In Jules Dassin’s 1960 film Never on Sunday, an American tourist tries to redeem the Piraeus whore Illia by showing her the treasures of classical Greece. At Athens’ ancient amphitheater, they see Euridipes’ tragedy Medea, in which the eponymous heroine murders her two sons by the faithless Jason. As the actors take their final bow, Illia laughs and claps, for she innocently believes that the play is still in progress. The presence of the live actors proves that no one really has died, she insists to her exasperated host, concluding, “And then they all go to the seashore.”

Illia’s understanding of Greek tragedy reminds me of Victor Davis Hanson’s understanding of Greek history. The mind of this popular military historian, purveyor of White House bedside reading and Internet apologist for US foreign policy, turns in tight circles around a single thought: Why did Athens invade Sicily in 415 BC? The Sicilian disaster sent Athens down to defeat in the 27-year Peloponnesian War, and paved the way for the Macedonian conquest of Greece and the end of Athenian democracy. “That has been troubling us supporters of democracies these past 2,400 years,” he concedes [A War Like No Other]. It was all a matter of bad luck, Hanson concludes, and might as well not have happened.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that the most practical man of business may be the slave of a defunct economist. One might add that the most pragmatic Texan, the former baseball-franchise owner George W. Bush, might be the slave of a defunct political scientist. In the minds of democracy fanciers, Athens still represents the foundation stone of Western civilization, the model for the United States’ founding and, by extension, the solution to the problems of today’s Middle East.

Hanson’s history of the Peloponnesian War appeared last autumn. [1] It contains exhaustive description of the mechanics of killing in ancient warfare. For those who fancy that sort of thing, like me, it is a good read. Ancient warfare is Hanson’s discipline, and in this field he has no peers. Because I like this side of Hanson’s work I had planned to let pass his outrages upon historical interpretation. Then I read yet another of his awful panegyrics to Middle East democracy, and rented Never on Sunday.

The trouble is that things did not turn out for Athens the way Hanson would have wanted them to. As he told an interviewer, “The war pitted two antithetical systems – cosmopolitan, democratic, Ionic and maritime Athens at its great age versus parochial, oligarchic, Dorian and landlocked Sparta – and thus became a sort of referendum on the contrasting two systems.” The trouble is that Athenian democracy committed suicide during the 27-year-long war with Sparta.

The contemporary Greek historian Thucydides also was troubled. He explains precisely why democratic Athens voted for an attack upon the Sicilian city of Syracuse, also a democracy: the Athenian mob wanted loot. Athens, “on a slight pretext, which looked reasonable, was in fact aiming at conquering the whole of Sicily [2] … The general masses and the average soldier himself saw the prospect of getting pay for the time being and of adding to the empire so as to secure permanent paid employment in the future.” [3]

Thucydides wrote history as tragedy, that is, to expose the tragic flaws of his own polis. But Hanson, like Mademoiselle Illia of Piraeus, does not like the tragic bits, and instead offers two alternative theories to explain Athens’ defeat. It turns out it was all a matter of bad luck: the silver tongue of Alcibiades, leader of the war party against Sicily, persuaded the Athenian assembly to vote for war against its better judgment. “Had Alcibiades been killed or disgraced at [the earlier Battle of] Delium, the Athenians would never have gone to Sicily 14 years later,” says Hanson [Response to readership].

Instead, they all would have gone to the seashore, one supposes. Before such willful self-delusion one feels like Jules Dassin trying to explain Euripides to a Piraeus whore. The crowning achievement of Greek classical culture – Thucydides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – was the effort to identify the systemic flaws that ruined Athens. Socrates offered a critique, but no prescription – unless one believes in Leo Strauss’s occult capacity to find secret messages encrypted in Plato. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, he was an ironist, not a prophet (see Socrates the destroyer, May 25, 2004). It was the democratic party that put Socrates to death, by overwhelming vote of Athenian citizens after a fair and public trial.

Despite the catastrophic losses in Sicily, Hanson continues, democratic Athens yet might have beaten oligarchical Sparta if it weren’t for all those caviling war critics back home. As he told an interviewer, “And for all Thucydides’ chronicle of Athenian lapses, in the last analysis, rightly or wrongly, he attributes much of Athens’ defeat to infighting back at home, and a hypercritical populace, egged on by demagogues that time and again turned on their own.” But that is completely false, for Athens never displayed such unity of purpose as when she determined to attack Sicily. That is, Athens committed her fatal mistakes with a minimum of infighting. Only after the city was ruined did partisan infighting break out.

Like Hanson, I have no sympathy for the caviling peace party in Washington. I want Bush to forget about Middle East democracy and deliver a military ultimatum to Iran. Democracy does not necessarily promote peace and stability. On the contrary, democracies have a long tradition of promoting wars for loot, starting with Athens, just as Thucydides reports.

If President Bush requires historical examples, he might look closer to home. General Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious commander of the American Civil War and America’s 18th president, had this to say about the democratic founding of Texas in his Memoirs:

[Texas] had but a very sparse population, until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize. These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution … The occupation, separation, and annexation [of Texas] were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.

Democratic America resolved to make war upon Mexico in 1846 in order to seize territory for the expansion of slavery, Grant observed, adding:

The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.

Three hundred thousand Southern men died in the Civil War, the equivalent of 15 million casualties for the modern United States. Grant was magnificently correct: the Americans, North as well as South, deserved the horrible punishment for undertaking imperial aggression to spread slavery. Few among today’s Americans share the views of their heroic forebears. As I wrote in 2003 (Why radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8):

Americans fail to grasp decisive strategic issues not only because they misunderstand other cultures, but because they avert their gaze from the painful episodes of their own history. In his book The Metaphysical Club, Professor Louis Menand observes that the horrors of the Civil War discredited the idealism of young New Englanders (his case study is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr), producing the vapid pragmatism that has reigned since then in American culture. Americans suffer from a form of traumatic amnesia, such that every generation of Americans must learn the hard way.

William F. Buckley said he would rather be ruled by the first 50 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University, and so would I. But if the demos is cruel, corrupt and rapacious, democracy will yield dismal results. In the case of the Southern demos of 1861, it was necessary to change its composition by first exterminating a whole generation of young men.

Thanks to the spirit of national reconciliation espoused by Abraham Lincoln, and embraced by the Southern general Robert E. Lee, the United States lost only one generation. Conflicts of this sort often kill two. That, parenthetically, explains why so many great wars last for about 30 years, including the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War, the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, and Europe’s Great War of 1914-45. One first kills off the fathers, and then kills off the sons 15 or 20 years later – and then it ends. As Thucydides remarked of Athens’ Sicilian disaster, “It was all the easier to provide everything as the city had just recovered from the plague and the years of continuous war, and as a number of the young men had grown to manhood.” [4]

Leo Strauss famously described America’s founding as “low and broad,” that is, designed to neutralize the low instincts of self-interested men through the balance of powers, but broad enough to provide stability. There is a good deal of truth to the “low” characterization, but I am not so sure about the “broad” part. All the contrivances of the balance of power did not prevent the problem of slave-state expansion from tearing the Union to pieces. It was not constitutional theory but evangelical Protestantism that saved the Union. The Northern soldiers who scotched the snake of slavery did not march to war quoting Montesquieu, but rather singing verses adapted by Julia Ward Howe from the Book of Revelation.

Something more than democracy is required for peace and prosperity, and that is a people committed to good rather than evil. Democracy in the Middle East means something quite different: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. The sooner President Bush changes the subject, the better.

1. Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other. Random House; New York 2005.
2. Rex Warner’s translation in the Penguin edition, p 372.
3. Op cit, p 382.
4. Op cit, p. 383.

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