The Current Crisis Through the Eyes of the Greeks
A briefing by Victor Davis Hanson
May 6, 2003
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Victor Davis Hanson is professor of classics at California State University in Fresno. He also writes a bi-weekly column on contemporary culture and military history for National Review Online. He has written or edited eleven books and he appears frequently on national television. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University. Mr. Hanson spoke to the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on February 26, 2003, and New York on May 6, 2003.
To better understand the nature of conflict requires an understanding of history, and none is better than of classical Greece. The ancients accepted the realities of war and sought to learn its lessons.
In the current circumstances, the Greeks can offer contemporary leaders a valuable analytical tool for such questions as: What are the root causes of war? Why do wars break out? What factors determine the victor and vanquished? How do wars end? And why do affluent societies especially detest war?
What are the root causes of war?
The Greeks rejected many of the current modern interpretations on the origins of war. First, the Greeks rejected the notion that war is rare, Heraclites once declared, "War is the father of us all." Echoing the Greeks, the Romans' notion of bellum interruptus, or period between clashes, demonstrates that they, like the Greeks, viewed war as a normal part of life. This view did not indicate any admiration of violence but recognized that war cannot be excised from the human condition, that it is a permanent dimension of our existence.
Secondly, the Greeks would, without reservation, strongly rebut the now-prevalent idea that war results from material grievances or socioeconomic disparity. During the fifth century, Athens was at war three out of every four years and seventy five percent of those conflicts centered on border disputes. Upon closer inspection of these struggles one finds that the actual territories fought over were strategically worthless. The true sources of the clash were rooted in differences of honor, status, fear, and prestige. Two modern examples of this concept are discernible in the motivations behind the Falklands War and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Falkland Islands were not a major strategic asset for Great Britain, but allowing an aggressor a foothold on her sovereign territory was an affront to her sense of prestige requiring a forceful response. Similarly, the Palestinian campaign of terror against Israel does not result from the Israeli presence on the West Bank but is part of a larger struggle that concerns honor, status, and fear.
Why do wars break out?
Wars begin when the attacker expects acceptable costs in relation to the benefits of fulfilling his objectives, whether rational or irrational, perceived or actual. Wars do not materialize when the price exacted by action is expected to be too high. A Greek episode demonstrating this principle is readily found in the Spartan assault of 431 B.C.E. The Spartans struck because fifteen years earlier they had entered Attica and the Athenians, failing to vigorously respond, conveyed a clear message – effective retaliation would not follow aggression. Likewise, Saddam Hussein invaded and conquered Kuwait believing that the repercussions from the West would not be serious, and his assessment was accurate. The first Gulf War did not end with U.S. or other allied forces occupying Iraqi soil, nor was Saddam Hussein (or the Iraqi people as a whole) made to feel defeated after being expelled from Kuwait. In another part of the Arab world, Palestinians continue to murder Israeli civilians believing exhaustive violence will force their capitulation. They base this on Israel's lack of military retaliation after 39 SCUD missiles landed within its territory during the first Gulf War; the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon; and the astonishing offer made at Camp David by the Barak government. These events have generally been perceived by the Arab world as indicators of a weak national character.
What factors dictate outcomes?
To predict victor and vanquished in a war, traditional analysis considers personal leadership, tactics, logistics, weaponry, and so on. These individual factors remain valid; but the West is in a unique position, by virtue of some key cultural factors, that give it a military edge: (1) Its steadfast commitment to a secular society and the disconnect of research from politics, philosophy, and religion. (2) Western methods of warfare and planning are subject to relentless civic critiques. Again, the Greeks provide historical similarities. In a 300-year period, rarely was a Greek general not punished, exiled, or executed for his failures. Indeed, Pericles was fined and even he, the brilliant commander, who had subjugated the whole of the Peloponnesus, later stood on trial for his very life. (3) The Western marriage of capitalism and the scientific tradition results in superior military technology. These cultural factors, often overlooked, allowed the British to conquer the fierce Zulu lands in nine months while Cortez, likewise, brought huge swaths of Latin America under Spanish influence.
How do wars end?
Wars do not truly end until the reasons they were fought are extinguished. The Athenians and Spartans battled each other for over 27 years and the end did not truly arrive until Spartan soldiers stood, as conquerors, on the Athenian Acropolis. World War I was, in many ways, an unresolved war. The German army was never truly defeated and German soil was never conquered. Worse was the Allied decision in 1918 to impose a harsh regime onto a German people who had not felt a firm sense of defeat. These factors fanned the flames of German nationalism that the Nazis were easily able to exploit. A second global war was needed to completely eradicate the German quest for hegemony. The Second World War's resolution bore little resemblance to that of the earlier war. The allied armies both conquered German soil, and there is little doubt that the German people felt a firm sense of defeat.
In terms of the current challenge to our own national security, one need only look back at the various acts of militant Islamic terrorism committed against the U.S. and judge the efficacy of our responses. Time and time again the deaths of Americans - in Somalia, the Khobar Tower bombing, the East African embassy bombings, the Cole bombing - was met with feckless reprisals. The Clinton administration never fully utilized decisive force to effectively deal with the menace of militant Islam. In short, war was declared on us but we did not fight to win while the enemy continued to strike.
Why do affluent societies shy away from such notions of war?
This question is of particular importance for it affects free and affluent nations across the West. The Greeks firmly believed that "license," or material wealth produced hubris, a type of arrogance that views force as archaic and incompatible with economic power. The Greeks often lamented that with intellectual progress comes moral regress. Such ideas clearly threaten the survival of free societies. To guard against and deter future attacks we must see our culture as unique imbued with a sense of purpose. We must see our cause and civilization as something worth fighting for.
Summary account by Zachary Constantino, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum.
Related Topics: History
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