Thyucidides on War With Iran

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Guest post by Mark A.R. Kleiman, public policy professor at UCLA. Professor Kleinman regularly blogs at The Reality Based Community

I'm grateful to Megan for the invitation to guest-blog, but I'm also somewhat daunted at the prospect of having to replace her usual output in quality and quantity. So, as I have before as a guest-blogger, I'm going to mix some new material with some recycled "greatest hits" from blogs of yesteryear.

So, to start off: In light of the current drumbeat for war with Iran -- from lunatics in Tel Aviv and their assistant lunatics on the American right wing -- some of what I said a decade ago in the run-up to war with Iraq seems relevant. At the end of the day, I wound up supporting that particular debacle, albeit unenthusiastically. That was a mistake. But at least I never allowed myself to fall into the delusion that war was ever without risks.

***

A blogger who thinks we should go to war quotes Thucydides: "The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage." Here's the full passage, in a different translation. It's from the great Funeral Oration of Pericles:

For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.

The language is magnificent; but the context made it deeply ironic then, and its use now in the pro-war cause is not less ironic. Pericles had just led the Athenians into the Peloponnesian war, and the speech, given after its first, victorious year, is confident of victory, even somewhat boastful. Yet Thucydides' readers knew that this was to be the high-water mark of Athenian greatness: what was to follow was defeat, conquest, and the imposition of a Quisling government. Later Athens was to regain its independence, but not its hegemony, and its permanently poisoned relationships with the other poleis were to lead, in the next century, to the conquest of all of Greece by the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander.

So when Pericles urges his hearers not to "weigh too nicely the perils of war," we are meant to hear in the background Thucydides' sardonic laughter. Pericles took his own advice (or perhaps Thucydides put into the mouth of Pericles words appropriate to his actions), and the result was catastrophe.

Going to war with Iraq may be the safest, smartest thing we could possibly do; reading the arguments made against it is almost enough to make me think so. What worries me is that I do not now see in power men and women who nicely weigh the perils of war. Rather, I think I see a truly Periclean hubris, albeit expressed in much less stirring language.

America is, in many ways, the new Athens. The parallels between the Peloponnesian war and the Cold War are almost eerie: a land-based, insular, impoverished, culturally conservative and backward land power against a wealthy, mercantile, culturally rich, heterogeneous, and innovative democracy. Only this time the good guys won. Let's not have it go to our heads. A calculating boldness is a virtue; rashness is a vice. There are better uses for the whole earth than to make it our tomb.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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