- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

A WAR LIKE NO OTHER: HOW THE ATHENIANS AND SPARTANS FOUGHT THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

By Victor Davis Hanson

Random House, $29.95, 396 pages

REVIEWED BY BLAKE DVORAK

When discussing current events, it is usually unwise to make sweeping historical analogies. To do so requires a thorough understanding of not just one event or era, but two, at which point things tend to get messy. The fellow at the party, for instance, might impress the guests by comparing the Iraq War to Athens’ disastrous Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian War — as we’ve heard every now and then. It might be true, if U.S. troops had failed to overthrow Saddam Hussein; if, say, China came to Iraq’s rescue, while North Korea invaded California; and if every soldier, ship, airplane and commander never returned home. Then, the Iraq War would be like Athens’ Sicilian expedition.

So, avoid historical analogies — unless you’re Victor Davis Hanson. In his masterful new book, “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War,” Mr. Hanson does historical analogy right, so to speak. After reading “A War Like No Other,” not only will you have ample ammunition to embarrass that partygoer, but you’ll appreciate why a competent grasp on this 2,500 year old conflict is fundamental toward our understanding of Western civilization in particular, and war in general.

Mr. Hanson — historian, author of some dozen book, professor of classics emeritus at California State University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution — knows what he’s talking about. If you’ve ever read any of his ubiquitous op-eds, you already know that he consistently applies historical precedent to current events, and vice versa. “Sometimes,” writes Mr. Hanson in “A War Like No Other,” “we can learn about the distant past by evoking subsequent wars in which soldiers were often confronted with the same fears, logistics, and tactics.” A few chapters into the book, a reader quickly learns why nearly every major conflict, ancient and modern, has a precedent in this seldom understood war between the two greatest of Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta. The entire book in fact is strewn with historical analogies, from single battles to generational conflicts like the Cold War, which Mr. Hanson uses to tell a very simple, if often ignored, lesson: “There is a commonality to war, it being entirely human, that transcends time and space.” But this is more than a simple quixotic tale, intended to make the reader see — yet again — the futility and waste of war.

After all, few other than classicists and historians could accurately tell you what the Peloponnesian War was all about without at least brushing up on their Thucydides first. And even then, why should we care? Without giving away much of anything, here’s the condensed version. It was a war that lasted 27 years (from 431 B.C. to 404 B.C.); involved the entire Greek world (from the coast of Asia Minor to the plains of Sicily); it saw men, not yet born when it began, lead armies and die in its final throes. It was a war where our very idea of ancient Greece — Periclean Athens, the first city on a hill — was defeated by an oligarchic state; a war where entire cities ceased to exist; where every Athenian general would by its conclusion be either dead or exiled; where the ancient tradition of hoplite armies, massed in open battle, would give way to lighter, deadlier armies of horse and missile troops, smashing for all time the Greek notion of heroism and virtue. As Mr. Hanson reaffirms, there is a tragic repetition to human affairs, one which is often paid for by the blood of thousands who die in the river mud in Sicily, or are executed on the streets of Baghdad.

Still, we’ve been here before. Thucydides isn’t exactly uncharted territory, as Mr. Hanson readily admits. And a reader without any previous knowledge of the conflict might be at a loss early in the book, since the author eschews a traditional chronological retelling. But whereas other recent attempts at the bringing the war to modern audiences amount mostly to Thucydides-lite, Mr. Hanson’s approach is more intimate, less rigid. “A War Like No Other” is the companion material to Thucydides, a first-rate lecture that mesmerizes a reader, even as the names — Sphacteria, Mantinea, Aegospotami — are as strange to us as the men who died there. Besides, the Peloponnesian War is simply as good a yarn as any Shakespearean tragedy, which is often missed in the complexity of Thucydides’ account.

Since we see the war through the Athenian Thucydides’ eyes, and perhaps because Americans are the heirs to Athens’ democratic legacy, our sympathies are with the Athenians. We take their ultimate defeat more personally than, say, the breakup of Alexander’s empire. Mr. Hanson mostly agrees with this perspective, but with plenty of reservations. Democracy in Athens was a fickle, often brutal, affair, highly susceptible to demagogues in a way that would make cable-news blush. In one indicative example, after the crushing Athenian naval victory at Arginusae in 406, when Athens nearly turned the tide of the war, the Athenian assembly voted to execute 6 of the 10 triumphant admirals for dereliction of duty. (The admirals had left dead sailors behind without administering funeral rites.) The other four, terrified, fled the city, thereby exhausting Athens’ entire supply of veteran commanders.

The enemy, Sparta, though an oligarchy and not far from what we would consider totalitarian, comes off as both noble and tragic in its own right. Her leaders’ decisions were often misguided and reactionary, but rarely eccentric. It sued for peace multiple times, only to be rebuffed by radical demagogues in the Athenian assembly. When the Spartan general Lysander finally marched into Athens in 404, he didn’t, as he very well could have — indeed, as Athens and Sparta had done numerous times to other cities — butcher the populace or raze the city. For Sparta, victory brought the end of the old ways, similar to the new world Britain faced after World War I.

This isn’t relativism of the sort we sometimes hear that says the United States was just as guilty as the Soviet Union. Rather, it speaks to the way war acts on man’s character, distorting his better instincts, which no form of government can ultimately save. Mr. Hanson highlights one individual, who, in his estimation, personifies this descent. The Athenian Alcibiades was 19 when the war began and a promising, charismatic cavalry commander. By war’s end, he was well past 40, having been at the center of nearly every major confrontation — on both sides — and a man in exile: “Like Athens’ own experience in the Peloponnesian War, so too Alcibiades’ life mirrored the conflict and, in the same tragic manner, proved a colossal waste. At the end, both the city and its most flamboyant and gifted citizen shared an identical fate of enormous potential ruined rather than fully realized.”

As Mr. Hanson tracks the war he follows Alcibiades, and you won’t be disappointed if you go along for the ride.

Blake D. Dvorak is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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