History Lessons

College kids write papers now on how we got into Iraq. Or so it is with my friend's daughter. She's supposed to write a paper on one of the neocons. Which one should she pick? There's Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank. Doug Feith is writing a book. There's all the people at The Weekly Standard. There's also Robert Kagan, who wrote Of Paradise and Power, and his brother Fred Kagan, the think-tank guy who pushed the "surge."

My friend thinks his daughter should do Feith -- he's obscure enough, no one's doing him. And there's a case for doing Feith.

If I had a kid, I'd make her do Thucydides (460? - 400? B.C) -- he's an honorary neocon in a way, and no one's doing him. Indeed, he's the darling of the neocons. They simply love this guy. Donald Kagan, the father of Robert and Fred, has written four or five volumes on The Peloponnesian Wars, all to illustrate how the neocons should see the world. And other neocons like Victor Hansen Davis make a big fuss over Thucydides, too. And what's the moral they draw from Thucydides? "No mercy," my old college teacher said. The strong will crush the weak. If ever there's a case for pre-emptive war, it is all there in Thucydides. It's a world in which there is no world opinion, or international law. That kind of thing's for sissies, the neocon's would say Set up those prisons in Guantanamo. They don't cry over these things in Thucydides. You focus on being strong.

Yet maybe one should say something in Thucydides' defense.

First,, he was writing in Fifth Century B.C. There was no such thing as world opinion. There was no mass media. There was no CNN, or UN, or anything like the Hague. We were not wired up to each other. And there were no roadside bombs. What the neocons miss is that things that the Spartans could get away with in The Peloponessian Wars, they wouldn't even try to get away with now. It's not that we're "soft" in the twenty-first century. But our hard power is so dependent on our soft power that there are things a "realist" would have done once that anyone with a sense of reality wouldn't do now.

But it's not much of a defense, because even back then, at least Herodotus knew better. Maybe we're in Iraq because on the right, at the strategic institutes, they're too glued to their Thucydides and just ignore Herodotus. It's true, Thucydides is the "scientist" -- a real historian. Herodotus does tell some fairy tales. But in some ways, at least in the case of any war in the Middle East, Herodotus is a better guide. Certainly he's a bigger help in dealing with the Persian Empire, which we now know as Iran.

OK, Thucydides and Herodotus were covering different wars. With Thucydides, it's Athens v. Sparta. In Herodotus, it's Xerxes and Darius against the Greeks. And now, with Herodotus's war out as a movie, 300, it may be useful to look at what Herodotus has to say that Thucydides, and 300, do not.

First, the little guys can take on the Empire. The weak can beat the strong. Or as Herodotus makes clear, the poor can beat the rich. While you can get all that out of the movie, there's a bigger point: People ultimately don't have to fight to the death. Persia does back off. There isn't a surge. And Herodotus describes a different kind of world. In his world, there is reciprocity, balance of power. There is not exactly international law but there is custom, there are norms. Herodotus is fascinated by stories where people violate the norms, and get into messes, like the poor guy who gets talked by a king into looking on his naked wife.

Finally, a lot of things are luck. You can plan a war all right. But the gods may intervene. Expect the unexpected. Herodotus believes in the faerie people making mischief. And Herodotus may be right.

It's true even in Herodotus there's often no mercy. It has to be said -- there's a tolerance of torture. After a few chapters, it's hard to keep count of all the envoys who get blinded.

But the big lesson is: people are not like lab rats. They don't all behave the same. It's important to study different civilizations. The Egyptians do their thing. The Phoenicians do theirs. And these different cultures and civilizations create a kind of equilibrium.

One big blustery super-power can't dominate the world. Actually, the kind of hegemony that neocons call for isn't even really found in Thucydides. Ultimately, as some scholars note, even in Thucydides, Sparta backs off too. But it's even clearer in Herodotus: there is not so much a clash of civilizations as a plethora of them. And even one based on Hollywood cannot subdue the world.

Indeed, that's why Herodotus is more important than Thucydides for Americans. We're the most blinkered because we don't do what Herodotus did and travel around the world. In the United States, even the "internationalists" among us are really isolationists. Few of us ever really spend much time abroad. In op-eds, the neocons like to portray the right as the internationalist party and the left as isolationist. It's preposterous, of course. Look at their president -- he came to office in 2000 having spent less time abroad than any president since Coolidge.

At any rate, we should learn from the Persian Empire. Don't impale ourselves on little countries, especially the poor ones. That actually applies to the Persian Empire. So, hey, let's not invade Iran!

But we should also spend more funds to get our young people out of the library where they're reading Thucydides and get them to start living like Herodotus -- going out and seeing the world.

Thomas Geoghegan is a labor lawyer in Chicago. His most recent book is The Law In Shambles.

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