FP: In your new book, you draw some powerful and fascinating parallels between the Peloponnesian War and to our modern-day conflicts. Before we talk about that, can you first tell us a bit about the Peloponnesian War and its significance?
Hanson: It endures for roughly three reasons:
First: 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.
Second: the historian Thucydides who recorded the war was both a participant and contemporary witness and a brilliant philosopher who employed the war to illustrate his tragic view of human nature and how thin is the veneer of civilization when ripped off during plague, war, and civil discord; his descriptions of the plague, the stasis at Corycyra, the debate over Mytilene, and the Melian Dialogue then are riveting and almost literary in their power to evoke emotion.
Third: Athens lost and with its spiritual and psychological depression ended the city of Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, Pheidias and the dream of an enlightened democratic empire that employed its power and wealth in the service of high culture.
That has been troubling us supporters of democracies these past 2,400 years.
FP: How do you think this ancient conflict can serve as a metaphor to some of our modern conflicts, including the terror war today?
Hanson: Everything we have seen in the present global war-slaughtering schoolchildren in Beslan; murdering diplomats; taking hostages; lopping limbs; targeted assassinations; roadside killing; spreading democracy through arms-had identical counterparts in the Peloponnesian War. That is not surprising when Thucydides reminds us that the nature of man does not change, and thus war is eternal, its face merely evolving with new technology that masks, but does not alter its essence.
More importantly, Athens' tragedy reminds of us of our dilemma that often wealth, leisure, sophistication, and, yes, cynicism, are the wages of successful democracy and vibrant economies, breeding both a sort of smugness and an arrogance. 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.
So the war is also a timely reminder about the strengths-and lethal propensities-of democracies at war. And we should remember that when we hear some of the internecine hysteria voiced here at home-whether over a flushed Koran or George Bush's flight suit- when 160,000 Americans are risking their lives to ensure that 50 million can continue to vote.
Meanwhile, National Review is excerpting chapter 10 of VDH's War Like No Other ... part one is here, part two came today ... part three will come tomorrow.