Sunday, March 02, 2008

Thucydides, Live from Baghdad

This is a reposting that was originally written in June of 06. Not much on the ground in Bagdhad has changed. Not really since Thucydides was writing either. I thought that this would be a nice revisiting.

dateline 431 BCE, Book III, the revolution in Corycea, describing the city and the people leading up to the rising of the city...

In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master and tends to assimilate men's characters to their conditions.

When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of their enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why. (For party associations are not based upon any established law, nor do they seek the public good; they are formed in defiance of the laws and from self-interest.) The seal of good faith was not divine law, but fellowship in crime. If an enemy when he was in the ascendant offered fair words, the opposite party received them not in a generous spirit, but by a jealous watchfulness of his actions.72 Revenge was dearer than self-preservation. Any agreements sworn to by either party, when they could do nothing else, were binding as long as both were powerless. But he who on a favourable opportunity first took courage, and struck at his enemy when he saw him off his guard, had greater pleasure in a perfidious than he would have had in an open act of revenge; he congratulated himself that he had taken the safer course, and also that he had overreached his enemy and gained the prize of superior ability. In general the dishonest more easily gain credit for cleverness than the simple for goodness; men take a pride in the one, but are ashamed of the other.

Thucydides could be writing today. The places on the map may change, but as long as things are done by humans, with human natures, the results will be the same. When Athens (where they proclaimed loud and long about their love of peace while belligerently carving an empire) and Sparta (where the main focus of their military machine, considered the best in the world, was to keep the helots, greek slaves who dreadfully outnumbered the Spartans, from rising again to wipe out their brutal masters)went to war it was entirely avoidable. The Spartans, like Saddam were kept in a box of their own construction. They were loathe to deploy their vaunted army, because as soon as their backs were turned the helots would rise, fight, and maybe this time win. The Athenians, like the Americans, were vain, boastful, hypocrital, frivolous, and their own worst enemies. Thucydides was an Athenian general who was exiled after a victory. Over the next 28 years of warfare Athens would prove far more effective at beating itself by exiling, executing, or otherwise alienating its best and brightest military minds. Over and over they would return to demagogues like Alcibiades who would lead cavalry charges straight to ruination and defeat. The Scicilian campaign was disasterous for Athens but Sparta was in a poor position to capitalize. In the end, it was the Persians, financially backing one side, then the other, who were the real victors. Athens and Sparta never regained their pre-emininence in the world. They muddled through, both bruised and bleeding until first Alexander, then the Romans came in and took over.

The text quoted here came from

I would not recommend tackling this history like a novel, but there are certain very critical parts to read.

Book 2, the funeral oration of Pericles. A classic example of an "us and them" deliniation. He also warns the Athenians that if they cease to follow the ideals that made them who they are, the Spartans win, regardless of any outcomes on the battlefield. I was reading this passage again and again during the NeoCon bullshitstorm trumping up our disasterous and idiotic Iraqi adventure.

The last gasp of the Athenians in Sicily Book 7, para 75 is heartbreaking. I read this and imagine a last stand in the Green Zone, or even worse, a disaster as they try to fight their way out of it.

Thucydides was the founder of modern historiography. He wrote in a personal style that focused on the nature of the events, and the results politically, spiritually, and economically. He was recording the death of the places and world he loved. Go, read him. Then read the papers today and tell me we have progressed much past the Bronze Age.


With the Iranian President visiting Bagdhad and being praised by Al-Maliki, look again to Thucydides and remember that the real victor in the war between Sparta and Athens was Persia. Gold and diplomacy accomplished for them what force of arms had failed to bring about.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was most brilliant. And I thank you for it, and for repeating it.

I'm going to email Mike at C&L and Steve Benen at Carpetbagger. I hope they'll include this in their round-upd. it needs to be much more widely read and discussed.


12:33 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

"prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness..."

Thucydides is riveting, and you draw a brilliant analogy to today's events. The results seem just as heartbreaking today. Oh, if GWB and crew had only read Santayana's warning.

A few thousand years is not much time for human nature to alter. What's worse, who's to say that nature is evolving for the better? All of our conveniences conspire to erode what's civil and gentle in the human animal.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, MB.

Driftglass has a nice riff on Orwell that meshes quite well with your take on Thucydides.

Thucydides has been on the reading list for a long damn time. Looks like I've got no more excuses.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, if GWB and crew had only read Santayana's warning.

He wouldn't have understood how it applied to himself. That is how it is that these things repeat.

After all, THIS time it will be different!

It always is, even as it never is................

7:16 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

it was idiocy, lunacy, just about every kind of aberration a thinking person can conceive. there's an old saw that get's bandied about in AA a lot that goes the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. it's one that i differ with. after all, if one's truly expecting different results it isn't crazy. it's. fucking. stupid. but, not crazy.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...


Man's ego is limitless, it seems. Greed, lust and ego. Same as it ever was.

The true revolution will occur within the individual, if it is to occur at all. Otherwise, it is just a matter of better restrictions imposed upon a grumbling but apathetic populace.


You say expecting different results from the same behavior is stupid, but not crazy. It is certainly magical thinking which, depending on your ideology, is either stupid or crazy. Funny that AA, which speaks of a "higher power," calls it "crazy."

1:14 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

real crazy. real shithouse rat squirrel from the top of the fucking tree bull goose goddmaned looney crazy is when you know exactly what's going to happen and you do that stupid shit anyway.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...


Per usual, your native civility results in some ambiguity.

But I think you're saying when you hold out hope of a different response despite numerous failed tries, you are merely being stupid. But when you are gunning for bona fide poor results with surety and claim otherwise, you are crazy.

Yes, and you are also disingenuous and perhaps masochistic.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I disagree with they're mad/crazy. This is just more of the plan to bring America to it's knees. It's uncle Milton Freidman very own kill the worker and destory any safety net (FDR) they might have gotten on the back of the chosen elite.
I do agree with who the real winners will be but GWB clan don't care as long as they can put us are rightful place war/porvety.
Thanks for the great writing.

Just in Adm. Fallon on his way out stood in the way one time to many.
Everything is on schedule, please move along.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Where is Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane when you need him?

7:26 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

And MB, you know the previous statement, "Yes, and you are also disingenuous and perhaps masochistic" did not refer to you, no?

Email is such an imprecise medium, and I would have better stuck with the universal pronoun, "one." Ahem.

7:29 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

the great themistocles, he who stopped the forces of darius the great cold at salamis, was cashiered by the athenian assembly for talking sensibly about matters of strategy.

it's a fine thing that we expect from our brass. these men who have scratched, clawed, and fought their way through the battlefields that exist not only in foreign deserts and jungles but in the officer's messes and wardroom all throughout the service and the fleet. by the time they are sporting stars and waving personal flags these men are not only soldiers and sailors they must be politicians. so, here the man who finally smells his hour of defining action finds himself cashiered for doing his job. fallon spoke his truth, the same as many others have done. and bush, because the truth isn't something he wants to hear, or cares a fig about turns away. bush would cashier nelson, john paul jones, patton (who would probably have called him a REMF son of a bitch by now), or many other battlers.

i had the honor of knowing lt. col. lawrence evans when i was in high school. he was a truly inspiring man. he was one of the founders of the army special forces. in his living room he had the very first green beret, it had been personally presented to him by president kennedy.

back then, light colonel was as far as you could progress while still in special forces. it was the same with the SEALS. we had no flag officers in our direct unit. not even any birds. we were designed to be small, particularly vicious units, but always apart and away from all politics. we were effective instruments of policy but we were never supposed to be involved in the process of making that policy.

flag officers have a duty to stand up to the civilian authority and speak their minds and their thoughts fearlessly. if we are expected to fight and die on their orders we should expect no less from our top brass.

but just like washington cashiered nathaniel green, just like lincoln cashiered mcClellan, fremont, and a host of other generals, or truman's sacking of macarthur. once they have taken their stand they must, absolutely must yield to civilian authority. the prospect of any other course of action is unthinkable.

i wish admiral fallon the best. he saw his duty and he did it. one more fine officer sent down by a spoiled, petulant, petty tyrant.

holy sainted mother of sweet sweating jesus i fucking hate that man.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thank you for always synthesizing ideas so well for us.

(Of course, I meant to say "Rear Admiral George Cockburn" and his ruffian Washington expedition.

Fact-checking is a good thing...

9:14 PM  

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