A review of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, by Victor Davis Hanson

On May 12, 1962, General Douglas MacArthur delivered at West Point the greatest improvised oration in American literature. The cadets heard a prose poem, held together by the refrain "Duty—Honor—Country" and enlivened with vivid images drawn from daily life ("My days of old have vanished, tone and tint") and the wisdom of the past. Their profession was not about to become obsolete, he told the cadets. "Always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers, 'Only the dead have seen the end of war.'"

MacArthur was right to call upon the ancients to reinforce what he had learned from a lifetime spent in the service of his country ("this beloved land of culture and ancient descent"). Americans sometimes forget that many of the intellectual and political traditions they enjoy, such as science, history, literature, and self-rule, began life in the ancient world. The gifted historian Victor Davis Hanson has argued convincingly for the antiquity and interconnectedness of democracy, agriculture, and war. For him the West was shaped by the family farm and what the founders called the yeoman farmer. Ancient Greek farmers preferred wars with few but decisive battles. This style of farming and fighting provided the context for the rise of science, philosophy, and the breathtaking literary achievements of Homer, Sappho, and Sophocles. After millennia these still stir our hearts and keep publishers and translators of the classics solvent. In Hanson's other books, like The Western Way of War (1989), The Soul of Battle (1999), Carnage and Culture (2001), and Ripples of Battle (2003), he has roamed the centuries to show us the classical tradition alive (and victorious) in Charles Martel and Cortés, at Rorke's Drift in Africa and Khe Sanh in Vietnam, in the American Civil War and World War II. Now he has returned to ancient Greece to write about what Thucydides, in his classic History of the Peloponnesian War, called "a war like no other."

Hanson uses the phrase for the title of his important book on what Thucydides, in his first sentence, termed "the war of the Peloponnesians and Athenians." We take the Athenian perspective and call it the Peloponnesian War. (It was the Attic War for Sparta, the major military power in the Peloponnesus.) Athens, Sparta, and their allies were at war for much of the 5th century B.C. (especially when one counts the battles and political maneuvering of 460-445, sometimes called by modern classicists "the first Peloponnesian War"). Although they had fought side by side on sea and land against the Persian invasion of 480-479, within two decades the alliance that saved the West had been riven by suspicion, hostility, and finally war. The Attic historian Hellanicus viewed the great battles of 431-421 and 414-404 as two separate wars. It was Thucydides who argued that these episodes, separated by seven years of "unstable truce," constituted a single 27-year conflict, which had been predicted by an oracle, "the only one solidly confirmed by events." For other historians the loss of Athens's fleet in 406 and the destruction of her "Long Walls" in 404 did not mark the end. The accounts by Theopompus and Cratippus extended until Athens defeated the Spartan navy at Cnidus in 394.

In the end, Thucydides triumphed. The fighting between 431 and 404 is considered the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides (who served as an Athenian general) defined it and described it. Its two decade-long contests made it twice the span of Homer's Trojan War and far longer than Herodotus' Persian War. Although the latter wars were iconic for the Greek imagination, neither matched the Peloponnesian in the destruction and death visited on so many across so vast a territory. Thucydides' war was unique, but he wanted his account to be exemplary. He wanted to show, that is, not only "what happened" but what, "based on human nature," would likely "happen again sometime."

He succeeded in writing a history that has haunted the imagination of Western man. "Former secretary of state George Marshall, critics of Vietnam, and contemporary opponents and supporters alike of the so-called war on terror have all looked back to find their own Thucydides and learn from the people who fought that most awful war so long ago," Hanson writes. Like Thucydides, he sees in this Greek civil war a story that allows us to understand later wars: "As he predicted, [Thucydides' history] serves as a timeless guide."

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A War Like No Other is organized thematically to explore various aspects of the war—fear, fire, disease, terror, armor, walls, horses, ships—each with examples drawn from Thucydides and Xenophon (who in his Hellenica picks up the story where Thucydides leaves off). Hanson supplements each topic with apt parallels from the history of Western warfare: the Crusades, Napoleon's campaigns, the American Civil War, the two World Wars, Vietnam, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hanson is a deservedly influential historian, but he is an even greater teacher. The type of scholarship that sees in or makes of the past a foreign country is reputable and important. Teaching, however, is about enthusiasm, making connections, seeing continuities and parallels. It shows students that real people lived and died in these battles and have lived and died like that ever since.

Hanson's instinctive appreciation of Thucydides rejects the traditional view of him as a cold and amoral reporter of the facts, as though he were Machiavelli and Sgt. Joe Friday rolled into one. Yet the thematic organization of A War Like No Other might seem a rejection of the Thucydidean model. Hanson disagrees: "Far from his history being a yearly and comprehensive account of all the events of the war…Thucydides…offers up exemplary snapshots that ground his entire narrative in the human experience of killing." Thucydides' description of the siege of Plataea makes detailed accounts of all the other sieges superfluous, in the same way that Pericles' Funeral Oration makes it unnecessary to end each year with another one. Nor does Thucydides always use the first example at hand. His spectacular account of the Athenians' brutal and cynical conquest of the little island of Melos comes years after their similar destruction of the little town of Scione, which he merely reports. He composed the famous Melian Dialogue, which stands at the end of Book V, to serve as the hubristic prelude to the Athenian invasion of Sicily (our Books VI-VII).

Hanson's account of the Sicilian Expedition reveals his characteristic strengths of vivid storytelling and trenchant conclusions. The chapter is titled "Horses: The Disaster at Sicily (415-413)." The agrarian hoplite citizen-soldier tended to ignore the importance of cavalry, which was the weapon of the wealthy. There are many factors behind the failure of Athens' invasion: a lack of accurate intelligence about Sicily, Syracuse's similarities to Athens as a wealthy commercial democracy, Alcibiades' flight to Sparta after his arrest, the death of the competent general Lamachus, and the caution or timidity of the remaining general, Nicias. As a military historian Hanson emphasizes Athenian weakness and Syracusan superiority in cavalry.

For Thucydides, the Sicilian Expedition is the war's tragic climax. The gods punish the Athenians for the moral atrocity of the sack of Melos by driving them mad, so that they listen to the siren song of the irresistibly handsome and winsome Alcibiades and ignore the solid good sense of the conservative Nicias. Hanson rarely mentions Nicias without some implicit criticism: "timid," "naïve," "slothful," and "pro-Spartan." Yet in Thucydides' account it is Nicias who warns the Athenians that lack of cavalry will be the downfall of the expedition. (Every danger he warns of comes to pass.)

The two historical visions are juxtaposed on the same memorable page. Hanson begins by quoting Thucydides' powerful description of the destruction of the Athenian army, cut down at the Assinarus River as they are drinking, exhausted by their retreat. He ends by quoting Thucydides' summary of the expedition: "This was the most remarkable occurrence of all those that transpired during the war—indeed as it seems to me of all the Greek events that we know of—one most illustrious for the conquerors and for the defeated most ruinous…. [T]heir land forces, fleet, and everything else perished, and few from many came back home." This was a war like no other.

Between the two quotations Hanson comments: "History is unfortunately replete with these awful scenarios of veteran infantrymen far from home who are destroyed by mounted enemies." He gives us a military litany: Crassus and his Romans at Carrhae in 53 B.C.; the Crusader army butchered by Saladin at Hattin in July 1187; Napoleon retreating before the Cossacks. For Hanson, this war is typical, not unique.

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Hanson's final chapter is "Ruin? Winners and Losers (404-403)." The question mark is significant. Contemporary scholars no longer view the Peloponnesian War as the great historical divide it once seemed. The Athenians soon recovered and in 394, a short decade after their surrender, were able to defeat a Spartan fleet at Cnidus. Hanson does not end on that positive note, however, but with reflections on the human losses in the war. Every important Athenian commander (and many a Spartan as well) lost his life in battle or was executed or assassinated later. Ordinary Athenians died by the thousands on battlefields, on the high seas, or toiling hopelessly in the quarries of Sicily. Hanson ends with a short roll call of ordinary Greeks whose names we know from Thucydides and inscriptions. "[B]etween emotion and logic resides the fate of thousands of the mostly unknown…who will surely then and now be asked to settle through violence what words alone cannot." Read your local newspaper. It is not over. "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

And for the living, what are the war's lessons? Hanson observes near the beginning of his book, "Our leaders and pundits are eager to learn from the Athenians' mistakes and successes. They are unsure whether the fate of Athens is to be our own, or whether Americans can yet match the Athenians' civilization and influence while avoiding their hubris. Perhaps never has the Peloponnesian War been more relevant to Americans than to us of the present age."

He returns to the theme near the end. The powerful want to learn from the past how to win:

But Thucydides—and this is why he is truly a great historian—is too discerning a critic to reduce strife down simply to perceptions about power and its manifestations…. The Peloponnesian War…is not a mere primer for international relations studies, and the historian does not believe that 'might makes right….' Instead, as he predicted, it serves as a timeless guide to the tragic nature of war itself, inasmuch as human character is unchanging and thus its conduct in calamitous times is always predictable.

I doubt that human nature, to use another term, is exactly predictable. But when we see what has happened, it usually falls into one of the patterns we have observed in the past. We modern men like to proclaim that "nothing is the same" after this or that important event. We want the lessons of the past laid out for us in PowerPoint presentations or books we can skim on the airplane. Give us the gist and, if you don't mind, spare us the history lesson.

Victor Davis Hanson, however, insists on the history lesson, beginning with the ancient Greeks. We like the parts about democracy, but are disturbed when Hanson begins talking about "the Greek creative talent for killing." "We should remember," he writes, "that the city-state—the embodiment of the beginning of Western civilization—did not start out so much to guarantee personal freedom for all residents as to ensure the protection of property for a new meritocratic middling class of landowners." Cicero and the American Founders would have agreed with the sentiments. We are free and creative and powerful not so much because we are "a new nation…dedicated to a proposition," but because we are, as General MacArthur said, "this beloved land of culture and ancient descent."

The minister in Robert Frost's "The Black Cottage" had an insight:

Most of the change we think we see in life

Is due to truths being in and out of favor.

As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish

I could be monarch of a desert land

I could devote and dedicate forever

To the truths we keep coming back and back to.

I have one quibble. Lands that are dedicated to the truths we keep coming back and back to are not deserts. They are full of farms and factories and families. Their citizens are also soldiers. Victor Davis Hanson tells their story.