March 12, 2014

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It was only natural that most Greeks found Athens more appealing. Sparta was an inland city-state surrounded by potential enemies without and even within (the Helots whose labor made economically feasible the citizens’ constant practice at arms). Its culture was rigorously devoted to training for land warfare and little else.

In contrast, Athens was connected to its port of Piraeus by long walls that made the city invulnerable to siege by land as long as she could import food by sea. As the Athenian politician Pericles assured his voters, as reported in his final speech in Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War:

The visible field of action has two parts, land and sea…your naval resources are such that your vessels may go where they please, without the king [of Sparta] or any other nation on earth being able to stop them.

Athens was a commercial democracy with a popular culture that is now the highest of high cultures. In his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles boasted that Athens was the paragon of liberty and equality:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy….The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.

Pericles taunted the Spartans:

…while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.

Still, during this golden Age of Pericles, seafaring Athens managed to so annoy other Greeks with its piratical tendencies as it turned the Delian League into the Athenian Empire that it all ended in the disaster of the three-decade-long Peloponnesian War.

Admiral Stansfield Turner introduced the study of Thucydides to the Naval War College in 1972 as a useful metaphor for the Cold War, with Sparta’s Peloponnesian League playing the Warsaw Pact to Athens’s Delian League as NATO. Alcibiades’s decision at the midpoint of the war with Sparta to suddenly invade distant, irrelevant Sicily stood in for the strategic folly of Vietnam.

The leading American historian of that war is Donald Kagan of Yale. And yet Kagan and his students, such as his sons Frederick (of the American Enterprise Institute) and Robert (of the Brookings Institution), have drawn peculiarly neoconservative lessons from his study of Thucydides. The Sicilian Expedition is envisioned by Professor Kagan, contra Thucydides (who was an Athenian general in the war), as a great idea botched in the execution by Nicias. Thus, this textbook example of imperial overreach somehow struck neoconservatives a dozen years ago as proof that America needed to invade Iraq.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the chief agent of American imperialism in Ukraine is Professor Kagan’s daughter-in-law Victoria Nuland.



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