like this
side of Hanson's work I had planned to let pass his outrages upon historical
interpretation. Then I read yet another of his awful panegyrics to Middle East
democracy, and rented Never on Sunday.
The trouble is that things did not turn out for Athens the way Hanson would
have wanted them to. As he told an interviewer, "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." The trouble
is that Athenian democracy committed suicide during the 27-year-long war with
The contemporary Greek historian Thucydides also was troubled. He explains
precisely why democratic Athens voted for an attack upon the Sicilian city of
Syracuse, also a democracy: the Athenian mob wanted loot. Athens, "on a slight
pretext, which looked reasonable, was in fact aiming at conquering the whole of
Sicily  ... The general masses and the average soldier himself saw the
prospect of getting pay for the time being and of adding to the empire so as to
secure permanent paid employment in the future." 
Thucydides wrote history as tragedy, that is, to expose the tragic flaws of his
own polis. But Hanson, like Mademoiselle Illia of Piraeus, does not like
the tragic bits, and instead offers two alternative theories to explain Athens'
defeat. It turns out it was all a matter of bad luck: the silver tongue of
Alcibiades, leader of the war party against Sicily, persuaded the Athenian
assembly to vote for war against its better judgment. "Had Alcibiades been
killed or disgraced at [the earlier Battle of] Delium, the Athenians would
never have gone to Sicily 14 years later," says Hanson [Response
Instead, they all would have gone to the seashore, one supposes. Before such
willful self-delusion one feels like Jules Dassin trying to explain Euripides
to a Piraeus whore. The crowning achievement of Greek classical culture -
Thucydides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - was the effort to identify the
systemic flaws that ruined Athens. Socrates offered a critique, but no
prescription - unless one believes in Leo Strauss's occult capacity to find
secret messages encrypted in Plato. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, he was an
ironist, not a prophet (see
Socrates the destroyer, May 25, 2004). It was the democratic
party that put Socrates to death, by overwhelming vote of Athenian citizens
after a fair and public trial.
Despite the catastrophic losses in Sicily, Hanson continues, democratic Athens
yet might have beaten oligarchical Sparta if it weren't for all those caviling
war critics back home. As he told an interviewer, "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." But that is completely false, for Athens never displayed such unity
of purpose as when she determined to attack Sicily. That is, Athens committed
her fatal mistakes with a minimum of infighting. Only after the city was ruined
did partisan infighting break out.
Like Hanson, I have no sympathy for the caviling peace party in Washington. I
want Bush to forget about Middle East democracy and deliver a military
ultimatum to Iran. Democracy does not necessarily promote peace and stability.
On the contrary, democracies have a long tradition of promoting wars for loot,
starting with Athens, just as Thucydides reports.
If President Bush requires historical examples, he might look closer to home.
General Ulysses S Grant, the victorious commander of the American Civil War and
America's 18th president, had this to say about the democratic founding of
Texas in his Memoirs:
[Texas] had but a very sparse population,
until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize.
These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and
introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the
constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution ...
The occupation, separation, and annexation [of Texas] were, from the inception
of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory
out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.
Democratic America resolved to make war upon Mexico in 1846 in order to seize
territory for the expansion of slavery, Grant observed, adding:
Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like
individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in
the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.
hundred thousand Southern men died in the Civil War, the equivalent of 15 million
casualties for the modern United States. Grant was magnificently correct: the
Americans, North as well as South, deserved the horrible punishment for
undertaking imperial aggression to spread slavery. Few among today's Americans
share the views of their heroic forebears. As I wrote in 2003 (Why
radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8):
fail to grasp decisive strategic issues not only because they misunderstand
other cultures, but because they avert their gaze from the painful episodes of
their own history. In his book The Metaphysical Club, Professor Louis
Menand observes that the horrors of the Civil War discredited the idealism of
young New Englanders (his case study is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr), producing
the vapid pragmatism that has reigned since then in American culture. Americans
suffer from a form of traumatic amnesia, such that every generation of
Americans must learn the hard way.
William F Buckley said he
would rather be ruled by the first 50 names in the Boston telephone directory
than by the faculty of Harvard University, and so would I. But if the demos
is cruel, corrupt and rapacious, democracy will yield dismal results. In the
case of the Southern demos of 1861, it was necessary to change its
composition by first exterminating a whole generation of young men.
Thanks to the spirit of national reconciliation espoused by Abraham Lincoln,
and embraced by the Southern general Robert E Lee, the United States lost only
one generation. Conflicts of this sort often kill two. That, parenthetically,
explains why so many great wars last for about 30 years, including the
27-year-long Peloponnesian War, the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48, and Europe's
Great War of 1914-45. One first kills off the fathers, and then kills off the
sons 15 or 20 years later - and then it ends. As Thucydides remarked of Athens'
Sicilian disaster, "It was all the easier to provide everything as the city had
just recovered from the plague and the years of continuous war, and as a number
of the young men had grown to manhood." 
Leo Strauss famously described America's founding as "low and broad", that is,
designed to neutralize the low instincts of self-interested men through the
balance of powers, but broad enough to provide stability. There is a good deal
of truth to the "low" characterization, but I am not so sure about the "broad"
part. All the contrivances of the balance of power did not prevent the problem
of slave-state expansion from tearing the Union to pieces. It was not
constitutional theory but evangelical Protestantism that saved the Union. The
Northern soldiers who scotched the snake of slavery did not march to war
quoting Montesquieu, but rather singing verses adapted by Julia Ward Howe from
the Book of Revelation.
Something more than democracy is required for peace and prosperity, and that is
a people committed to good rather than evil. Democracy in the Middle East means
something quite different: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Hezbollah in
Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. The
sooner President Bush changes the subject, the better.
1. Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other. Random House; New York
2. Rex Warner's translation in the Penguin edition, p 372.
3. Op cit, p 382.
4. Op cit, p. 383.