Monday, March 19, 2007

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Has anyone at The American Prospect ever read Thucydides?

Via Daniel Nexon and Robert Farley, I see that The American Prospect has committed multiple sins against Thucydides.

The major sins are contained in this Thomas Geoghegan essay that blasts neoconservatives for being so besotted with Thucydides:

College kids write papers now on how we got into Iraq. Or so it is with my friend's daughter. She's supposed to write a paper on one of the neocons. Which one should she pick?...

If I had a kid, I'd make her do Thucydides (460? - 400? B.C) -- he's an honorary neocon in a way, and no one's doing him. Indeed, he's the darling of the neocons. They simply love this guy. Donald Kagan, the father of Robert and Fred, has written four or five volumes on The Peloponnesian Wars, all to illustrate how the neocons should see the world. And other neocons like Victor Hansen Davis make a big fuss over Thucydides, too. And what's the moral they draw from Thucydides? "No mercy," my old college teacher said. The strong will crush the weak. If ever there's a case for pre-emptive war, it is all there in Thucydides. It's a world in which there is no world opinion, or international law. That kind of thing's for sissies, the neocon's would say Set up those prisons in Guantanamo. They don't cry over these things in Thucydides. You focus on being strong.

Yet maybe one should say something in Thucydides' defense.

First,, he was writing in Fifth Century B.C. There was no such thing as world opinion. There was no mass media. There was no CNN, or UN, or anything like the Hague. We were not wired up to each other. And there were no roadside bombs. What the neocons miss is that things that the Spartans could get away with in The Peloponessian Wars, they wouldn't even try to get away with now. It's not that we're "soft" in the twenty-first century. But our hard power is so dependent on our soft power that there are things a "realist" would have done once that anyone with a sense of reality wouldn't do now.

But it's not much of a defense, because even back then, at least Herodotus knew better....

One big blustery super-power can't dominate the world. Actually, the kind of hegemony that neocons call for isn't even really found in Thucydides. Ultimately, as some scholars note, even in Thucydides, Sparta backs off too. But it's even clearer in Herodotus: there is not so much a clash of civilizations as a plethora of them. And even one based on Hollywood cannot subdue the world.

Indeed, that's why Herodotus is more important than Thucydides for Americans. We're the most blinkered because we don't do what Herodotus did and travel around the world.

In the interest of having a productive work day, I'll have to refrain from a detailed analysis of why this piece is so God-awful. Instead, I'll have to ask my informed readers to determine the biggest sin committed in this piece:
1) Geoghegan's moronic belief that Thucydides was some kind of war-monger -- indeed, it is ironic that Geoghegan basically accepts the neoconservative interpretation of Thucydides (for a conservative takedown of this neoconservative position, click here).;

2) Geoghegan's confusion of Sparta with Athens;

3) As Nexon put it, the ""everything I need to know about Thucydides I learned from the Melian Dialogue" problem in Geoghegan's article. Indeed, I'll put cash money on the table that Geoghegan has never read a single word of books six, seven, or eight in History of the Peloponnesian War;

4) The fact that the editors of The American Prospect pparently know as little about Thucydides as Geoghegan.

Debate away!

posted by Dan on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM


I thought the Prospect article was pretty atrocious. I also think the AmCon article is pretty bad too, about what is to be expected from one author who is a labor lawyer, and another who "writes the War Nerd column for the eXile, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper."

posted by: Dan on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

Can I vote for number 5--All of The Above?

Also, it's Victor Davis Hansen, not the other way 'round.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

I for one have never been able to figure out the neocon obsession with Thucydides. I think it's that they take his representations of Athens' self-righteousness (and, indeed, courage) at face-value -- as an accurate depiction of the facts of the war when in fact the entire work is a brilliant exercise in subtly questioning those very premises. His observations on Corinth and Athens' intervention in the Corcyrian revolt, for example, are powerful reminders of the way politics and public opinion can be manipulated to produce a casus belli. Herodotus, pace Geoghegan, is actually much more in the neocon vein, though there are intriguing possibilities for reading him against the grain as well.

posted by: jonas on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

I'm a bit unclear here on whether Geoghegan has ever read either Thucydides or Herodotus in toto or if he's read only select extracts, summaries, op-ed columns, reviews of the movie "300", or whatever. I'm also unclear how much ancient and/or modern history he has really read (or, at least, read since college).

Thucydides's _The Peloponnesian War_ (which I've read twice in the past few years; I'm now currently working through VDH's _A War Like No Other_) is a _cautionary_ tale about going to war -- both in terms of the political blunders and populist agitation that can get you into war in the first place as well as in terms of the military blunders, escalating atrocities, and political entrenchment than all too frequently follow. Beyond that, the war itself was largely a civil war -- the Hellenic city-states were largely homogeneous in culture, race and language, and the fight itself really started out as a pissing contest between Sparta and Athens as to who would dominate all the other city states. The real irony was that the war's aftermath left everyone sufficiently weakened that Philip and Alexander ('the Great') of Macedon were able to come in some 60 years later and conquer them all before taking on Persia.

By contrast, Herodotus's _History_ (which I've also read all the way through within the past few years) covers lots of ground and lots of wars; the Greek defense against the Persian invasion takes up a relatively small part of his _History_. And yet it remains the most memorable (quick: how many of us can readily cite other specific incidents and quotes from Herodotus?). Why? Precisely because it is a story of deliberate self-sacrifice for the freedom and well-being of others.

Geoghagan's attempts to draw parallels between the Persian Empire and the United States are weak at best. The Persian Empire was third (after Assyria and Babylon) in a succession of Mideast despotic empires that sought to conquer and enslave the known world in the 800-400 BC time frame. And "enslave" was the operative term: entire populations would be transported out of their native lands and forced to live and work elsewhere, while the conquered country would be stripped of wealth and then have to pay large sums of tribute on top of that?

Does Geoghagan seriously seek to argue that the US is doing the same in Afghanistan and Iraq? Does he seriously liken the Al Qaeda, Shi'a, and Sunni terrorists in Iraq -- who are using car bombs and chlorine gas to murder Iraqi civilians -- to the Spartans at Themopylae? And how does he somehow tie this to an alleged (and unevidenced) lack of foreign travel on the part of "neocons"? (For the record, I spent two years living in Third World countries, for the most part paying room and board to live and eat with local [poor] families; what is Geoghagan's own travel history?) Does he seriously argue that the US went into Afghanistan and Iraq to conquer, enslave, and demand tribute from the inhabitants thereof, especially given the complaints about the ~$500 billion price tag for the war?

And if a little learning is a dangerous thing, then how deadly is willful ignorance? ..bruce..

posted by: Bruce F. Webster on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

Although it has to be said, Thucydides for all his influence and political savvy is, let's all agree, a hell of a crappy writer. One gets a bit sick of his putting his thesis in everybody's mouth, no? I mean, enough already.

posted by: Sanjay Krishnaswamy on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

>> hell of a crappy writer.

Yeah...Herodotus was a hoot to read, but Thucydides was a chore. Also, Thucydides doesn't have much of a sense of organization, either chronological or thematic. ..bruce..

posted by: Bruce F. Webster on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

perhaps instead of making his daughter read it, he should take a shot at it first...

posted by: johnnymeathead on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

5) Over use, or indeed any use, of the term "neo con"

posted by: Karl on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

These days I find the once-useful term "neo-conservative" to be akin to "paranoid" and "relevant" in the Sixties: as a litmus test for shallow thinking.

posted by: Bilwick on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

And speaking of how the 'insurgents' in Iraq are so like the Spartans at Thermopylae:

Iraq insurgents used children in car bombing

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Insurgents in Iraq detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle with two children in the back seat after US soldiers let it through a Baghdad checkpoint over the weekend, a senior US military official said Tuesday.

The vehicle was stopped at the checkpoint but was allowed through when soldiers saw the children in the back, said Major General Michael Barbero of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.

Cowardly bastards. ..bruce..

posted by: Bruce F. Webster on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

"As Nexon put it, the ""everything I need to know about Thucydides I learned from the Melian Dialogue" problem in Geoghegan's article."

Geoghegan got this particular idiocy from Michael Walzer's "Just and Unjust Wars." It's been around for a long time and its advocates are impervious to rebuttal by the use of evidence (what Thucydides actually wrote) and logic.

posted by: Grant Jones on 03.19.07 at 09:44 AM [permalink]

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