School children once read Xenophon's Anabasis, also known as The Persian Expedition, for its account of Hellenic derring-do among the barbarians as his army retreated from Babylon north through high mountains and enemy lands to safety on the Black Sea coast. His most vivid tales of Greek heroism naturally take place on the "march out," while withdrawing after defeat at the hands of the Persians.
But what of the "march in," before their defeat? How did 10,000 Greek mercenaries get to Babylon in the first place, and get into such trouble once they arrived? Is there a lesson for Americans in the first half of his story?
If George W. Bush had not slept through so many classes, he might see parenthetical parallels between what happened in 400 BC and another story from the year 2003 - of how, at the behest of a deceitful pretender to the throne, the President of the United States sent too small an army of the world's best fighters into a Mesopotamian quagmire, from which he now can retreat only after making a politically heroic admission of failure.
For those whose memory of Xenophon is faulty, his story begins when Cyrus the Younger (Iraqi National Congress), the semi-Hellenized ("English-speaking") brother of the cruel Persian King Artaxerxes (Saddam Hussein), living in exile ("London-based") as a provincial governor, recruits a Greek mercenary army headed by the Spartan general Clearchus (Donald Rumsfeld), who, in the words of the Anabasis, is "extraordinarily devoted to war."
Cyrus' secret aim is to seize power, but he lies to the Greeks, saying they are simply to help him clear Pisidian bandits (WMD) out of nearby territory. When the mercenaries suspect an unwanted larger mission (democracy building), he increases their pay to three half-darics per month ($30 per barrel of oil) and promises them easy victory ("flowers and sweets").
Cyrus holds special hatred for his fellow Persian governor Tissaphernes (Ahmad Chalabi) who had betrayed him to his brother in an earlier plot. Tissaphernes is now playing a secret game of his own, ostensibly in alliance with Artaxerxes but in fact hoping to take power after the two brothers exhaust themselves in war.
The Greeks march on, knowing they face a Persian army numbering over 1 million yet still fearing nothing. They feel the right to be confident, for they include the finest Spartan hoplites (Tony Blair), Cretan archers (Berlusconi and Aznar), and Thracian peltasts (John Howard).
Clearchus is joined by a wide Greek coalition - Sosis the Syracusan (neoconservatives), Sophaenetus the Stymphalian (the Christian Right), Proxenus the Boeotian (Vietnam War revanchists), and Pasion the Megarian (Pentagon Likudniks).
Cyrus asks the Greeks to make a show of force ("shock and awe") for the Queen of Cicilia (Gulf emirs) as they cross her land, hoping to convince her to join his side, and they launch a mock attack on her camp. "All the natives were terrified while the Greeks went laughing to their tents," writes Xenophon. "The queen was amazed when she saw the brilliant show the army had made, and Cyrus was delighted when he observed the panic which the Greeks caused among the natives."
With clever tactical feints (Saddam shirking from battle), Artaxerxes draws the Greeks deeper inland, stretching supply lines and isolating them in hostile territory. An inter-Greek feud between Clearchus and Menon the Thessalian (Paul Bremer) threatens cohesion, which Cyrus warns against, "All you Greeks here, you do not know what you are doing ... If things between us go wrong, all these natives whom you see will become more dangerous enemies to us than those on the king's side are."
Finally, in battle at Cunaxa near present day Baghdad, Cyrus is killed and Tissaphernes takes the upper hand. A truce is offered, of which Clearchus says, "what we would like is to march home, provided that no one molests us." Tissaphernes suggests a face-saving formula for the Greek withdrawal, but suspicions remain until he treacherously murders Clearchus (fires Rumsfeld) at a peace council.
Thus ends the "march in." As Xenophon, a wise Athenian who until now has remained anonymous in this chronicle of Spartan military disaster, dryly notes at the beginning of Book III, "with their generals arrested and the captains and soldiers who had gone with them put to death, the Greeks were in an extremely awkward position."
The stage is set finally for Xenophon himself - self-described as "neither a general nor a captain nor an ordinary soldier" - to take command by acclamation following a quintessential Greek debate over the best way forward.
Greek confidence in their newly chosen leader is not misplaced. He marches his 10,000 men in retreat and out of danger, until that joyous day overlooking the Black Sea when they cry out in one voice, "thalassa, thalassa," ("the sea, the sea"), knowing then that they are nearly home.
But the question remains - who will be today's Xenophon? James Baker thinks he has the answer.