Friday, April 02, 2004

Thoughts on the Peloponnesian War

As I mentioned more times than I cared to count, I was going to write a post on Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War when I finished it, so, well, here we go. As a book, it's good, I liked it. I'm afraid my copy of Thucydides is still sitting on my shelf, the same place it's been for the past four years. I don't have much to add to the details of the book either in the Amazon reviews or in this New Yorker article, but I will make a few comments anyway.

Normally, when you think of a long, drawn-out war, it's a war of attrition, where one side gradually grinds down the other side to a point where it's quite clear that one side will "win" the war, or at least improve its strategic position compared to the status quo ante bellum (see, now you know where "status quo" came from, if you didn't already), and it's just a matter of how long the one side will keep fighting. To use the War of Southern Stupidity as an example, the secessionists could not have achieved their strategic goal after Gettysburg, but it took until Appomattox for them to acquiesce to that reality. The Peloponnesian War was nothing if not a long, drawn-out struggle, as the 431-404 B.C. date span suggets. However, It was not quite like that archetype. For Sparta to defeat Athens, they needed a navy that could defeat the Athenian navy. They had the rare naval success, but as late as Callicratus and the battle of Arguinsae in 406 B.C. didn't have a navy that could grant them the strategic victory they needed to break Athens' overseas empire. Without some fancy constitutional manipulation to put Lysander back in charge of the Spartan naval forces, giving Sparta access to the Persian Empire's financial resources they needed to build a new fleet, it's not inconceivable that Athens could have emerged victorious, or at least achieved a stalemate. At least implicitly, that raises the question of precisely what the war accomplished, besides killing a few people, but I don't know enough about post-404 B.C. Greece to give a vaguely credible answer.

I was reminded time and again throughout the book that Europe, and the Hellenistic world in general, is really friggin' small. The whole of modern Greece, for example, is just a tad smaller than Alabama, which is the 23rd-largest state. Athens and Sparta themselves were not more than 50 miles apart as the crow flies, and what major land combat there was took place in that piddly little area between the two countries.

To be fair, it was not a constant 27 year struggle. In some respects, it's the ancient version of the Hundred Years War. There was always tension, and always hostility, but the level of intensity of armed conflict was fairly low for much of that time.

When I picked up Geoffrey Parker's Success Is Never Final, review here, one of the things I was hoping his book would deal with is how the origins of the modern state came when a monarch needed to keep his country operating when he and his army were in the field for an extended period of time. Back in the days of really yore (the 5th century B.C., namely, in the days of Victor Davis Hanson's yeoman farmer), the campaign season was shortened by the need to take care of crops and the difficulty in properly supplying and moving an army beyond the campaign season (roughly April-October). The kind of thing you (I, at least) don't really think about these days.

I have long been a fan of reading history. For almost as long, I've wondered just what it is I'm getting out of reading history. What lessons, truly, can you draw from a 27 year war fought by two city-states in a piddly part of Europe over two millennia ago? As the New Yorker article inked about indicates, the standard narrative was Athens-Sparta = U.S.-U.S.S.R. But to make that parallel, should we look at the war itself, or would it make more sense to look at the years before war broke out, from say, Salamis, Marathon, and Thermopylae, where the Greeks fought the Persians (US+USSR v. Nazis) to the start of the war? Or should we compare the Hellenic world and the contest to draw in the Persians to break the deadlock to George Kennan's idea to protect the key industrial bases of western Europe, Japan, and the U.S.?

Does that mean we should take a more atomistic approach to interpreting history then? What to make of, say, the Melian Dialogue, which is still read in International Relations classes? How much can be extilled from the background historical context? To the extent you can extill anything, what does that tell us? That human relationships are universal across time? That humans haven't learned anything in over 2400 years?

Personally, I'm more comfortable with the atomistic approach, which is largely how history is done, anyway, but almost all I read is the works of grander scope. I'm not sure what, if anything, that means. As the preceding paragraphs suggest, I don't claim to have any answers, but I'll go on reading history all the same.

Next up, though, Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear: Thinking Seriously About Security in an Uncertain World. It won't take nearly as long, and I'll almost certainly have something to say about it.

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