Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Trademark-infringing: VDH-bashing, or "What's Attic for 'stabbed in the back'?"

The guys at Lawyers, Guns, and Money won't mind extra scorn heaped on Victor Davis Hanson, I hope. If you listen to this episode of Radio Open Source (sometime venue for Ezra) you'll hear them debating the modern relevance of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. At one point, discussing the relevance of Thucydides to Iraq, Hanson says (at about 48:30):
...the text seems to suggest that Athens gave everything the commanders wanted in the field, and yet when he sums up he says that the greatest problem with the Athenian expedition to Sicily was the lack of support back home. Which people don't really want to uh, talk about much today.
That was a new one to me. I had to read various chunks of Thucydides for some classes in University, but never read the whole book cover to cover. My limited reading was that there was little doubt that the Sicilian expedition was pretty much a cockup from beginning to end. In any case, it's pretty easy to find the stuff about Syracuse -- the most crucial events are in the last two books, 7 and 8. So what the hell is Hanson talking about?

Crucially, Book 7 details the campaign in Sicily and the ensuing disaster for Athens, and not once mentions the domestic politics of Athens (though it does speak of the Spartan invasion of Athens, a common occurrence during the war.) After the troops arrive in Sicily, the next reference to domestic concerns in Athens comes at the beginning of Book 8, after the disastrous defeat in Sicily:
When the news was brought to Athens, for a long while they disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers...
Fox News is older than I thought!
When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it....
Wait a minute. I think I see what's going on here...
and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily. Already distressed at all points and in all quarters, after what had now happened, they were seized by a fear and consternation quite without example.
Ah. If this is what VDH means by his remarks above (and I honestly don't know where he's pulling that, this is just my best guess) then I'd say he's misreading Thucydides. But we knew that. I think it's safe to say what frightens VDH is not the prospect that we won't support our troops at home. Rather, what frightens him is that once American involvement in Iraq comes to its ignominious end, Americans will (like the Athenians in their day) turn on "the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers" who got them in to this damn war. That would be you, Victor. Not that I think Hanson has anything to worry about -- if we've learned anything in the last few years, it's that punditry is a risk-free profession.

Even more bizarrely, earlier in the show (at about 32:00) Hanson engages in what I was always told was the cardinal sin for historians -- counterfactual argument. He briefly states a number of things that could have gone right for Athens, leading to victory: What if X had been a better leader, what if Y had been present, what if Z hadn't happened. I wonder what he thinks about the similarities between Alcibiades and Ahmed Chalabi (both men were the most ardent voices for war, and of dubious loyalty) or between Segesta and the Iraqi National Congress?


Gene O'Grady said...

It would be easier to warm to your post if you didn't identify the books of Thucydides that describe the Sicilian expedition as 7 and 8; they are (as Victor Hansen knows) 6 and 7, not the highly problematic final book 8.

Not to say that the idea of being stabbed in the back makes sense -- the idea that the expedition was marketed with a great deal of hysteria, however, is eminently sensible and Thucydidean.

john said...


Not to split hairs, but I said "most crucial events" were in 7 and 8, by which I meant the disastrous end of the campaign (7) and the aftermath in Athens (8). I didn't say the entirety of the war was recounted in 7 and 8 exclusively.

Gene O'Grady said...

Not to split hairs or be obnoxious, but the speeches in book 6 are critical to Thucydides' analysis of the expedition.

john said...

I agree Gene. But it wasn't crucial to either VDH's argument (if you call it that) or to mine.

Sorry if my writing was unclear.

Septentrionalis said...

And do let us remember that Nicias stood around for a month, all on his own, without any dispatches from home, listening to pund\\\\ soothsayers talk about eclipses, while that war was still winnable.

Sven said...

"Hanson retelling Thucydides’ story is like Penny Marshall trying to remake 'Raging Bull.'"

Boy, Vic is gonna regret accusing the War Nerd of setting fire to his grapevines.