- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

By David Brewer
Overlook, $35, 393 pages, illus.

A number of years ago I was nearly killed near Missolonghi one of those freak Greek motoringaccidents that occur all too often. The poet Byron wasn't so lucky, having died there in 1824 just before its capture by the Turks, a defeat that became the nadir of Greece's fortunes in shaking off Ottoman rule. I mention my misfortune only because when informed of where we were, I knew nothing about Missolonghi or its place in Greek history. Resisting a Turkish (actually Egyptian) siege against great odds is a central national myth for Greece as much a part of its history as Valley Forge is to ours, and so I missed the point.
A useful corrective (especially for Americans who will find comparisons to their own war irresistible) to such inexcusable ignorance is David Brewer's "The Greek War of Independence," subtitled "The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression and the Birth of the Modern Greek Nation." The Ottomans, it seems, are experiencing a bit of a revival among historians and popularizers, but Mr. Brewer will have none of it. He is to be sure a philhellene, but reasonably clear-eyed about the Greeks and their failings as they or at least eventually most of them struggled for national independence, a quite quaint notion a few years before the struggle began in 1821.
The Greek war, like our American Revolution, covered most of a decade and was brutally conducted by both sides, although if Mr. Brewer's account is accurate and I think it is the Turks come off the worse in comparison. It was also, familiarly enough, about taxes. And like the American conflict, the long struggle became an international affair. The Turks needed Albanians and Egyptian troops to supplement their own questionable forces. The janissaries by this time had degenerated into a band of bullies rather than a band of heroes, a costumed mob rather than a disciplined force. As for the Greeks, they were assisted by a long list of foreign volunteers like Lord Byron as well as nations supplying men, ships, and money though it took Byron's death to revive the Greek cause among outsiders.
After all, the conflict was just about settled with the allied naval victory at Navarino in September, 1827, an affair that set a combined British, French and Russian fleet against a larger, but poorly led Turco-Egyptian force. After all, what is Yorktown without the Comte de Rochambeau and Adm. Francois de Grasse?
Mr. Brewer is especially good at laying out the tangled web of foreign involvement in a war that was both a national liberation struggle and a civil conflict it is an undeniable fact that when the Greeks weren't fighting the Turks, Egyptians or Albanians, they were fighting each other. There were regional leaders those in the Greek islands were especially headstrong and there were Europeanizers and xenophobic Greeks, mostly guerrilla leaders, who had no use for European military tactics (for good reason) or any understanding of representative civil government along American lines.
When the second national assembly met in April, 1823, the two parties were literally two armed camps with the civilians struggling to control the military. The American experience was less troublesome on that point, but the colonials had the good fortune of having a Gen. George Washington while Greece had none or too many political wannabes to keep the lines of authority, any authority, reasonably clear.
As for foreign involvement, it was no simple tale of the Christian world rallying to support the Greeks against the infidel Turk. Certainly, the Greeks had the kind of popular sympathy once enjoyed by Spanish Republicans, but foreign governments were harder-headed. Consider the Russian Tsar Alexander I. One would think he would wish to take on the Ottomans with any excuse, but he refused to do so. The Orthodox connection counted for little. As Mr. Brewer points out, despite the hundreds, or perhaps thousands of European volunteers who flocked to Greece spoiling for a fighting adventure, not one was a Russian.
Mr. Brewer's description of the London Committee's activities are enlightening, which also tells us much about financing such conflicts. The bottom line, it seems, was the bottom line, but the tangled skein of accounting presented here is especially fascinating. Then too the oddest folks make an appearance on the Greek stage. Byron, of course, but Jeremy Bentham as well. Some became goats in the conflict like Lord Thomas Cochrane, only to be lionized later in South America's naval wars of independence.
My personal hero is Adm. Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the allied fleet at Navarino. Codrington won an overwhelming victory against the odds and was rewarded by a reprimand from the new Tory government under the Duke of Wellington. The hero of Waterloo stoutly opposed Navarino because it was his and Tory settled policy to bolster the Sublime Porte. When Wellington charged Codrington with exceeding his orders, the admiral would have none of it. He was a scrupulous man who had demanded precise instructions before engaging the enemy.
After the Iron Duke hung that canard on him, Codrington demanded to know precisely where he had gone wrong. Wellington tried to wave off the objection and suggested the admiral drop by to see him when next in London. Codrington replied: "If Your Grace cannot answer me the only question I ask you, I have no wish to come and see Your Grace again." It is a reply every loyal subordinate being caned for reasons of state should take as a model.
In the end, Mr. Brewer tells us Greece is Greece. Its turbulent history is far closer to the kind usually found in most other places all of which reinforces a further sense of American exceptionalism and is a useful corrective to those who think America's, or any other power's, reason for being is nation-building in places like the Balkans. Mr. Brewer doesn't weigh into such weighty matters. He doesn't have to. Merely by writing a coherent and readable account of Greek war of independence, the author tells us more about what Europe's southeastern flank's past, present, and future than a dozen new tomes volumes on the Balkans could ever do.

Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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