Issue #18, Fall 2010

Martial Flaw

How to spin ancient history to justify modern-day orchestrations of military power.

Maybe Mattern has our dim prospects in Afghanistan on her mind, but whatever the reason, she declines to do what I suspect Hanson hoped she would–and what Barry Strauss, a neoconservative professor of classics at Cornell, does in his chapter on slave rebellions. He likens these ancient revolts to Afghan tribal insurgencies, and he cites Rome’s overdetermined victories to assure us that “successful insurgencies are the exception” and that “states usually hold all the cards.” The analogies seem too flimsy to invite serious comment.

Adrian Goldsworthy, a biographer of Julius Caesar, shows that grand strategy involves not only what imperial leaders think and do but what “barbarians” do. He analogizes competition among tribes in Caesar’s time, and their bargaining with Caesar himself, to Afghan inter-tribal competition and bargaining with Americans. But Goldsworthy notes that while we are trying to create a democracy and build a nation, Caesar was not: “Personal interest more than anything else dictated whether leaders supported Rome or resisted Caesar.” Caesar’s personal diplomacy, not Roman messianism, made the difference, and Goldsworthy may well endorse Americans’ talking to Taliban leaders without pretending to uplift them.

In Rome’s declining years, notes Peter Heather, who has studied the frontiers of the declining Roman Empire, its grand strategists forgot they weren’t the only deciders. Barbarians were reacting “with intelligence and determination to the opportunities and dangers that imperial policies presented,” including the negative factor of aggressive exploitation. Heather has the last sentence of the book, and he uses it to posit a kind of Newton’s third law of empires: “The exercise of imperial political dominance and economic exploitation will in the long run stimulate a series of reactions that turns initially weaker neighbors into societies much more capable of resisting or even overturning the aggressive imperialism that set those reactions in train.”

This collection makes Hanson look good partly because it transcends him, and it would be pleasant to think that its best contributors have summoned the better angels of his nature. But he keeps on raging at liberals–“America is now a campus, and Obama is our dean,” reads the sardonic title on one of his many recent blog posts in Pajamas Media. In Makers, he warns that today’s radically evolving technology “fools many into thinking that war itself is reinvented with the novel tools of each age.” Why didn’t he tell that to Donald Rumsfeld, a hero of his, when it mattered?

“Since war is and will always be conducted by men and women, who reason–or react emotionally–in somewhat expected ways, there is a certain predictability to war,” Hanson writes in the introduction. But when the conservative online magazine FrontPage asked him in 2008 what lessons Iraq would teach future historians, he answered, “It’s a reminder that…no war turns out as one predicts.” Well, sure, and, a few decades ago, he mightn’t have predicted that women would conduct wars or that seismic technological changes would enable lone suicide bombers to destroy thousands of non-combatants in attacks with murky “return addresses.” He seems not to have noticed one of the most “unpredictable” consequences of our time’s immense shifts in communications and in public moral awareness: Huge, armed regimes–of the British in India, segregationists in the American South, Afrikaners in South Africa, and Communists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–have been brought down by acts of moral witness backed by unarmed, non-violent, disciplined mass movements. Nothing like this happened to regimes in ancient Greece and Rome; only the early Christians come close, and, by then, the Roman Empire was already in trouble.

Hanson might counter that the British and Soviet empires were exhausted when these new kinds of dissidence challenged them and that segregation had become problematic for Washington with Africa’s decolonization during the Cold War. But Hannah Arendt, a historian of classical philosophy in her own right, and Jonathan Schell, who reported on the Vietnam War and integrates Arendt’s insights into his The Unconquerable World, show that immense changes in technology and in beliefs about power, legitimacy, and non-violent disobedience are altering the relationship between states’ use of force to assert their authority and others’ capacity to challenge their legitimacy.

No, human nature hasn’t changed. Historians of the ancients perform an important service when they remind liberals of that by making vivid the endurance of force, fraud, fate, and humans’ noble if doomed attempts to defy them. But that doesn’t license historians like Hanson to use the classics as a cudgel to denigrate liberalism as a carrier of unprecedented options. Liberalism has fractured “organic” Aristotelian and medieval Christian understandings of social order irreversibly by separating church and state and by elevating personal autonomy. It has also made possible, though not inevitable, the politics of moral witness and disciplined, non-violent coercion that brought down the vast, national-security states just mentioned, virtually without firing a shot. Another “liberal” irony that only Susan Mattern seems to anticipate is a darker one: The capitalism of John Locke and Adam Smith that arrived with liberalism and modernity has metastasized into a casino-finance and corporate-welfare regime that is dissolving the imperial assumptions about war-making emphasized in Makers and in Hanson’s polemics. Liberalism’s prospects can’t be charted by the conservative minority of classicists who spin ancient history to justify imperial orchestrations of power and to scourge their sometimes feckless critics. Historians who do that will have plenty of “friends” and tactical rewards, but little of the prescience or moral dignity that Thucydides recognized and achieved.


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Issue #18, Fall 2010

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