Book Reviews

Martial Flaw

How to spin ancient history to justify modern-day orchestrations of military power.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged Historynational securityWar

Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome Edited and Introduced by Victor Davis Hanson • Princeton University Press • 2010 • 278 pages • $27.95

Affluent Western democracies have “difficulty maintaining popular support for costly counterinsurgency wars,” laments Victor Davis Hanson, the accomplished historian of ancient Greek wars and fanatical insurgent in his own right, against what he considers the beleaguered American imperium’s fickle liberal elites. He means to restore the legitimacy of the unilateralist U.S. hegemony envisioned in George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002; writing in The American Enterprise Magazine in 2006, he attributed a dearth of popular support for that project to “ignorance of military history.” Now, in Makers of Ancient Strategy, he assembles ten military historians of classical Greece and Rome (including himself) to rectify that ignorance by showing how Athenians, Romans, and, even before them, Persians extended their sway and coped with challenges to it in ways that American grand strategists can learn from.

At the same time, though, Hanson is a geyser of vituperations in National Review, the conservative Pajamas Media website, and beyond, against challenges to America’s missions abroad from our liberal governing and cultural cliques, “the mindset of the faculty lounge,” and, naturally, the media. As Iraqi casualties rose in 2006, he accused journalists of sensationalizing setbacks in Iraq thusly: “I deeply love [California], but…imagine what the reaction would be if the world awoke each morning to be told that once again there were six more murders, 27 rapes…and 360 instances of assault in California.…I wonder if the headlines would scream about ‘Nearly 200 poor Californians butchered again this month!’ ” Here he’s blaming the messenger instead of reckoning with different kinds of carnage and their causes, but Hanson writes like this day and night–indeed, several times a day.

Even in Makers, a scholarly anthology, he claims grandly that today’s “problems of unification, civil war, expansion abroad, colonization, nation-building, and counterinsurgency all have clear and well-documented precedents in both Greek and Roman culture.” But many of the book’s precedents point in directions Hanson doesn’t want to go, and he ends his introduction by advising cagily that “[r]ather than offering political assessments of modern military leaders’ policies, we instead hope that knowledge of the ancient world will remind us of all of the parameters of available choices–and their consequences.” This, after years spent invoking ancient precedents for decisive American action:

People wonder how Rome could conquer all of northwest Europe with…four or five legions. The answer is the Romans had a very similar policy to our own: They looked at the most retrograde, bloodthirsty, nationalist leaders–the bin Ladens of the ancient world–and took them out, but with precision and with a lesson.

Ancient histories, epics, tragedies, and disputations do make clear that at some point in public deliberations, there’s no substitute for decisive action driven mainly by what the nineteenth-century military strategist Karl von Clausewitz, a student of the classics himself, called “the silken thread of imagination.” Before all facts can be known, leaders must act decisively on intuitions about the interplay of their own and others’ traditions, moral structures, and economic practices. The study of classical history and literature revivifies the inevitability of that silken thread, even if also its elusiveness.

But some conservatives seem to go further. Feeling trapped in neoliberal postmodernity, they think that emulating the ancients opens opportunities to shed the mincing Christian moralism, political correctness, and secular revolutionary fantasies of our time. In their view, ancient Greeks and Romans, unburdened by otherworldly preoccupations or the secular nostrums of today’s reigning but empty neoliberal relativism, were more realistic, brave, and exultant in breasting the terrors and felicities of the human condition than are technocrats and bottom-liners or the apostles of progressive groupthink who react against them. The ancients expected not to escape the human condition through science, personal salvation, or historically redemptive Hebraic or Protestant missions, but to bear it nobly through character nourished in a civic culture far stronger than a slippery web of contracts and rights.

“The Greeks accepted the idea that we all get old, there’s certain things that we can’t change, human nature is constant throughout the ages and therefore certain things will always be with us–war, pestilence, the fact that individuals are capable of pretty awful things without civilization and culture,” Hanson told The Boston Globe in 2003, when he was becoming infamous for turning folksy insights into bludgeons against critics of the Iraq War. A fifth-generation California raisin farmer, self-styled Jeffersonian republican, and best-selling historian of ancient wars, Hanson pleased Bush and Dick Cheney with his Carnage and Culture, which cited nine historic battles to attribute the supposed superiority of Western war-making to its rooting in Greek and Roman values. Hanson reserves his deepest scorn for leftist academics, who he claims prefer a politics of moral (or amoral) posturing to taking real responsibility, and for progressive activists who think they can improve the world rather than affirm some dignity amid deprivation, moral depravity, and capricious fate.

The irony–dare one call it the Greek tragedy?–in Hanson’s mission begins with the unlikely truth that anyone who cares about the republic will find much to like in him. He isn’t a red-tooth-and-claw decisionist like Friedrich Nietzsche or Carl Schmitt; he’s an angry civic republican who doesn’t know where to turn. Sitting in his nineteenth-century San Joaquin Valley family farmhouse for the 2003 Globe interview, Hanson impressed interviewer Laura Secor with his rustic, self-deprecating charm: “Every dime I ever lost was in farming in the wealthiest agricultural area in the world,” he told her. “And every money I ever made was in classics, in the most culturally desolate area in the world.” Secor recounts how he “got a job in town,” establishing a classics program at California State University at Fresno in 1984 and teaching there for 20 years, assiduously cultivating minority and working-class students. Hanson, she notes, likes “ ‘keen-eyed,’ egalitarian, hard-working, and largely self-governing” small land-owners, whether they’re American or ancient Greek. “So if we now object to the view of Plato and Aristotle,” he wrote in his book The Other Greeks, “it may be because we have lost empathy with the horny-handed farmer himself and his cargo of self-reliance, hard work, and a peculiar distrust of rich and poor alike.”

Hanson seems to be channeling Christopher Lasch here, and while he voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, he remains a registered Democrat who claims that he disdains “golf club” conservatives and even think-tank and academic ones. Of the conservative political theorist Leo Strauss’s followers, he says, “I don’t think they understand the brutality of life that I grew up with. I don’t think any of them’s gone out and pruned vines for 30 days on end…and nobody’s been in a fight, or nobody’s had to run a business.”

This staging of Hanson’s rusticity has been going on for some time, but his mother was a judge and his father a college administrator. And his affinity for civic republicans, ancient and current, is hard to square with his role as a favorite of those horny-handed sons of the soil George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, or with his $250,000 award from the conservative Bradley Foundation, or with his fellowship at the conservative Hoover Institution (so much for disdaining think-tank conservatives).

Hanson was in the White House in January 2005, working with the Cold War historian and would-be grand strategist John Lewis Gaddis to help craft Bush’s second inaugural address (both men received National Humanities Medals from Bush). The ideologue in him keeps tugging at his scholarly sleeve: In an interview in 2008, he insisted that our Iraq blunders are minor compared to those of other wars, and in Makers, he writes that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” But the truth in that chestnut owes more to the ancient world’s own historians, such as Thucydides, than it does to those like Hanson who now imagine that studying that world will make us more like Pericles or Epaminondas. Thucydides, who fought the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century B.C. on the side of Athens, wrote the great history of that long conflict not as a cheerleader or lesson-giver but as a bearer of his society’s collective experience. A keen observer of conflict, he recounted how demagogues such as Cleon, an Athenian leader of that time, subtly altered cherished words’ meanings in public discourse to try to dispel Athenians’ ambivalence about their imperialism. Reading Hanson on the Greeks feels more like reading Cleon on Thucydides–in other words, like rewriting history, not because any new facts have come to light but because Hanson, unlike Thucydides (and unlike some of the contributors to his anthology), is willing to compromise the writing of history in order to make it.

Our distance from the buzz and hum of ordinary ancient people who aren’t featured in the great classical narratives makes it easy to cast such stories as precedents for today’s ideological projections. Hanson sighs copiously about the limits to our knowledge and the inevitability of loose interpretations, but that doesn’t keep him from making ancient history a Trojan Horse for his certitudes, stretching what we little know of the past to serve what he wants us to think about the present.

Citing the book’s first chapter by Thomas Holland, the British historian of ancient Persia, Hanson tells us: “Imperial powers…create an entire mythology about the morality, necessity, or inevitability of conquest. Their narratives are every bit as important to military planning as men and matériel in the field.” Fair enough, but one can’t help ruing Hanson’s own efforts to help Bush craft a grand narrative. Holland seems to tweak Hanson about this when he contrasts the sixth century B.C. Persian emperor Cyrus’s supple, tolerant handling of conquered populations–by encouraging Jews who’d been exiled to Babylon to return to Jerusalem, Cyrus got himself written into the Old Testament as a great servant of Yahweh–with his successor Darius’s conviction “that there was no stronghold of [falsehood] so remote that it might not ultimately be purged and redeemed.…After all, if it was the destiny of the King of Kings [here, Darius] to bring peace to a bleeding world, then what were those who defied him to be ranked as if not the agents of anarchy and darkness, of an axis of evil?”

Hanson wouldn’t get such tweaking from the Yale classicist and fellow Iraq War zealot Donald Kagan, another contributor to the volume. “Today, we assume that empire is an entirely negative notion,” Hanson advises us. “But as Donald Kagan shows…rare individuals [in this case, the fifth century Athenian statesman Pericles] occasionally do make a difference. Empire…was not doomed to failure, if moderate and sober leaders like Pericles understood its function and utility.” Kagan claims that “the Greeks were free from the modern prejudice against power and the security and glory it could bring” not because they were “a free, autonomous polis,” but because they had a strong leader, Pericles, to rouse them to their imperial obligations. Kagan’s non-academic, political pronouncements have made clear his wish that someone similar would convince Americans that their hegemony is good for everyone and for their own historical glory. His account of Athens reads like an advisory on American hegemony from the Cold War through Vietnam and up to the present. One need only substitute contemporary cases for his ancient ones to sense this chapter’s didactic intent.

Hanson’s own chapter examines a preventive war waged by the Boeotian leader Epaminondas against Sparta in the fourth century B.C. in a way that supposedly clarifies the plausibility if not the wisdom of our venture in Iraq. Commenting on this chapter in the book’s introduction, he notes:

Preemption, coercive democratization, and unilateralism in the post-Iraq world are felt recently to be either singularly American notions or by their very nature pernicious concepts.…In fact, these ideas have been around since the beginning of Western civilization and have proven both effective and of dubious utility.

Hanson’s account of Epaminondas’s doughty assault on the mighty Sparta, which had occupied his own country but whose subordinate city-states he liberated from slavery, bears a dubious relation to America’s “preventive” war with a comparatively much weaker, distant Iraq. He nevertheless insists that just as the Spartan Peloponnese emerged from a long and expensive war “largely democratic…and the Greek city-states to the north…free from Spartan attack,” so the Iraq War, although it “had tragically cost more than 4,200 American dead, along with hundreds of allied casualties, nearly a trillion dollars, and thousands more wounded,” had by 2008 led to a “relatively quiet and democratic” Iraq.

This is such a stretch that even Hanson has to conclude that “history alone will judge, in the modern instance, as it has in the ancient, whether such an expensive preemptive gamble ever justified the cost.” But deferring to history’s judgment doesn’t square with lambasting the media for reporting the plight of Iraqis who’ve been not liberated but murdered, or with ignoring the 2.5 million Iraqis who’ve left their “relatively quiet and democratic” country, thanks to misjudgments that any serious study of ancient strategy might have foreseen.

In an interesting chapter, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” Susan Mattern, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and author of Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing, describes how the empire kept order in many provinces only through “a variety of insidious ‘hearts and minds’ mechanisms,” including “social aid, citizenship grants, a uniform law code, and the indigenous integration and assimilation into Roman life that won over or co-opted local populations.” She portrays the fragility and fluidity of what many assume was a stable civil society but notes:

[W]hen I am asked to comment on the practical lessons of Roman history, my response…focuses on the critical role of social institutions.…The nearest modern parallel may be the ‘global village’ created by telecommunications technology, financial institutions, free trade, and the consumer tastes and interests that link international communities today. A focus on shared economic and cultural interests rather than on ideology is a promising direction for foreign policy in the future.

Maybe Mattern has our dim prospects in Afghanistan on her mind, but whatever the reason, she declines to do what I suspect Hanson hoped she would–and what Barry Strauss, a neoconservative professor of classics at Cornell, does in his chapter on slave rebellions. He likens these ancient revolts to Afghan tribal insurgencies, and he cites Rome’s overdetermined victories to assure us that “successful insurgencies are the exception” and that “states usually hold all the cards.” The analogies seem too flimsy to invite serious comment.

Adrian Goldsworthy, a biographer of Julius Caesar, shows that grand strategy involves not only what imperial leaders think and do but what “barbarians” do. He analogizes competition among tribes in Caesar’s time, and their bargaining with Caesar himself, to Afghan inter-tribal competition and bargaining with Americans. But Goldsworthy notes that while we are trying to create a democracy and build a nation, Caesar was not: “Personal interest more than anything else dictated whether leaders supported Rome or resisted Caesar.” Caesar’s personal diplomacy, not Roman messianism, made the difference, and Goldsworthy may well endorse Americans’ talking to Taliban leaders without pretending to uplift them.

In Rome’s declining years, notes Peter Heather, who has studied the frontiers of the declining Roman Empire, its grand strategists forgot they weren’t the only deciders. Barbarians were reacting “with intelligence and determination to the opportunities and dangers that imperial policies presented,” including the negative factor of aggressive exploitation. Heather has the last sentence of the book, and he uses it to posit a kind of Newton’s third law of empires: “The exercise of imperial political dominance and economic exploitation will in the long run stimulate a series of reactions that turns initially weaker neighbors into societies much more capable of resisting or even overturning the aggressive imperialism that set those reactions in train.”

This collection makes Hanson look good partly because it transcends him, and it would be pleasant to think that its best contributors have summoned the better angels of his nature. But he keeps on raging at liberals–“America is now a campus, and Obama is our dean,” reads the sardonic title on one of his many recent blog posts in Pajamas Media. In Makers, he warns that today’s radically evolving technology “fools many into thinking that war itself is reinvented with the novel tools of each age.” Why didn’t he tell that to Donald Rumsfeld, a hero of his, when it mattered?

“Since war is and will always be conducted by men and women, who reason–or react emotionally–in somewhat expected ways, there is a certain predictability to war,” Hanson writes in the introduction. But when the conservative online magazine FrontPage asked him in 2008 what lessons Iraq would teach future historians, he answered, “It’s a reminder that…no war turns out as one predicts.” Well, sure, and, a few decades ago, he mightn’t have predicted that women would conduct wars or that seismic technological changes would enable lone suicide bombers to destroy thousands of non-combatants in attacks with murky “return addresses.” He seems not to have noticed one of the most “unpredictable” consequences of our time’s immense shifts in communications and in public moral awareness: Huge, armed regimes–of the British in India, segregationists in the American South, Afrikaners in South Africa, and Communists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–have been brought down by acts of moral witness backed by unarmed, non-violent, disciplined mass movements. Nothing like this happened to regimes in ancient Greece and Rome; only the early Christians come close, and, by then, the Roman Empire was already in trouble.

Hanson might counter that the British and Soviet empires were exhausted when these new kinds of dissidence challenged them and that segregation had become problematic for Washington with Africa’s decolonization during the Cold War. But Hannah Arendt, a historian of classical philosophy in her own right, and Jonathan Schell, who reported on the Vietnam War and integrates Arendt’s insights into his The Unconquerable World, show that immense changes in technology and in beliefs about power, legitimacy, and non-violent disobedience are altering the relationship between states’ use of force to assert their authority and others’ capacity to challenge their legitimacy.

No, human nature hasn’t changed. Historians of the ancients perform an important service when they remind liberals of that by making vivid the endurance of force, fraud, fate, and humans’ noble if doomed attempts to defy them. But that doesn’t license historians like Hanson to use the classics as a cudgel to denigrate liberalism as a carrier of unprecedented options. Liberalism has fractured “organic” Aristotelian and medieval Christian understandings of social order irreversibly by separating church and state and by elevating personal autonomy. It has also made possible, though not inevitable, the politics of moral witness and disciplined, non-violent coercion that brought down the vast, national-security states just mentioned, virtually without firing a shot. Another “liberal” irony that only Susan Mattern seems to anticipate is a darker one: The capitalism of John Locke and Adam Smith that arrived with liberalism and modernity has metastasized into a casino-finance and corporate-welfare regime that is dissolving the imperial assumptions about war-making emphasized in Makers and in Hanson’s polemics. Liberalism’s prospects can’t be charted by the conservative minority of classicists who spin ancient history to justify imperial orchestrations of power and to scourge their sometimes feckless critics. Historians who do that will have plenty of “friends” and tactical rewards, but little of the prescience or moral dignity that Thucydides recognized and achieved.

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Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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