Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Nikias Was Stabbed in the Back!

The guys at Lawyers, Guns, and Money won't mind extra scorn heaped on Victor Davis Hanson, I hope. If you listen to this episode of Radio Open Source (sometime venue for Ezra) you'll hear them debating the modern relevance of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. At one point, discussing the relevance of Thucydides to Iraq, Hanson says (at about 48:30):

...the text seems to suggest that Athens gave everything the commanders wanted in the field, and yet when he sums up he says that the greatest problem with the Athenian expedition to Sicily was the lack of support back home. Which people don't really want to uh, talk about much today.
That was a new one to me. I had to read various chunks of Thucydides for some classes in University, but never read the whole book cover to cover. My limited reading was that there was little doubt that the Sicilian expedition was pretty much a cockup from beginning to end. In any case, it's pretty easy to find the stuff about Syracuse -- the most crucial events are in the last two books, 7 and 8. So what the hell is Hanson talking about? Crucially, Book 7 details the campaign in Sicily and the ensuing disaster for Athens, and not once mentions the domestic politics of Athens (though it does speak of the Spartan invasion of Athens, a common occurrence during the war.) After the troops arrive in Sicily, the next reference to domestic concerns in Athens comes at the beginning of Book 8, after the disastrous defeat in Sicily:
When the news was brought to Athens, for a long while they disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers...
Fox News is older than I thought!
When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it....
Wait a minute. I think I see what's going on here...
and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily. Already distressed at all points and in all quarters, after what had now happened, they were seized by a fear and consternation quite without example.
Ah. If this is what VDH means by his remarks above (and I honestly don't know where he's pulling that, this is just my best guess) then I'd say he's misreading Thucydides. But we knew that. I think it's safe to say what frightens VDH is not the prospect that we won't support our troops at home. Rather, what frightens him is that once American involvement in Iraq comes to its ignominious end, Americans will (like the Athenians in their day) turn on "the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers" who got them in to this damn war. That would be you, Victor.

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