Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What I'm reading - an irregular series

When not reading the 5,000 pages of the ICRC study Customary International Humanitarian Law ...

Well, I bought, and launched into, Tony Judt's new history of Europe after WWII, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. I'm only a chapter into it, but so far it is terrific.

However, because Postwar is gigantic and weighty, I decided not to take it with me on my trip to Prague last week. Instead I picked up the somewhat less weighty new book on the Pelopponesian War by Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other.

Until starting to read Hanson, I had not paid that close attention to classical warfare. Of course I read about it in longer studies of strategy and all that - Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, for example - but I had not thought very hard about the Greeks and Greek warfare as such.

Three things piqued my interest. One was editing a special issue of the Iowa Journal of Transnational Law some years ago, in which I invited the classicist Julie Laskaris to write an essay on homoeroticism in war, drawing upon classical Greek sources; she wrote an outstanding essay, unfortunately apparently not online anywhere. Second was reading Hanson's earlier work on the relationship between democracy, citizenship, and war, Carnage and Culture. Third was when my 6th grade daughter (here, shooting a rifle out in Bishop, California, and rockclimbing in the Sierra Nevada, here, and playing her cello, here - sorry, proud daddy) studied the Pelopponesian War and was assigned a paper on Greek hoplite combat - I gave her Hanson's Smithsonian study, Wars of the Ancient Greeks, for help. I realized I didn't know that much about either the Pelopponesian War or Greek warfare.

A War Like No Other proceeds to tell the story of the war not by chronology which, obviously, has been done so often since Thucydides, but instead by theme. Terror, armor, walls, and so on, provide a way of understanding the themes of war and battle that transcend Greek warfare, even while shedding considerable concrete light on how the Greeks actually fought - and how the Pelopponesian War changed how they fought. I have a little hesitation about Hanson's attempt to make it relevant today by using catchphrases and terms that don't seem to me politically to translate very well from one day to another, but on the other hand, by pushing that envelope a bit, he makes you think hard about what continues in warfare across Western history.

One very interesting point that Hanson makes repeatedly, in this book and elsewhere. Athenian democracy, he notes, was really not so different from a mob merely. It was rule by an assembly of thousands of shouting, jostling men, easily roused to passion and lacking reason, whether to execute even a victorious admiral on insignificant charges or to invade and sack some faraway place, such as Melos. Hanson forces one to think a great deal more than we usually do about the virtues of countermajoritarianism, forcing time for reflection before enacting policy, and figuring out what separates the democratic assembly from the mere mob roused by a demagogue. It's a sobering lesson, particularly for people like me who routinely press for greater democratization and participation.

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