Of the many obscure conflicts of the ancient world, the Pelo- ponnesian war is perhaps the least obscure to us, thanks to Thucydides’ carefully written, if unfinished, account of it. Despite the enormous influence it grew to have on the practice of history itself, Thucydides’ achievement did not prevent future historians from tackling the same subject — of whom Victor Davis Hanson, a prolific author of books on classical Greece and ‘the Western way of war’, is only the most recent.
Hanson’s approach is not simply to recount the war’s events or its campaign strategies, but to describe how the war was actually fought, and thus ‘to flesh out this three-decade fight of some twenty-four hundred years past as something very human’. He has organised the book thematically rather than chronologically, its chapters identified with perhaps intentionally daunting one-word titles like ‘Fear’, ‘Fire’, and ‘Terror’.
These chapters are filled with fascinating details. Hanson convincingly portrays the Greek soldier’s confusion in the midst of full-scale hoplite battle, where dust and the closeness of one’s fellow troops made it hard to see where one was going or exactly whom one was fighting, a confusion compounded by ‘the sharp bronze spear butts of his friends in front bobbing in his face, and the razor-sharp spear points of the ranks to the rear darting over his neck and shoulders’. He shows how the Spartan siege of the small mountain town of Plataea quickly turned into a mini-arms race: as the Spartans built an earthen ramp to surmount the walls, the Plataeans built their walls higher; when the besiegers built battering rams, the defenders countered with anti-battering ram devices, leaving the Spartan king ‘utterly exasperated by such pesky ingenuity’. In applying to the Peloponnesian war the approach pioneered by John Keegan in The Face of Battle, Hanson largely succeeds in his goal of communicating to modern readers the ancient soldier’s experience.
He is not completely successful, how- ever, because the work is marred by numerous flaws. Hanson’s maps, for example, are often of little value: one entitled ‘Final Military Operations, Winter of 415-414’ shows the location of 11 towns and not a single military operation or battle site. His choice of words can be lazy and misleading: the war was a mess that ‘eerily’ crossed generations; ancient medical science was ‘empirically based’, as, he implies, modern microbiology is not; Thucydides was able to travel around the Greek world ‘as an embedded reporter of sorts’, gathering both sides’ points of view — which of course is precisely what embedded reporters are not able to gather in war. Hanson’s two references to the Iliad are both inaccurate: ‘the cowardly (although lethal) archer Paris’, whom Hanson uses to illustrate the Greek warrior’s traditional disdain of missile weapons, is not actually portrayed in the poem as cowardly for using a bow; and in claiming that ‘Achilles did not doubt the nobility and heroism inherent in armed conflict’, Hanson ignores the hero’s sceptical speech to Agamemnon’s ambassadors: ‘What lasting thanks in the long run for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end? … The same honour waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death.’
Hanson’s second aim is more didactic. ‘No other struggle,’ he declares, ‘can provide such military lessons for the present as the Peloponnesian War.’ Yet his historical comparisons lack the rigour necessary to make his analysis convincing. He claims that the war ‘much more resembles the seemingly endless killing in Northern Ireland … than the more conventional battles of World War II’, but then goes on to use World War II as a comparison more frequently than any other. Except, that is, when he claims that the war ‘was more like World War I, rather than the second world war’, or rather, ‘like the terror and chaos that characterised Beirut between 1975 and 1985’. Nor was the war’s nature as unprecedented as he makes out: the Assyrians were using battering rams, siege towers, and ‘terror’ in the 8th century BC, a full 300 years before the Greeks adopted similar tactics.
Were Hanson solely a historian, then one could sum up his book as an interesting if somewhat careless work of history. But he is a well-known political pundit, too, and his portrayal of the conflict and the lessons he draws from it indicate a larger intent.
To the casual reader, Hanson’s tone can seem almost left-wing. He compares the cost of the war to the cost of civilian goods forgone, observes that ‘terror is a method, not an enemy’, and uses a sociological phrase like ‘the other’ without irony, and even as a subtitle. He adds to this impression by presenting the war in an unvarnished state, detailing its many breathtaking acts of barbarity: Athenians murdered Spartan diplomats; Spartans murdered captured trireme crews; Athenian-backed mercenaries slaughtered schoolchildren, with ‘psychological terror’ as their only goal; Spartans murdered 2,000 Messenian helots to prevent a feared revolt; Athens executed 1,000 Mytileneans and ethnically cleansed their island. A better name for the war, suggests Hanson, might be ‘The Thirty Years Slaughter’.
Hanson wants us to gaze directly on war, unblinking. Were he a pacifist or even a moderate, he would be doing so in order to make us recoil from what we see there, as modern readers recoil from the war depicted in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. But Hanson is no pacifist. He is famous as a doughty, aggressive supporter of the Iraq war; as he asserted in a recent column, ‘The US Marine Corps has done more for global freedom and social justice in two years than has every UN peacekeeping mission since the inception of that now-corrupt organisation.’ His intent is not to make us reject war because of its brutality, but rather to accept it in full awareness of its brutality. In this sense, Hanson’s book is the hard hand of a farmer on the back of his son’s neck, making him stare at the bloody and squealing slaughter of a pig. Get used to it, he is saying. This is how things are.
In one of his frequent comparisons between Athens and America, he notes that ‘military power and idealism about bringing perceived civilisation to others are a prescription for frequent conflict in any age’. Hanson’s outlook, however, is not one of classical realism, in which war or the threat of war is used judiciously to maintain a balance of power between dissimilar states. Rather, he sees war as a means of bringing permanent peace through the elimination of political difference. Inconclusive wars are therefore to be shunned, and armistices distrusted: ‘More often resolute action, for good or evil, can bring lasting peace, usually when one side accepts defeat and ceases its grievances through a change of heart or government.’ His history is so laden with references to total war — ‘complete subjugation’, ‘death struggle’, ‘crush oligarchy for good’ — that even his discussions of technical subjects take on its hues. ‘Sieges are final, ultimate verdicts about not merely the fate of soldiers but of a very people,’ he overdramatically intones.
In a closing chapter, Hanson reviews the ‘lessons’ of the Peloponnesian war. Though most of these are merely realistic — that money is more important than raw courage, that technology is critical — first among these lessons is that ‘rules of war are to be broken’. Not just strategic rules of thumb, either, but ethical rules, which he dismisses as ‘nostalgia’; t
ruly effective war-making was only made possible ‘by the liberation from traditional moral restraint’. Hanson ruminates on moral quandaries like Curtis LeMay’s fire-bombing of Japanese cities in the second world war: was he a war criminal, he wonders aloud, or ‘did he shorten the war and punish those in Tokyo’s household factories whose labour produced the planes, shells, and guns’ used by the Japanese military? The use of the word ‘punish’ in that sentence is a clear hint as to what Hanson himself probably thinks the right answer is.
Hanson ends by praising Thucydides’ history ‘as a timeless guide to the tragic nature of war itself, inasmuch as human character is unchanging and thus its conduct in calamitous times is always predictable’. Consider those final two words. In his view of the potential barbarity of war Hanson may well be wiser, or at least more realistic, than many of his pro-war contemporaries. But he has allowed this grim view to limit his understanding of what humans can achieve, and indeed have already achieved, in making war less common, and in making it less barbaric when it does occur. To accept the worst because one thinks it is inevitable is pessimism of a dangerous kind; to justify the worst in the service of achieving permanent peace is cruel folly.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 28, 2006