It’s All Greek to Victor Davis Hanson
Victor Davis Hanson has been writing the same thing for years now: cheerleading for the Iraq War spiced up with classical military history. Doesn’t matter whether he’s writing a 400-page book or a 1000-word column for National Review Online, Hanson uses the same formula. And it’s sure worked out well for him. Hanson’s got his fans convinced that Socrates himself would volunteer for duty in Fallujah, if only he didn’t have to drink that damn goblet of hemlock.
Now Hanson’s newest project, A War Like No Other, drags one of my heroes, the great Greek military historian Thucydides, into his seedy propaganda campaign. A War Like No Other is Hanson’s retelling of Thucydides’ great story of the Peloponnesian War, the grim 30-year struggle between Athens and Sparta. That’s a pretty conceited project, even for Hanson. After all, this is Thucydides we’re talking about, a genius who practically invented the genre of military history. Hanson retelling Thucydides’ story is like Penny Marshall trying to remake “Raging Bull.”
But this book is even more confused than most of Hanson’s work. It doesn’t make sense at any level, from sentence to overall argument. What’s weird is that nobody seems to have noticed. I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book from big papers like the New York Times and they all treat Hanson like he’s beyond criticism. Seems all you have to do is sound like a professor and fill up pages and everybody thinks you’re the Xenophon of Fresno.
If these reviewers had actually taken a good close look at Hanson’s writing, they could not have taken this book seriously. One of my favorite boners is Hanson’s reference to “the madcap killing on the island of Corcyra.” “Madcap,” huh? That must’ve been the only madcap massacre I ever heard of—a real laugh riot. Maybe Benny Hill was doing the beheading that day. Of course, Hanson doesn’t mean “madcap,” he means something like “mad.” But he’s too vain to check his work, and his publisher must have given the copy editors the word not to offend the great VDH by quibbling about his diction.
Some of the other mistakes are on a whole different scale. Take the title, A War Like No Other. If Hanson believes that the Peloponnesian War was really so unique, why does he spend his first chapters making far-fetched connections between that war and every other war in history? If he wanted his title to reflect what he actually argues, Hanson should have called this book A War Like Nearly Every Other, Especially Iraq.
Yeah, Iraq—that war haunts this book, but the writing is so sloppy you can never be sure exactly what the link between the Peloponnesian War and our self-inflicted Iraq disaster is supposed to be. Hanson is fairly clear on one thing: ancient Athens equals contemporary America. But even though he says this over and over, it never really makes sense. This is typical of Hanson’s work —the more often he says something, the more confusing and contradictory it becomes. He claims 9/11 was “our Peloponnesian War.” But it wasn’t: 9/11 didn’t trigger a lethal plague, didn’t kill a huge chunk of our population, didn’t cause the fall of our country, and didn’t involve naval war, sieges, pitched battle, or in fact any of the strategies of the Peloponnesian War. The only similarity I can see is that they were both bad scenes, man. Real bummers.
And it gets worse. Take this gem: “We [Americans], like the Athenians, are all-powerful, but insecure, professedly pacifist yet nearly always in some sort of conflict, often more desirous of being liked than being respected, and proud of our arts and letters even as we are more adept at war.”
Have a good long look at that sentence and you’ll notice that every single bit of it is false. For starters, Athens wasn’t “all-powerful”—they lost the war. And neither is the U.S., as the Iraqi insurgents remind us every day. And America isn’t “insecure.” In fact, we’re not nearly insecure enough. If we’d been a little more insecure, we might have opted out of the war.
Next Hanson calls Athens and the U.S. “professedly pacifist.” Sez who? When did America ever call itself pacifist? I’d cancel my citizenship if we ever did that. For that matter, when did ancient Athens ever put on a peace sign? Just because they had beards doesn’t mean they were hippies. The Athenians were proud of their ability to go from civilian to military mode in a hurry. That’s why they made statues of Athena with her armor half-on, half-off: to remind everybody they could play it rough or nice.
Then comes that bit about how we and the Athenians want to be “liked rather than respected.” I don’t have a clue what that means. My high-school counselor used to talk like that, which is why nobody ever listened to him.
Hanson ends with the most ridiculous claim of all: America and Athens are “proud of our arts and letters even as we are more adept at war.” Well, uh, no. I can’t believe a classics professor actually wrote that. For one thing, Athenian infantry wasn’t very good. The Thebans and Spartans were better, as Hanson himself says several times in this book. But more important, here’s a little list of ancient Athenians who are generally considered pretty darn good at “arts and letters”—Plato, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripides, Demosthenes, Lysias, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle … I admit I had to look some of those names up, and I’m not saying I read them—just know their names and a little about their reps. But then I don’t put on airs about being an expert on ancient Greece. The fact that Hanson gets away with saying this is as clear an argument as any against the tenure system in our universities.
He keeps dropping hints that Athens equals America and the Peloponnesian War equals us in Iraq, but here again there are huge logical problems mainstream reviewers don’t even notice. For starters, how does this fit into the Hanson project of using ancient Greece to make Iraq look good? If Athens equals America, as Hanson keeps saying, then we’ve got a problem: Athens lost. So if Hanson’s neocon readers buy the parallel, they should be wetting their pants and preparing to convert to Islam.
There’s just no way Thucydides’ story can be spun as a happy tale. It was a bad war for nearly everybody—except the Persians, who sat on the sidelines giggling and feeding money to keep the carnage going. (Sound familiar? Anyone for Basra?) Here’s the truth about that war: the Greeks died at each others’ hands in nasty ways, locked inside plague-ridden cities or speared like frogs as they tried to squirm out of sinking triremes. Athens was bankrupted. A bunch of macho homosexual Spartans, sort of like SF leather boys with red cloaks, collaborated with the Persians to bring down the coolest city-state ever. How can you spin that as something we can apply to the war in Iraq?
The key fact about the ancient Athenians is that they weren’t like us—at all. I admit, Hanson has a quote from Thucydides himself claiming that “human nature is unchanging across time and space and thus predictable.” Well, Thucydides was wrong. We worship those Athenians—and they deserve it—but face it, they said and did a lot of stuff that was just plain wrong.
One thing historians have learned in the two-and-a-half-thousand years since Thucydides wrote is that people change deeply from one time and place to another. That’s why no modern military historian with a conscience would peddle the old notion that there’s a standard-issue “human nature” that applies to Genghis Khan and Woody Allen. And the differences are central to our problems in Iraq. Take the question of killing civilians in towns that resist attack. No ancient army had a problem wiping out the whole male population of sacked cities and divvying up the females for use or sale.
For better or for worse, modern armies just can’t do that any more. We kill lots of civilians, but if possible we do it from 30,000 feet, and we have to make it seem like we didn’t mean to do it. So when we’re facing urban guerrilla war, we can’t do what the ancients did—wipe out the place, kill every one of ’em.
That’s why you don’t hear too much about urban guerrillas before the 20th century: before then urban guerrilla warfare as a strategy was civic suicide. We’re squeamish, and those classical dudes weren’t. If you doubt that, try reading the commemorative plaques Assyrian kings put up outside conquered cities. There’s one I remember—wish I could forget—that brags about how the king “flayed all the chief men of the town alive.” We don’t have that option. Not even Cheney really thinks we can just nuke Fallujah. I’m sure he daydreams about it, but it never gets “translated into policy,” as they say in D.C.
To hide the ancient Greeks’ downright weirdness, Hanson avoids mentioning all their rough edges, their weird religion, their hobby of buggering boys, their Wahhabite take on women’s place. Everything about them was alien. For example, you know where they kept their coins? In their mouths. Yuk.
The grimmest joke in the book is that there really is one parallel that holds up when you compare the Peloponnesian War to America’s military history. You bet there is. But here’s the kicker: it’s the one connection Hanson would never, ever allow into print. I’m talking about the creepy way that our Iraq disaster resembles the Athenian invasion of Sicily. When Hanson says, describing the preparations for the expedition to Syracuse, that the Athenians’ “[i]ntelligence about the nature of Sicilian warfare, and the resources of the enemies was either flawed or nonexistent,” you can’t help thinking of Bremer, Perle, the “cakewalk,” and the WMDs. When Hanson talks about how the Persians sat back and watched their enemies to the west bleed each other, you can’t help thinking about the way Iran helped draw us into Iraq by feeding the suckers at the Bush administration fake intel via Chalabi. Then they settled down patiently to watch. And they enjoyed every minute of the war, cheering when we blasted Saddam’s guys and cheering even harder when the insurgents started blasting our troops—with the help of new IED designs straight out of Tehran. When Hanson talks about the way the Persians just reabsorbed the Greek colonies in Asia Minor after the Peloponnesian War had drained the whole Hellenic world of power, you can’t help but imagine the way all of Shia Iraq will be smoothly absorbed into a Greater Iran when we face facts and cut and run.
And that brings us back to the big question: what did Hanson think he was doing with this book? If I gave him any credit for subtlety, I’d almost wonder if he’d changed sides—because if this book makes any sense, it’s as a bitter satire, with Thucydides’ gloomy story of Greeks slaughtering each other to the benefit of their Persian enemy as an allegory for our Fools’ Crusade in Iraq.
But Hanson is not a subtle guy, so that’s not what’s going on. This book is just a point on the graph of Hanson’s decline. It shows him in the late stages of a wild ego trip, getting more and more thoughtless as he starts believing his own press. The whole book stinks of vanity, from the idea of thinking you could improve on Thucydides to the careless writing, the sleazy connections between alien cultures, and the big blind spot at the center of it all. Hanson has become so sure that the ancient Greeks are with him and the neocons that he can’t see how Thucydides’ story silently condemns our Iraq adventure. If only we could resurrect the real Thucydides and commission him to do a history of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Now that would be worth reading. But I don’t think Victor Davis Hanson would enjoy it.
Gary Brecher writes the War Nerd column for the eXile, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper.
December 19, 2005 Issue