Here is the celebrated historian Victor Davis Hanson writing in National Review on September 30, 2002: “Herodotus wrote that it was easier to convince thousands of free Athenians than a few skeptical Spartan oligarchs to go to war. In fact, consensual governments have never been averse to fighting – read Thucydides’ account of how the frenzied Athenian assembly insisted that their generals invade Sicily.”
Well, yes and no. Although I hate to go up against a historian like Hanson (Journalists are easy to argue with because they’re lazy and mostly ignorant; students, of course, are the easiest because they know squat) in this case I think he’s being selective, to say the least. Twisting history to fit the debate is a very old ploy. In fact it’s as old as the Peloponnesian War. And I’m not condemning Hanson for doing it, just countering his argument. After all, history is subjective, and is there for any of us to interpret any way that suits us.
Hanson writes that we associate democracies with peace and therefore think that it is hard to convince thousands of free citizens to support a war. This is a real stretch. In reality, an aroused citizenry usually forces governments to fight.
Athens was an empire, with a formidable fleet, with settlements near Troy at the mouth of Hellespont (South-Russian grain came through there). There was naval imperialism but for reasons of economic necessity. Weak islands paid Athens for protection from pirates and Persians and tribute for being under the Athenian wing. Punishment for, say, independence, was quick and merciless. So much for Athenian democracy for weaker islands or states.
Athens in the beginning of the fifth century B.C. had all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of Sparta, her great rival and eventual conqueror. Sparta was a martial society, which did away with any sickly child at birth. Spartans were always either training for war or at war. The mother of a Spartan always handed her son’s shield to him with the words “Ei tan, ei epi tas,” – “Come back with it, or on it.” Sparta, however, did not seek an empire. The reason for this was not altruistic, but because Sparta had, like the rest of the Greek city states, a large population of slaves, more so than any other state. In fact, their sheer numbers made it impossible for Sparta to wage war in far away places. Spartan slaves closely resembled medieval serfs; they were freer than the slaves of other Greek states who were mostly foreign, were of a wide racial mix, and did not have a common language to articulate opposition. Spartan slaves came from a single nationality, Messenians, spoke Greek (Messenia was next door to Sparta, and today one can drive there in less than an hour), and were known to rise up when the opportunity arose, pun intended.
The Peloponnesian War was among the great tragedies of history. The fall of Athens signaled the end of progress, and Greece’s contribution to the world was checked and soon ended. Athenian democracy was not as selective as people now claim. Leaders were chosen by lot or through acclaim by the people. Athenian democracy in the fifth century was closer to American democracy today than the latter is to the original system following the Revolutionary War.
Athens also had the greatest propagandists of the era, the Bill Kristols of the time. By Kristolizing the populace, Athens was able to justify coercion of islands (Cimon claimed that he had discovered the bones of the mythical Theseus in Scyros) and spread the image of the city as universal benefactor of mankind. Now, dear readers, if this reminds you of a certain campaign going on in this country at present, it is simply a coincidence. Sparta attacked Athens in 431 B.C. because the latter had spread her wings too far. As unwilling as Sparta was to lead the Greek world, she at the same time knew that her time would come eventually to become an Athenian colony. Sparta leads, was the motto, but never follows.
But back to Victor Davis Hanson’s theory. Pericles, the greatest of all Athenian leaders, had an obsession with security. (Like President George W. Bush, for example.) It was this obsession that led such a wise man to make Athens almost too strong, raising fears among the rest of the Greeks. After his death from the plague, his ward (and a student of Socrates) Alcibiades, managed to really screw things up. When Hanson claims that according to Thucydides a frenzied Athenian assembly demanded that the generals invade Sicily, both he and Thucydides are half right. Alcibiades, the greatest charmer to have existed, had totally Kristolized the assembly through spin, charm, and guile. (“To Kristol” is a verb that means to lead astray.) He was also not confined by facts. Despite General Nicaias’s protests, the fleet was sent to Syracuse, only to be annihilated and Nicaias to be put to death. It’s as if Colin Powell was forced back in uniform despite his protests for a wider war, and once defeated, put to death while Wolfowitz and Kristol flee to Iran, where the mullahs are more than happy to give them an advisory position.
Obviously it is I who am now stretching the point. The victorious Spartans did not enjoy their victory for long. The liberation of Greece from Athens, which Sparta’s allies required of her, eventually saw Sparta conquered by Thebes, which later fell to the Macedonian father and son team of Philip and Alexander the Great. So much for empires.
An awakened citizenry did not force Rome to spread herself thin; the greed of her elite did. Not many Frenchmen demanded conquest through war; Napoleon decided it was his destiny, and he had six long years to think about it in St Helena. Kipling did his best to rally the people during the time of the British Empire, but it was the East India Company and the arms industry which called the tune. Now it’s our turn. The oil companies want it, the Israeli Lobby wants it, and the Bill Kristols of this world want it. We will definitely win the war, but I’m willing to bet my last devalued Euro that we will never win the peace. I’ve read too much history to fall for this one.
Taken at random last week alone, it sounds like swatting flies: the death of Palestinians, that is. Two Palestinians here, ten Palestinians there, 17 in Nablus while Israeli soldiers fire on stone-throwing youths. A 12-year old boy here, a 3-year old there, what in Heaven’s name is going on here? There, rather. A ten-year old girl in the Gaza-Egypt border…
One begins to wonder who the terrorists are. This significant increase of Palestinian civilian deaths would not be as disturbing if the media over here gave them the kind of coverage Israeli innocent deaths are accorded. Palestinian mothers cry and suffer exactly the same pain as Israeli mothers do, and the American press shames itself by not recognizing this simple fact. What brought tears to my wife’s eyes was a New York Times report by Joel Greenberg that Jewish settlers had shot and killed a Palestinian and wounded another on October 6 in the West Bank for…harvesting olives near Nablus. Settlers, and I quote, “tried to disperse the olive pickers and opened fire, fatally shooting Hani Yusuf, 24, in the stomach. Settlers had entered Palestinian groves and picked their olives, in one case while soldiers prevented villagers [Palestinians] from approaching.”
This is too outrageous for words. Picking your own olives cannot possibly be misinterpreted as terrorism. Not even in Sharon’s eyes. But to shoot poor people harvesting – after having seen their olives filched by others – shows the settlers to have learned some terrible lessons. Jews the world over must be appalled. This is not why Israel was established. The mostly American settlers should be brought to trial. And condemned. They’re giving Israel a very bad name.