What the First World War was for Europe, the Peloponnesian War was for the ancient Greeks. It was also their Napoleonic Wars and their American Civil War. The protracted, ruinous conflict between Athens and Sparta, which dragged on for nearly 30 years (431 B.C. to 404 B.C.) prefigured, in one way or another, nearly every major conflict to come, right up the present war on terror.
The "war like no other," as Thucydides called it, continues to fascinate because it always seems pertinent, and never more so than in Victor Davis Hanson's highly original, strikingly contemporary retelling of the superpower confrontation he calls "a colossal absurdity."
In his capable hands, the past, more often than not, seems almost painfully present. Thucydides, the great historian of the war, is described as a kind of embedded reporter. The Athenians, relying on local populations under Spartan rule to greet them as liberators, never encountered quite the enthusiasm they anticipated, and the imperial assumptions behind "Athenianism," which Mr. Hanson calls "the Western world's first example of globalization," suggest uncomfortable comparisons. Like the Athenians, he writes, Americans are "all-powerful, but insecure, professedly pacifist yet nearly always in some sort of conflict, often more desirous of being liked than being respected, and proud of our arts and letters even as we are more adept at war."
Mr. Hanson, whose books on classical warfare include "The Western Way of War" and "The Wars of the Ancient Greeks," does not harp on this theme. He directs most of his attention to the war itself, the way it was fought and the profound changes in methods and psychology that took place over time.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
William Grimes' review of Victor Davis Hanson's new book begins: