Article — From the October 2002 issue

The Road to Babylon

Searching for targets in Iraq

( 3 of 4 )

Fortunately for the republic, both Lieutenant General McInerney and Mr. Weinberger have retired from government service; not so fortunately, they retain the habit of mind that has guided the making of American diplomat­ic and military policy for the last thirty years. As stupefied as Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld by the romance of imperial power, they speak from within a dream as old as the walls of Troy, and watching them bestow the favor of their prophecies on the Senate committee (to divine Saddam’s plans, Senator Biden had said, “is like reading the entrails of goats”), it oc­curred to me that maybe the time had come to reread Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Much of the story I’d long forgotten, but I remembered that Athens corrupted its democracy and brought about the ruin of its em­pire by foolishly attempting the conquest of Sicily, and when I found the rel­evant chapters (the debate in the Athenian assembly prior to sending a fleet westward into the Ionian Sea), it was as if I were reading the front page of that morning’s New York Times or the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance dis­cussed on page 76 in this issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Athens in the winter of 415 b.c. stands alone as the preeminent hegemon of Greece. Sparta for the moment has lost its appetite for war, and the Athe­nians wish to extend their sovereignty over what was then the whole of the known world, not only as far as Sicily but also beyond Carthage to the Pil­lars of Hercules. Sophists sit around in the wrestling schools sketching with sticks in the sand die map of the Libyan coastline; old men in wine shops babble of victories promised by Egyptian oracles. Ambassadors arrive from Sicily in late March with news of trouble and a request for military assistance. The city of Syracuse threatens to seize the Athenian colony of Segesta, and how can the heirs of noble Pericles stomach so brazen an insult to their pride? What if the Syracusans took it into their heads to attack the glory of Athens?

Uproar and loud shouts of defiance. The impetuous Alcibiades presents the case for “forward deterrence” and “anticipatory self-defense,” saying that it is in the nature of Athens to do great deeds. As certain as Lieutenant Gen­eral McInerney of the city’s military power, he assures die assembly that Syra­cuse is easy prey, weak and badly governed.

One does not only defend oneself against a superior power when one is attacked; one takes measures in advance to prevent the attack materializing. And it is not possible for us to calculate, like housekeepers, exactly how much empire we want to have.

More uproar. Louder shouts of defiance. The Athenians know as little about Sicily as Senator Biden knows about Iraq (“For the most part ignorant of the size of the island and of the numbers of its inhabitants,” says Thucydides, “they did not realize that they were raking on a war of almost the same magnitude as their war against the Peloponnesians”), but they are not the kind of men who stoop to count a crowd of mere barbarians.

Prudent Nicias thinks the Athenians too reckless in their enthusiasm. Like Alcibiades a general, but older and not as eager in his ambition, Nicias raises doubts similar to the ones released in the newspapers during the third week of August by several senior Republican statesmen (among them House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Brent Scowcroft, a former national secu­rity adviser) clearly worried both by President Bush’s simplistic notions of geopolitics and by the absence of allies, either Arab or European, willing to join the American march on Baghdad. They employed a modern vocabu­lary, but the substance of their advice they could have borrowed from the speech that Thucydides assigns to Nicias:

In going to Sicily you are leaving many enemies behind you, and you apparently want to make new ones there and have them also on your hands. . . . [E]ven if we did conquer the Sicilians, there are so many of them and they live so far off that it would be very difficult to govern them. It is senseless to go against people who, even if conquered, could not be controlled, while failure would leave us much worse off than we were before we made the attempt. . . . [T]he next best thing is to make a demonstration of our power and then, after a short time, go away again. We all know that what is most admired is what is farthest off and least liable to have its reputation put to the test. . . . The right thing is that we should spend our new gains at home and on ourselves instead of on these exiles who are begging for assistance and whose interest it is to tell lies and make us believe them, who have nothing to contribute themselves except speeches, who leave all the danger to others and, if they are successful, will not be properly grateful, while if they fail in any way they will involve their friends in their own ruin.

The argument fails to make an impression. So excessive is the enthusi­asm of the majority, says Thucydides, “that the few who actually were op­posed to the expedition were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it, and therefore kept quiet.” The assembly declares for war, and over the next several months Athens musters an invasion fleet con­forming to the current Pentagon doctrine of “overwhelming force” (134 triremes, expensively gilded; impressive numbers of archers, slingers, and javelin throwers; merchant vessels stocked with soothsayers and cavalry horses), and on a sunny day in July 415 b.c., trumpets blow, priests pour wine into golden bowls, and “by far the most costly and splendid” expedition “ever sent out by a single city” sails to its appointment with destruction.

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