My summer vacation has taken me to Sicily, and on my way over to Palermo, I decided to brush up on my Sicilian history. That meant delving into Thucydides and his epic chronicle of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition.
Of course, I had been forced to read all that as a Greek schoolgirl. But oh, what a difference the passage of many, many years and one Iraq war have made in my reading of the great Athenian soldier-historian!
The parallels between his rendering of the Sicilian Expedition - a case study in imperial power gone awry - and our current situation in Iraq are inescapable and chilling … and Santayana's old saw about those unable to remember the past being condemned to repeat it kept leaping to mind.
Or as Thucydides himself put it back in the day: "It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or another and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future." Boy, are they ever.
For those of you who slept through Ancient History 101, here's a quick refresher, courtesy of Wikipedia: "The Sicilian Expedition was an Athenian trek to Sicily from 415 B.C. to 413 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War. It was an unmitigated disaster for the Athenian forces. As Thucydides recounts wryly in his 'History of the Peloponnesian War,' the generals leading the campaign had scant knowledge of Sicily, or of its population, and thus the forces marshaled for its conquering were woefully inadequate."
Sound familiar? But that's just the tip of the hubris iceberg when it comes to ancient analogies to the modern mistakes being made in Iraq.
For starters, the Athenian warmongers, led by Alcibiades, were convinced that conquering Sicily would be a cakewalk, leading to easy control of its grain and trade routes - and would serve as a great warning to other enemies of Athens. Those on the other side, led by Nicias, argued that the resources needed to conquer Sicily would be much greater than the hawks were advertising (perhaps Nicias was an ancient relative of Gen. Shinseki).
Nicias also correctly predicted that the ancient equivalent of the coalition of the willing wouldn't be all that willing (or, rather, about as willing as they were almost 25 centuries later).
The invasion of Sicily was part of a larger war - against Sparta - which was the first great "clash of civilizations," and it, too, was sold as a war of liberation. But instead of rolling over, the invasion drew the previously divided and ethnically diverse Sicilians together and attracted anti-Athenian forces from throughout the region.
In the end, Athens' ill-fated invasion of Sicily helped bring about the end of the Athenian empire, proving historian Arnold J. Toynbee's dictum: "An autopsy of history would show that all great nations commit suicide."
... it goes on, of course.
There is much wrong (I think) with Huffington's analogy (especially as it continues), but Victor Davis Hanson cuts to the quick in an aside in his most recent column ... here's the salient bit from the Mercury News version:
On July 21, Arianna Huffington, on her Huffington Post blog, drew on her Greek heritage to warn us that Iraq is like the Athenians' 415 BC disastrous attack on the Sicilian city of Syracuse. So, she huffs, ``Maybe someone should send Karl Rove a copy of Thucydides.''
She should, instead, carefully reread her own copy of the historian's work. The Athenians attacked a democracy larger than their own. Yet Thucydides implies that Athens still could have taken Syracuse had its generals and the people back home not bickered among themselves. Perhaps if the United States attacked India and lost, Huffington's analogy might make sense.