Thursday, September 28, 2006

Santayana is overrated

After all, it's not like there's any relevance to this, from Thucydides:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence .
via Henry at Crooked Timber, who follows with:
One of the most deeply weird features of modern political discourse is how some conservative supporters of the Iraq war and associated numbskulls such as Dan Simmons cite Thucydides in support of their claims that we're engaged in an epochal clash of civilizations where moderation amounts to appeasement of an enemy that will enslave us all if we don't decimate em....I simply don't see how one can read Thucydides without coming away with some quite emphatic lessons about the long term costs of imperial arrogance towards one's political allies, how unnecessary military adventures turn into disasters... Not to mention Thucydides' depiction of the dangers of cheap jingoism and pro-war demagoguery at home...
I heartily agree. One of my very first posts at this blog was about how idiotic Nick Kristof's reading of the Peloponnesian War was. One of the things that mystifies me is the fetishization of Athens in the conflict. First of all, let's be clear: Athens bears less resemblance to modern democracies than the Confederate States of America. There's less difference between Athens and Sparta of 400BC than, in many ways, China and America today. To say - using modern standards like "freedom" and "democracy" that Athens is clearly the good guy is silly. Furthermore, it's a mystery to me how you can read what Athens actually did and have any respect for their moral authority - or competence - whatsoever. Not only was Pericles about as two-faced a ruler as any you'll find today, but he came up with a pretty legendarily bad war-fighting strategy.

Pericles' brain dropping was simple - surround Athens and its port with walls, guaranteeing Athens' access to grain shipments from abroad while protecting the city from the Spartans, who in a show of incredibly bad form kept invading the Athenian countryside every spring. The Periclean strategy effectively saw Athens as an island, impervious to invasion, whose invincible fleet would both keep the colonies in line and protect the economic lifeline of the Empire. It was, in short, almost the exact same strategy the British pursued two thousand years later. But while the British came to depend on the Americans during their fight with the Germans, the Athenians had the misfortune of having alienated the wealthy power across the sea - the Persians eventually backed the Spartans, who finally built a navy skilled enough to destroy Athens'. Oops.

What was really lacking in Pericles' plan was some way of winning the war against Sparta. Pericles had a plan for survival, he did not have a plan for victory. I'm not sure that Athens could have successfully invaded Sparta or anything like that - though Athenian armies did occasionally surprise the Spartans - but Athens had no compulsive power over Sparta throughout the war. Sparta was more-or-less autarkic, so Athens couldn't choke off their economy, couldn't do much against their shipping, and the only attempt to do so - the campaign in Syracuse - turned out to be a disaster. Not all of this was Pericles' fault - he died early in the war - but Athens never came up with a way to force a change in Sparta's demands, and was unwilling to accede. So war kept going until Athens was destroyed.

Lesson? If you lack the ability to compel your enemies to stop fighting, you better be willing to negotiate with them. Not that that's relevant today, either.

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