How to spin ancient history to justify modern-day orchestrations of military power.
Hanson wouldn’t get such tweaking from the Yale classicist and fellow Iraq War zealot Donald Kagan, another contributor to the volume. “Today, we assume that empire is an entirely negative notion,” Hanson advises us. “But as Donald Kagan shows…rare individuals [in this case, the fifth century Athenian statesman Pericles] occasionally do make a difference. Empire…was not doomed to failure, if moderate and sober leaders like Pericles understood its function and utility.” Kagan claims that “the Greeks were free from the modern prejudice against power and the security and glory it could bring” not because they were “a free, autonomous polis,” but because they had a strong leader, Pericles, to rouse them to their imperial obligations. Kagan’s non-academic, political pronouncements have made clear his wish that someone similar would convince Americans that their hegemony is good for everyone and for their own historical glory. His account of Athens reads like an advisory on American hegemony from the Cold War through Vietnam and up to the present. One need only substitute contemporary cases for his ancient ones to sense this chapter’s didactic intent.
Hanson’s own chapter examines a preventive war waged by the Boeotian leader Epaminondas against Sparta in the fourth century B.C. in a way that supposedly clarifies the plausibility if not the wisdom of our venture in Iraq. Commenting on this chapter in the book’s introduction, he notes:
Preemption, coercive democratization, and unilateralism in the post-Iraq world are felt recently to be either singularly American notions or by their very nature pernicious concepts.…In fact, these ideas have been around since the beginning of Western civilization and have proven both effective and of dubious utility.
Hanson’s account of Epaminondas’s doughty assault on the mighty Sparta, which had occupied his own country but whose subordinate city-states he liberated from slavery, bears a dubious relation to America’s “preventive” war with a comparatively much weaker, distant Iraq. He nevertheless insists that just as the Spartan Peloponnese emerged from a long and expensive war “largely democratic…and the Greek city-states to the north…free from Spartan attack,” so the Iraq War, although it “had tragically cost more than 4,200 American dead, along with hundreds of allied casualties, nearly a trillion dollars, and thousands more wounded,” had by 2008 led to a “relatively quiet and democratic” Iraq.
This is such a stretch that even Hanson has to conclude that “history alone will judge, in the modern instance, as it has in the ancient, whether such an expensive preemptive gamble ever justified the cost.” But deferring to history’s judgment doesn’t square with lambasting the media for reporting the plight of Iraqis who’ve been not liberated but murdered, or with ignoring the 2.5 million Iraqis who’ve left their “relatively quiet and democratic” country, thanks to misjudgments that any serious study of ancient strategy might have foreseen.
In an interesting chapter, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” Susan Mattern, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and author of Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing, describes how the empire kept order in many provinces only through “a variety of insidious ‘hearts and minds’ mechanisms,” including “social aid, citizenship grants, a uniform law code, and the indigenous integration and assimilation into Roman life that won over or co-opted local populations.” She portrays the fragility and fluidity of what many assume was a stable civil society but notes:
[W]hen I am asked to comment on the practical lessons of Roman history, my response…focuses on the critical role of social institutions.…The nearest modern parallel may be the ‘global village’ created by telecommunications technology, financial institutions, free trade, and the consumer tastes and interests that link international communities today. A focus on shared economic and cultural interests rather than on ideology is a promising direction for foreign policy in the future.
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.”
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